Does What We Use to Write Influence How We Write? (iPad vs. AlphaSmart)

I write differently depending on what I use to write. I figured out along the way that I use Scrivener most effectively for revisions but not drafting. When I dictate what I want to write, I primarily write dialogue or direct thoughts (sort of like a deep POV). I’ve always viewed longhand writing as a romantic possibility, but sadly, it isn’t an option for me due to a lingering case of carpal tunnel syndrome. This aspect of the writing process has always been interesting to me, akin to a recent study showing that use of digital media vs. paper influences the way we think.

A month ago, my laptop was pronounced (incorrectly) as dead, as a paperweight, as a piece of scrap. The end of the story however is a happy one: my laptop is fully functional again, and my fingers are lovingly tapping away at the keys as I type this post. However, during that month where we were separated, I had to figure out what to use to write. I have two other writing devices, though: my iPad and my AlphaSmart Neo. These devices are great for portable writing, and having no laptop for four weeks gave me the opportunity to weigh the pros and cons of each. In the end, I found a clear winner in terms of productivity, and so today, I offer my comparison of these two writing devices.

Did each of these writing tools ultimately affect how I wrote? You bet it did.

First, my tablet. I have an iPad and iPad mini, the latter of which is shown below with its keyboard*. Incidentally, some of the pros and cons to on-the-go writing with a tablet are similar to if you use your laptop for portable writing.

*This is the setup that I have for my iPad mini with a Logitech keyboard.
I was going to take an actual picture of it, but my kids are using it.

iPad Pros:
Very compact (especially the iPad mini). I can slip my tablet quite easily into my purse and even with the case, it is very portable and doesn’t take up a lot of room.

Easy to revise and edit. This could be a pro or a con. I use the Pages app on my iPad (the iPad-friendly equivalent to Word), so it’s easy to scroll through and revise/edit. Now, I happen to be in the drafting phase, and this is not so great for me, because sometimes I wind up revising instead of what I should be doing, which is laying down new words.

Night-writing. If you’re like me, writing can (and sometimes needs to) occur at all hours, depending on when inspiration and energy strikes. However, recent research shows that staring at bright screens can mess up your sleep patterns. I discovered this handy trick not too long ago where you can invert colors on your screen by going to Settings –> General –> Accessibility –> Invert Colors. The first time I figured this out, it was magical. No more eye strain from staring at a white screen in the dark whilst sharing a hotel room with sleeping children, or at 4 a.m. when your brain wakes you up and demands a bit of dialogue be written. (This is not just an iPad specific thing. I do this on my laptop as well under System Preferences).

iPad Cons: 
Charging. I’m usually good about remembering to pack my charger, but I’ve found myself in an occasional pinch when I’m writing and get a low battery alert, and suddenly my writing quest has morphed into a quest for an electrical outlet. No bueno. (Note: My portable keyboard only requires a charge every month or so, and that’s with fairly regular use.)

Not distraction-free. I’m prone to distraction. It’s my Achilles’ Heel. I realize that this is purely on me, but this winds up being the biggest con for the iPad. However, I have been able to mostly get around this by removing apps from my iPad that provide distractions aplenty (i.e., every single social media app is gone from my iPad). However, it’s still too easy to hop onto it to zip off that quick email, or get onto a browser in the name of book research, and suddenly twenty minutes or *cough* more have gone by.

My kids want the iPad. Self-explanatory.

Now for the AlphaSmart. If you’ve never heard of this wonderful device, that’s because they are fairly old school. The AlphaSmart is a portable word processor that is used for one thing only: typing. There are several models out there, and I’ll explain where I got mine below.

This is actually my AlphaSmart Neo 2, with my bony hand shown so you can get an idea of scale.

AlphaSmart Pros:
– Battery powered with auto-backup for files. The AlphaSmart uses two AA batteries, and battery life is long. I’ve hardly even made a dent in my battery life in the several months since I got mine, and other writers report average life with typical use to be about a year or so. All of your keystrokes are automatically saved to the AlphaSmart’s RAM, even if you take out the batteries (or let them die). I’m a bit paranoid about my iPad files, saving them to Dropbox and Google Docs after each major writing session. Why? Because I’ve lost quite a bit of progress before when the app crashed. I never have to worry about this with the AlphaSmart.

