The Freewrite Traveler Is Beautiful Distraction-Free Writing That Won't Finish Your Novel For You

Illustration for article titled The Freewrite Traveler Is Beautiful Distraction-Free Writing That Wont Finish Your Novel For You
Photo: John Biggs/Gizmodo

If you’re a certain type of writer, you’ll probably think you’ll use the Freewrite Traveler every day. The entire package is alluring: it’s a portable, e-ink-powered typewriter that sends your documents to an email box instantly and is completely distraction-free. Imagine how much writing you’ll get done! No Twitter, no Facebook, no endless doom-scrolling. Just writing, the way Burroughs used to do it, junk sick in Tangiers while clacking away on an Olivetti.

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To be absolutely clear, the Freewrite Traveler offers all of that and more (except the junk sickness). This clamshell device folds up to something about as big as a Nintendo Switch. It lasts four weeks on one charge via USB-C and features a 4.76 x 2.76 inches writing window. The Traveler has three folder buttons along the top edge of the keyboard, one for each of three projects the device can hold. To send your work in text and PDF you hit the “send” button and it wings its way into your inbox. The two red “new” buttons will erase the folder and let you start fresh.

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A smaller window under the main one displays folder information, a clock, or even wordcount and “reading time” based on standard reading speeds. The device boots instantly upon opening, giving you a stark white e-ink page. If you have it paired to a wifi access point then sending your documents to your email inbox in text and PDF format is also instantaneous.

The keyboard is good for a portable device and offers plenty of key travel and solid springs. Imagine an early ThinkPad keyboard and you get the idea. It’s definitely doesn’t offer the mechanical “clacking” of the original Freewrite but it’s solid enough to feel far different than any MacBook or PC. This model also allows you to move around the screen with arrow keys, a feature that the original Freewrite didn’t have.

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Photo: John Biggs/Gizmodo

The Traveler is a portable version of the original Freewrite, another distraction-free device that’s far larger and far bulkier than this sandwich of plastic and silicon. Both devices are deeply desirable, at least to writers like me who can’t let a Tweetstorm go unanswered. Being able to “just write,” as many of the online writing groups say, is a gift. Why not use a device designed to let you Kerouac your way through a few thousand words a day?

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The answer is, simply, that these tools rarely work as advertised.

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I’ve purchased countless devices to help me “just write.” Most recently I picked up a Smith-Corona electric wordprocessor and I also have an Alphasmart Neo, a device they passed out to grade school kids in 1993 in lieu of laptops. I go through a few mechanical keyboards a year, trying to find one that will change my writing from good to great. In short, there is a lot riding on a simple set of keyboard switches.

And why do I do this? Because, like a good Guild guitar in the hands of a Jazz Master, the right keyboard can help the workaday world fall away and improve the experience of writing in ways untold. Most of the time nothing happens — a keyboard is a keyboard — but dammit if we don’t keep looking.

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Photo: John Biggs/Gizmodo

Now here’s the rub: you don’t need this $430 device to write better. The Traveler doesn’t supercharge your writing as much as facilitate the process of creation. If you’re looking for distraction-free writing then you definitely don’t need this thing. You can get the same effect with an old laptop with the wifi turned off or something like Calmly Writer. In fact, the pretentiousness of this thing, with its clacking keys, 1950s-styling, and stark feature-set, is enough to make you grunt in disgust, Bukowski-style. And don’t get caught up in the romance of the branding. Hemingway, to be clear, used a Royal Quiet de Luxe not because it was the ultimate in typing comfort but because it was the only thing he had.

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So shouldn’t we, the writers of the world, be happy with what we have? Do we need a $430 hunk of plastic to improve our concentration?

I’m a professional writer. I’ve written 11,000 blog posts here and elsewhere. I’ve written eight books. I can write a thousand words in about twenty minutes using some flat mud and a stick. I bought an original Freewrite from another professional writer who stopped using it after about a year. I haven’t used my own Freewrite in years and I doubt I would carry the Traveler with me on my upcoming journeys, whenever they might happen again.

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My son, the writer.
Photo: John Biggs/Gizmodo

I love the idea of a Freewrite. I love the hardware. I love the idea of a great, distraction-free tool for writing. But please be careful before buying one. You, too, will love it at first but if your style isn’t particularly suited to this type of device, you’ll inevitably be disappointed.

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Writing isn’t about the tools you use. Although, eventually, a better tool can make you a slightly faster writer. I wrote a horror novella on my original Freewrite in a buzz of adrenaline and excitement. It was a freeing experience, to be sure, but the freedom was fleeting.

This device might be fine if you’re writing a fantasy novel featuring a world of your own creation. Even then most writing, from fiction to modern non-fiction or scholarly writing usually requires an always-on Internet connection. Being able to “just write” without being able to check Wikipedia for the name of Napolean’s horse is a huge pain and you’ll almost immediately dump the Freewrite for a laptop. I couldn’t even write this review on the Freewrite primarily because I needed to check prices and include links. I think a complex piece of modern fiction requires something like Scrivener rather than a blunt instrument like this one.

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The Traveler asleep
Photo: John Biggs/Gizmodo

I don’t want to dissuade you from trying this thing or any other writing tool. There is a great deal of fun to be had in clacking away on a Freewrite or even feeding a sheet of paper into a refurbished Underwood. And if you’ve become frustrated writing on your laptop or just want a way to clear your head between typing and Zooming all day and being creative on a separate device, this is the way to go.

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The Freewrite Traveler isn’t for everyone and it’s too expensive for me to recommend just taking a flyer on this thing and trying it out. There are even alternatives to it out there but none of them as good as this thing. Again, please don’t buy it thinking it is a panacea. It is a tool, like any other, and it’s very cool.

But, in the end, your most important writing tool is the blob of meat at the top end of your neck. No keyboard, pen, pencil, or e-ink typewriter will change that. But it’s nice to imagine it could try.

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Photo: John Biggs/Gizmodo

README

  • Freewrite makes an amazing tool for writers, but it comes at a cost.
  • Mechanical keyboard lovers will appreciate the build quality.
  • You’ll definitely get writing done on this thing, but I can’t promise for how long.
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John Biggs is a writer from Ohio who lives in Brooklyn. He likes books, board games, watches, and his dog. He is the Editor-in-Chief of Gizmodo.

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Radio Shack TRS-80 Model 100. Back in the day, journalists swore by them.