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Review of the Astrohaus Freewrite

The Astrohaus Freewrite is a beautiful, wonderful, strange, impractical, overpriced, and ultimately failed product. 

Allow me to explain: the Freewrite, essentially a typewriter with an e-ink screen that syncs your documents to the cloud, caught my eye when it was first announced. I like gadgets, and I like the idea of a dedicated writing tool that doesn't do other things (like, for example, Twitter). 

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But I'm not made of money, so I couldn't afford to drop 500 bucks on something like this. Besides, I have been writing on paper with fountain pens for the last couple of years, and notebooks also can't access Twitter, and fountain pens are beautiful objects that are a joy to use, so it's not like I really needed a tool like this.  But I mentioned it to a friend who went out and bought one.

He quickly found that it didn't suit the way he worked and was looking to unload it. So I bought it at a substantial discount. He was thrilled to get some money back from the purchase, and I was thrilled to get a cool gadget at 80%  off.

I have used the Freewrite for a little over a month. 

The biggest positive: the Astrohaus Freewrite is, like I said, a beautiful tool. It makes me want to write because it's fun to use and the keyboard is incredibly sturdy. And when it's not in use, you get a weird little portrait of a white writer on your screen (I mean, I love Poe and Shakespeare and Dickens, like Agatha Christie, and don't care much for Asimov, but it's kind of striking that everybody's white) urging you to "set your story free." 0615171503b

So far so good. The Freewrite is also ostentatiously impractical. For some people this may be a drawback, but for me it was charming. It's got a nice handle to carry it, 0615171504

but it's heavy and it doesn't have a case, so you can't really put it in your bag without risking accidentally turning it on and registering a lot of ssssln;nnn;[eeaw2 in your document. Also, the wonderfully substantial and apparently durable keyboard has a pretty big drawback: it's loud as hell. I tried to use this thing in a coffee shop and library, and both times I had to stop because I was self-conscious about all the noise I was making. 

The other major impractical part actually turned out to be a huge positive for me: there are no arrow keys. With the Freewrite, the only way to go is forward. You can get back by backspacing, but if you spot a typo two lines up, you've got to ponderously backspace and then retype in order to fix it. Best to just keep moving. 

This turns out to be a revelation. I really thought I was a "bang out a first draft and then go back and fix it" kind of writer. Turns out I was more of a "bang out a paragraph or two, reread and fix them, then move forward" kind of writer. With the Freewrite, I was generating words faster than I ever have. The Freewrite forced me to just keep going forward and fix it later, which is advice I always give about first drafts but apparently wasn't taking as well as I thought. This led to a great positive feedback loop where I would sit down and just bang out a shocking (for me) amount of words in a session, which made me feel great, which made me associate that success with the Freewrite, which made me want to use it more, which allowed me to finish the first draft of a novel in near-record (for me) time. 

So far so good! So what's the problem?

Well, there are a couple. The first is this: anybody who owned an early e-reader remembers the lag on e-ink screens. The Astrohaus Freewrite screen is a bit laggy, which wasn't an issue for me at first. I am a touch typist, and it didn't bug me to have the display lagging a couple of letters behind my fingers. But I found that as my document got longer, the lag also got longer. By the time I was over 20k words, I would type a paragraph and then wait ten seconds or more for the screen to catch up with my fingers. (Ten seconds is a really long time for something like this. Count it out, and imagine you're waiting for something you're relatively sure you just typed to appear on the screen.). So, basically, you can't draft an entire novel as a single document on the Freewrite. Well, I thought, that's an annoyance, but I can live with it.

Fortunately, the Freewrite has this convenient folder system with a nice mechanical switch to go between folders A, B and C. 0615171503c

Since my first 26k words were in Folder A, I'd just switch over to Folder B for the next part! No problem! And it wasn't at first. I banged out another 8k words in folder B, and then, just because I'm a little anxiety prone, I hit the "send" button on the Freewrite. (This is a handy tool that sends you an email with your doc attached. So then you presumably have it in Astrohaus' own cloud storage, your Google Drive or Dropbox or whatever other cloud storage thing you set it up to connect to, and your email.)

"Email sent!" the Freewrite informed me. But I never got the email. To skip ahead, I found that Folder B wasn't syncing to the cloud. Well, no problem--I hooked up the Freewrite to my computer to drag a copy to my hard drive. But the computer couldn't find anything in Folder B. I had typed 8000 words in Folder B, and it was stuck there, with the Freewrite not able to send it out or even apparently knowing where it was.

