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The Phone-typewriter. My Favorite Writing Hack.

Dennis Brotzky
April 21st, 2015 · 4 min read
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Like many people, I enjoy writing outside of the house. The de facto tool of choice nowadays is, of course, the laptop. By all accounts, it’s a great step forward in word processing technology (Be thankful you no longer have to carry around a 10 lb. Smith-Corona typewriter to your local Starbucks). These foldable computers give us a never-ending assortment of tools and capabilities, which is, ironically, why I often hate writing on them.

I always felt there was something missing from the experience of writing on these devices—something that didn’t carry over from the old mechanical typewriter days, and it wasn’t the clickity-clack sound of metal on metal. The thing that’s missing is focus. When you grab a hammer, you hammer. Put on a swimsuit and go swimming. Sit in front of a typewriter and start typing. Our minds and bodies get primed for these activities in ways that completely override our cognitive processes—honing our senses to the activity before us. We live in a world where single-purpose tools are becoming endangered, and we should be concerned. We’ve (d)evolved from being present in our lives to acting as a switchboard operator for it. The Alphasmart 3000 in all its glory

The Alphasmart 3000 in all its glory

I’ve used just about every capture tool you can imagine, ranging from pen and paper on Moleskins and composition books, to voice and video recordings of my inspired late night soliloquies. The overwhelming bulk of my writing, however, is done on the keyboard. Several years ago, in an effort to sidestep my reliance on the laptop, I bought a device called the Alphasmart 3000 on eBay. It met all the requirements I set at the time. It was light, cheap, durable, had great battery life, and most importantly, all you could do on it was type. I would sit at my local coffee shop and bang away on this thing, getting the occasional weird look, but leaving with several pages worth of writing. Eventually, however, I got tired of replacing it every time one of the keys got stuck. The key-action itself was also really clunky in a nostalgic-but-not-enjoyable way.

Ahhh well, back to writing on the laptop. Eventually, the same problems of weight and distraction started to annoy me and it wasn’t long before I craved a focused typing tool again. Then, about two months ago, I started using my phone as a typewriter. I figured I’d start with stuff I already had lying around. It instantly felt familiar—even better than the old Alphasmart days! My word counts have gone up by at least 500%, and most importantly it made writing fun again. Here’s how to put one together yourself… The phone typewriter

The phone typewriter

  • You’ll need a smartphone with Bluetooth capabilities.
  • Next, go find yourself a Bluetooth keyboard and pair it to your phone. I use a spare Apple keyboard so it feels familiar. If you’ve never paired anything to your phone via Bluetooth, just do a quick search on YouTube.
  • You’re going to need something to hold your phone up since propping it against a cup is going to get old real fast. I use a small Gorillapod designed to hold phones and really small cameras. The flexible legs collapse really easily and can adapt to whatever surface you work from. I also like that it can do double duty as a tripod should the need arise. One thing to mention about this particular stand is that it translates vibration if it’s on an unstable surface. I’ve found that folding the legs up to create more surface contact between the table and the Gorillapod helps.
  • Finally, you’ll need to get NOTE by Squarespace (free for iPhone or Android). There are plenty of writing apps you can get for your phone, but I’m recommending this one for a couple of reasons. First, it aligns with the ethos of simplicity and focus that’s required for single-purpose tools. When you open the app, you’re presented with a plain white screen (or black, if shaken) with a blinking cursor and a small camera icon in the lower righthand corner. There are no formatting options (i.e..bold, italic, etc.) and you may only attach one photo per note if you so desire. Secondly, it has a very streamlined way of preserving your notes. You’ll obviously want to refine your writing in a full-fledged word processor at some point, which means getting your notes off your phone somehow. In the NOTE app, whenever you want to send your note, just pull (up or down) the screen and let go. From there it can go to any combination of Dropbox, email or social media accounts, and afterwards, refreshes the screen with a blank new note. Weirdly, it actually feels like pulling paper out of a typewriter.

Available for iOS or Android

Available for iOS or Android Why this works

In theory, this really shouldn’t work. Why move from a laptop to, arguably, the most distracting device ever created? The answer lies in how we’re decontextualizing it. One of the worst distractors when working on my computer are social media and the rabbit hole of clickbait it produces. Log on to Facebook, and an hour later I’m watching my 6th olympic weightlifting video. Web surfing on mobile is still a somewhat painful experience, which is a built-in deterrent against aimless browsing. Related to this, is how the phone’s smaller screen real estate limits your user interface options. There are only so many buttons or toolbars that can fit on a screen. Less buttons means less options. The biggest way we’re hacking the phone, however, is by not having it in our hand. It seems like something so superficial that it wouldn’t matter, yet it does! Your phone was designed from the ground up to be held in your hand, and billions of R&D dollars have been spent by phone manufacturers and app designers to keep it there. Start using your phone without touching it, and you’ve just nullified all those UI cues designed to manipulate your behavior. To state it another way, it starts to lose its ‘phone-ness’. Sure, you can still get interrupted by notifications and text messages, but Airplane mode makes short work of those.

To be clear, I don’t do all of my writing this way. My phone typewriter notes are what I call top-of-the-funnel material—meaning, it’s the raw stuff I end up combining or refining into finished pieces later. I’m the type of writer who does a lot of his thinking on the page, so I need to have a space where I’m free to make general, random observations.

Try this out for yourself—but whatever you end up using—just make sure you’re the one using the tool, and not the other way around.

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