Writer’s Tech Toolbox: Freewrite and Traveler Smart Typewriters

I don't have a computer. A computer's a typewriter. I already have a typewriter.

- Ray Bradbury

I don't know if Mr. Bradbury would approve of a Freewrite or the forthcoming Traveler. I've written about both before and thought it was a good time to revisit and kick off this series of blog posts about the tech tools I use in my toolbox. It isn't necessary to read those earlier posts, but you can read about the Traveler or my earlier experience with the Freewrite.

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What is a Smart Typewriter?

Astrohaus billed the Freewrite as a "smart typewriter" when it launched the first Kickstarter campaign back in 2014. The idea was a distraction-free tool for writers. Similar in some respects to earlier devices from Alphasmart but upgraded with an e-ink screen, high-quality keyboard, and cloud-syncing capabilities. Unlike a computer, or even a word processor, the Freewrite aims to do one thing only: write. 

This focus on distraction-free writing means that the Freewrite lacks editing capabilities. It isn't an oversight. It's a deliberate design decision to keep you moving forward on your document. No spell check or grammar check to distract you. No way to go back and edit what you've written short of deleting the words. At first it feels incredibly strange but then it becomes very freeing when you realize that all of those distractions are gone.

The Freewrite does support paging back over what you've written. You can read over what you wrote and instantly begin writing by starting to type. 

How I use the Freewrite

As with any good writing device, the Freewrite supports different keyboard layouts. You can't see it looking at the picture of my Freewrite above, but I use the Dvorak keyboard layout when I write. A standard Freewrite comes with white keys labeled with the letters like you're used to seeing. Personally, I think that doesn't help people be better typists. Switching to a different layout like Dvorak means most of the labels are useless. Replacing the keys with a blank key set is even better.

I purchased the blank keys when I purchased my Freewrite. I like the clean look of the device with the black keys and no labels. I kept the red special keys instead of going entirely black.

The Freewrite has two switches on either side of the screen. The one on the left switches between folders, A, B, and C. The one of the right controls the Wi-Fi. A large round red power button turns the Freewrite on and off. It’ll also shut off automatically if you’re not writing.

I use the A folder for my primary project, typically the novel that I’m writing. The Freewrite instantly switches to your current document in the folder you select. You can use a keyboard shortcut to move between files within the folder.

I write my current scene or chapter in the active file. When I get to the end of that scene or chapter, I hit the red keys to create a new document, type the name as the first line, and continue to write. Behind the scenes the Freewrite syncs my work automatically to their Postbox service and to Dropbox.

If I don’t have a connection it’ll sync once it reconnects.

Back at my computer, I open the Word-compatible file, copy the contents, and paste it into Novlr, a web-based writing app. That’s where I’ll do my initial edits and organize scenes and chapters. I’ve written about Novlr before, and will be writing a new post about the new Novlr 3.0 version.

Secondary work is written in the folder. I use the folder for everything else.

I find the Freewrite a joy to use. I push the button and it is exactly where I stopped the last time I was writing. No waiting for applications to launch, opening files, scrolling to the end, or any of that.

And no distractions.

I can write anywhere. The Freewrite isn’t exactly light, however, or slim in its design. It is portable—it even has a handle—but not the easiest device to pack around. Not that it stops me! But that’s what the Traveler is meant to address.

Traveler: Simply Write Wherever You Go

The Traveler is the portable Freewrite. If you check out the Indiegogo page it'll suggest that the Traveler will ship in July. It won't. If things go well, it might ship before the end of the year. This is a rage-inducing fact for many backers and those that have preordered the Traveler.

The project launched in October 2018. It may ship by October of this year. The production has faced its share of challenges with manufacturers in China, a pandemic, and other setbacks common in projects like this creating novel, niche hardware.

If you want to feel safe about ordering a Traveler, wait until it’s out.

I backed the project as soon as it launched. It’s very nearly the ideal device that I imagined when thinking of the writing tool I wanted. It works pretty much the same as the Freewrite, with some software improvements planned. It syncs with Postbox, so you can write on the Traveler, come home and continue writing on your Freewrite (if you have both). Because of the design of the Traveler keyboard, I won’t be able to do the trick of replacing the keys for a blank keyboard. I’ll live.

I understand the reasons for the frustrations expressed in comments on the page, but it really doesn’t bother me. I backed the project understanding the risks. I’ve followed the updates and continue to look forward to the day when I can take the Traveler on the road, dramatically decreasing my load, and use my Freewrite at home.

The Right Tech?

The Freewrite is carefully designed for the writer who wants a distraction-free experience. 

It succeeds in eliminating even minor distractions that you don’t normally think about (such as navigating to get back to where you were last working on a project). It’s not going to save you on its own. You still need to focus enough to use the Freewrite. That’s something else I’m going to post about in the weeks ahead. I talk to you again.