The AlphaSmart and the shitty first draft

[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.

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20 thoughts on “The AlphaSmart and the shitty first draft

  1. Oh, I still use an AlphaSmart Neo to write coverages. It’s the only way to stop me from re-reading to the point where I’d delete the entire thing out of disgust/frustration. I call mine ‘Horse’s Blinders’, which is what my ASN is. :D Like you say, it forces you to trust yourself to keep writing.

    I bought mine after Alison Kent talked about hers on her blog years ago. Works pretty well for me so far.

  2. I bought an AlphaSmart when I was stuck one time and it helped with the blockage. I like the size and weight for carrying around, writing in bed, etc. I like the lack of internet distraction. However, I find it frustrating not to be able to see the whole page. I prefer to see the shape of a paragraph or sentence as I go. I have to do so much revising of the AlphaSmart text, and, since I am fundamentally lazy, I prefer to get it right first time. Also, I’m afraid I’ll fail to notice and correct some piece of garbage I’ve spewed into the disappearing screen.

    • It works best for me when I’m having difficulty getting the words on the page. If I know what I want to say, or if what I want to say is fairly uncomplicated, then I usually type directly on the computer. But when I’m stuck, either cognitively or psychologically, this has helped, because I really need NOT to see, if you know what I mean.

  3. My laptop, which I mostly use at home, does not have internet access at all, so I can really see the appeal of this!

    • I’ve been struck by the number of writers who have two laptops, one connected to the internet and one not. I remember seeing this advice years ago from a major writer. The freefall of prices means that it’s a viable option for a lot more people now.

      I made the argument to myself for ages that I *needed* the internet in order to write academic stuff because I had to look stuff up, etc. But that’s not really true. I need it sometimes, not all the time, and since I have to go through the draft again anyway (there are always cites I don’t think of or don’t have when writing, in addition to the usual editing) it’s better for my words-on-page process to cut it off.

  4. I’m so excited you posted this. I have a new library I’d like to work at and was finding my iPad sucky to write on, but didn’t want to drag along a laptop. I just pulled out the Dana and stuck in three AAs. I recall losing stuff on it a lot as batteries drained and whatever was in the memory disappeared. I just read that the Palm OS does do a very slow battery drain because it never quite shuts off, so that would jibe with my experience. I’ve ordered an SD card for it to back up work. I’d be steamed if I lost a bunch of work to the batteries falling out or dying.

    • That makes sense about the battery drain, because I was away for a couple of weeks and the battery had gone down substantially when I returned. I’m glad you brought it up, though, because it’s easy to forget about that issue until you lose something. The SD card is a great idea; I’ll dig one out and put it in mine as well.

      One thing I do is use the cable to transfer my day’s work to the computer. That way it’s always backed up. I just do it when I get back to the laptop or desktop: open a file that can take text, hook up the cable, and hit send.

      • buy a couple of SD cards and back up your documents on there. I have notes from 4 years ago on there. :)
        Being the only Win 7 PC at home and not wanting to do it all on campus, means that computer backup is not always an option. :/ Trust me I’ve been trying to push for win 7 for a while now. :P

  5. I have this image of myself tripping over nothing in the library parking lot, the Dana bouncing off the pavement, batteries flying everywhere and hours of my work lost.

  6. Thanks for this post, I read it last night and it led to an epiphany! After that I was too excited to think to come back here and say thanks. Your link to “The Shitty First Draft” was exactly what I needed to see.

    I started NaNoWriMo last November and everything was going swimmingly until life got in the way. I’ve been trying again recently but have been struggling to get anything written. My epiphany was that it went so well in November because I was just writing, not editing or criticizing as I wrote. I need to get back to that, so I can at least get my shitty first draft done. :)

    • Yay! I’m so glad to hear that. The whole idea of “writing forward” is so important. Until you have a draft you don’t have anything to work with, but the minute you start writing you see all the flaws, if you have any self-awareness at all. I tell my students all the time that they have to let go the worry that what they write won’t be good, but do I take my own advice? Not nearly enough.

  7. I have an AlphaSmart 3000 that I used all through my MA because I can’t write longhand for very much time. (I had THE most fun hooking up the USB cable and watching the little guy retype everything like an automatic keyboard into a document on my computer!) I’ve used it on vacation or for a change of pace, mostly because it only lets you see 4 lines of text at a time and has a complete lack of bells and whistles and no shiny, shiny internet. It’s so slow to drain the batteries, I’ve come back years later with the files still there. They’re shitty first drafts, of course, but I do get to look at them and marvel at how “brilliant” I am now.

  8. Sorry, I’m late. It’s been that kind of month.

    I just wanted to say, I have an AlphaSmart 2000 that I bought used on eBay for $25 with shipping and it is the single best writing investment I’ve made in two years. I’ve written upwards of ten novels on it, done NaNo, and took notes during my classes when I got my MBA. The thing is a HUGE help.

    I save all downloads into a special file called “AlphaSmart” with the date (year first so they sort correctly), then a note or two (just a word, usually) as to the topic. When I’m in full-writing mode, I can do an AlphaSmart a day and they’re between 1,000 and 10,000 words, so I need that backup. I also ALWAYS past into a template document and not the day’s before document, after two days IN A ROW where I overwrote stuff during a NaNo. GAH!

    But I love my AlphaSmart. 700 hours on 3 AAA batteries. LOFF!

    • (I’ve even gotten four of my writing group people to buy them too!) ~ebil grin~

    • I do the same thing, in terms of daily writing and then dumping into a text document. It keeps my daily word count for me, and I don’t have to worry about losing data. This past week I typed on my TouchPad with a keyboard and managed to lose a few paragraphs. I was Not Happy.

      Jordan’s suggestion of an SD card was a great one, I’ve picked one up and am using it as backup. It turns out that there’s some kind of backup battery in the machine, so when you change out the AAs everything is retained in memory (therefore the dumping across the parking lot problem shouldn’t kill all the files). But the SD card is still a good idea.

    • I’ve been using one for 8 years (Dana) and it has never let me down! Granted I don’t have the exact device I had 8 years ago, but sure as heck, they are sturdy and reliable. May not be brand-new top of the line (and as a geeky girl I do covet often), but it doesn’t owe me a dime. Bravo!

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