Distraction-free. There are a few extra features on the AlphaSmart such as a calculator, and a word counter, and some typing applets, but they are not Facebook or Twitter. I don’t find the calculator distracting at all (I didn’t know it was there until a friend told me about it), I check my word count after each session, and I don’t even mess with the typing applets because I don’t know what they are. When I use my AlphaSmart, I type, type some more, and keep typing.

– Full-sized keyboardThe feel of the AlphaSmart is really nice. It’s very ergonomic and while the device is slightly bulkier than an iPad (see below), that con is offset by the benefit of a full-sized keyboard.

Inexpensive. I purchased mine for $25. Whoa. That’s less than what I paid for my carpal tunnel arm brace.

– My kids aren’t that interested in it. Self-explanatory.

AlphaSmart Cons: 
– Bulkier. This, of course, is a relative thing. Because of the full-sized keyboard, my AlphaSmart is a bit larger than my iPad mini. It’s not flat like a tablet either, but it is still very portable, weighing in at a little under two pounds. (Yes, I actually weighed it on the scale I use to weigh my guinea pig.)

– No to night-writing. The screen for the AlphaSmart is not backlit and therefore not conducive to night-writing. That is, unless you have a book light or wear a head lamp.

– Transferring files required. The AlphaSmart allows you to set up a total of 8 files, each file set up to hold approximately 10K words (I’m using each file for a different chapter that I’m drafting). When you’re done writing, you do need to transfer your files to a computer. There is supposed to be some way to transfer it using an infrared (IR) signal, but I don’t have the IR app for my laptop. Instead, the AlphaSmart comes with a USB cord that attaches to your laptop, and when you connect the two and hit a magical “send” button on the AlphaSmart, it will transfer what you’ve written to a file on your laptop. It does this by emulating all of the keystrokes in the AlphaSmart file you choose, so this can take up to several minutes (Out of all of the AlphaSmart features, my kids find watching this emulation process the most entertaining. I’m okay with this.)

Third-party seller required. i.e., eBay. I originally learned about the AlphaSmart from another writer, and she had posted all of the things she liked about it (mostly the fact that it got her away from Facebook). She indicated she got it from eBay; this is because the AlphaSmart was discontinued in 2013**. I’d been riding the Struggle Bus with my WIP for some time and the idea of a distraction-free writing device to finish this draft appealed to me. Within minutes, I found several that were priced between $20-30 from eBay sellers with high ratings. (Yes, you always want to check seller ratings and feedback before purchasing.) I selected one from a top-rated seller that was listed with a “Buy-It-Now” option (because I hate waiting for auctions to end) that came with a guarantee and free returns, and within a few days, I was typing away.

**The company that made the AlphaSmart has online guides and technical information for all of their AlphaSmart models at (enter keywords in the search field to find what you’re looking for).

Winner, winner, chicken dinner?

I mentioned above that there was a winner in terms of which device served me better this past month. The AlphaSmart was what I used almost exclusively. With it, I drafted completely new scenes, very rough ones that will ultimately require a few rounds of revision once I transfer them into my file on my laptop. But drafting was my goal, and I’m happy with my progress thanks to this little word processor.

The one time this month that I shifted over to my iPad mini was when I had to travel to Denver with my family for a wedding; I threw it in my purse along with the plethora of snacks I carried for the kids. I wrote a bit during the flights and at night in the hotel room, and while I did get some writing done, it was all revision and fine-tuning.

Now… I just have to figure out what to do now that I have my laptop back. 🙂

What do you use to write? Does it influence how you write? I would love to hear from you below!

Helen Boswell loved to get lost in the pages of a story from the time she could sound out the words. She credits her dad, an avid fiction reader, with encouraging her to read ALL OF THE BOOKS on his shelves from the time she was a teenager. An author of both urban fantasy and contemporary romance, she loves to read and write characters that come to life with their beauty, flaws, and all. She is the author of YA urban fantasies MYTHOLOGY, THE WICKED, THE ETERNAL, and NA contemporary romance LOSING ENOUGH. She writes on whatever she can get her hands on.
You can find out more about her at

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