No problem! I'll just contact customer support! I got an answer to my email the following day. It was one of those "do this obvious thing and quit bugging me" support emails that everyone has gotten. I quickly sent back an email saying, yeah, I tried that, and it doesn't work. Two days later, I still haven't gotten an answer. I posted the question on a support forum where the co-founder of the company replied telling me to send an email. UPDATE: since I started writing this post, I got an answer after I forwarded my previous follow-up. The answer was, "we don't know; you might have to send it in."

So now I'm retyping the 8000 words into the computer. Not a huge deal--this is what I do when I hand-write a first draft with a fountain pen. But I realized I have a device that is designed to do only two things--allow me to write a first draft and sync it to the cloud--and it doesn't do either one reliably. 

If you're going to sell an unreliable product, you need to have VERY solicitous customer support. If you're going to have an indifferent approach to customer support, you need to have a VERY reliable product. 

So. Will I continue to use the Freewrite? Maybe. But not knowing if my documents are going to get stuck on it is going to dampen the joy I felt while using it initially. 

Would I recommend that you buy it? Almost certainly not. Here's the exception: if you're wealthy enough that five hundred dollars is not a significant amount of money for you, and you're doing Nanowrimo and want something to help you bang out a ton of words in a short time, then this is the tool for you. For everybody else, I'd say skip it unless, like me, you can find it used and cheap. (Which you totally can. Email me if you're interested.)

 

 

If you found this review helpful, maybe go buy one of my books? Check out my Amazon page here or pay what you want for this ebook, this ebook, or this ebook. Thanks! 


Bad Writing in the Arnold Arboretum

This morning, I happened upon an egregious example of bad writing.

When most people hear "bad writing," they think of writing that is unclear or doesn't follow conventions of spelling, punctuation and usage. This sign, which greets visitors to Boston's Arnold Arboretum, is clear, and, except for one missing comma, follows Standard English spelling, punctuation, and usage.

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Good writing, as your English teacher may have told you, is appropriate for its purpose and its audience, and this is where this sign fails so spectacularly.

Let's start with the purpose: I assume the purpose is to convince dog owners to leash their dogs. Now, some people will do what they want regardless of what any sign says. Others will rigorously obey every rule. And the majority of people are somewhere in the middle. So those are the people you want to convince. 

This sign's failure begins with the topmost all-caps pronouncements. First of all, the word "menace." In a document meant to persuade, you've opened with namecalling. This is unlikely to get people on your side.  Also, I don't know if it's due to the fact that it's J. Jonah Jameson's favorite word in Spider-Man comics, but calling someone a menace suggests nothing so much as slightly comical impotent rage. 

There is further all-caps yelling down below, which again serves to remind you that someone is very angry about all this. I have no opinion about whether this anger is justified. But parading it out at every entrance to the place is not helping persuade people to do their part to take care of the place. As anyone who has spent any time on the internet knows, "I AM VERY ANGRY" is not a message that has ever persuaded anyone of anything. 

My visceral reaction on seeing the sign was,  "I haven't done anything. Why are you yelling at me?" I was on my bike and not with my dog, (and I never take my dog there) but the sign did not make me want to comply with anything it says. Its assertion of angry authority made me want to defy that authority. Maybe that's more about me than the sign, but I know I'm not alone in this. If you want to change people's minds or behavior, you have to talk to them like they're people. 

If you use the Arboretum at all, it's in your interest to have it remain nice, and there's a strong case to be made here that unleashing your dog undermines that interest. But this sign isn't making it.

So, the sign is failing at its ostensible purpose. And it's failing so spectacularly that it's actually succeeding at other purposes. To wit: it's communicating that the Arboretum is beset by a VERY SERIOUS PROBLEM. (we get the word problem in all caps twice, so you know it's a big one.) It's pretty much not safe to walk or do anything in there because of the packs of rampaging dogs, or so the sign (and the absence of other signage conveying welcome) suggests.  (I biked through the whole place and saw one unleashed dog--an elderly basset hound who moved like he was under sedation.) So it is, in effect, warning off potential visitors who might be put off by its alarmism. 

It's also undermining its own message. Note that if you unleash your dog, which is a PROBLEM, you are "subject to fines and legal action including being banned from the grounds." But note, at the very bottom, if you tamper with the sign in any way, YOU WILL BE PROSECUTED TO THE FULL EXTENT OF THE LAW. So, the sign suggests, the problem the sign is supposed to address is actually less important than the sign itself remaining unmolested.

The sign's ultimate effect is simply to communicate this: THIS PLACE IS RUN BY DICKS. I suspect this was not the sign's intended purpose. I hope they will take these signs down and replace them with competently-written ones. 

The Arbortum, by the way, is managed by Harvard University, which just goes to show you that bad writing is everywhere.