The AlphaSmart and the shitty first draft

by Sunita

[If you're a writer and you haven't read Anne Lamott's essay, "The Shitty First Draft," you really need to. The whole book is good, but this chapter is required.]

A lot of writers have used the AlphaSmart, which is essentially a keyboard with a small LCD display embedded in it. It runs on the old Palm OS. It has been around for quite a while (a decade, maybe?) and it is charmingly low-tech and clunky looking. TheHusband picked up an AlphaSmart Dana six or seven years ago because he wanted to be able to write drafts while sitting outside on the deck in good weather. He used it for a couple of years and then the novelty wore off, netbooks came along, etc. etc. I tried it for a bit, but I had trouble with the keyboard and made a lot of mistakes, became frustrated, and appreciated it more in theory than in practice. The H moved on to netbooks and the Dana sat in the closet, gathering dust and depleting the battery.

A month or two ago, I saw a conversation on Twitter between (I think) Lazaraspaste and RRR Jessica, talking about the AlphaSmart, right after I’d read an interview with Meredith Duran in which she talked about hers. I was in the midst of two projects that were getting the best of me: rewriting a frustrating chapter of a manuscript, and drafting a conference paper from scratch. My usual tricks with WriteRoom, Scrivener, TextEdit, and/or lovely pads of Levenger paper and a fountain pen weren’t helping, so I asked TheH to dig the Dana out of the closet and put it back in working order. The battery was no longer functional, but the Dana will also run on AA batteries, which we buy by the economy pack.

I loaded in the AAs, pushed the On button, clicked on the word-processing program (really a “typing words” program), and started my first shitty first draft, which was the conference paper. Rather than thinking about the paper as a whole, which would have been impossible because I hadn’t figured the damned thing out as a whole, I started writing the section I thought I had the best handle on. Following Lamott’s precepts, I didn’t think about what it sounded like or whether it even made sense, I just wrote down what I thought needed to be there. As long as I was writing forward, not editing or going back to add/delete words, etc., the machine kept up with my typing speed and I typed relatively error-free. I even liked the clacking noise the big plastic keys made.

When I was done with the first section, I connected the Dana to my computer via cable; this transformed it into a second keyboard for the computer. I opened the Scrivener file I’d made for the paper, hit “send,” and watched my crappy, crappy words materialize. I didn’t read them. I saved the file, unplugged the Dana and started on the next section.

A few days and a few thousand words later, I had my shitty first draft, or more accurately, a draft of my part of the co-authored conference paper. At that point I read what I had written. It was better than I was afraid it was going to be. I cleaned up the mistakes, made small and large revisions in Scrivener, sent it to my coauthor for comments, etc. etc. By the time the conference rolled around, we had a paper that mostly made sense and could be turned into a 20-minute Power Point presentation.

As other writers have noted, writing on an AlphaSmart is very freeing. If you’re one of those writers who agonizes over every word, or who isn’t comfortable writing until she has all the information she could possibly need at hand, and preferably also in her head, the internet is a terrible gift. There is always one more article, one more source, one more bit of knowledge that can be obtained. And with the nice big computer displays many of us use, the inadequacy of the words we’ve written so far stares us in the face even more blindingly than it does on paper.

The combination of unsatisfactory writing and the opportunity to surf your way to a better version can lead to lots of time spent not-writing, which is bad for the writing part of your brain. The AlphaSmart doesn’t let you do anything but write, and it doesn’t remind you of how shitty your entire draft is because it only lets you see a few lines at a time. It forces you to trust yourself.

Thus far I’ve only used the Dana for academic writing, not for blogging or reviewing or academic-administrative work; the usual suspects are more than adequate for those. And I still use Scrivener and LateX for the later rounds of the writing/rewriting process. But at the moment, because I need the equivalent of a blank sheet of paper, I pull out the AlphaSmart and write. So far, so good.

About these ads