Ministry of Prose: making words work for your business

One in a semi-regular series of ponderings, musings and contemplations on the interaction of words and psychology in business.

Alex Cruickshank's writing machines: AlphaSmart Neo

November 2014

It looks like a child's toy, but don't be deceived: this is one of the most powerful writing devices ever invented.

Designed for the classroom, this machine is little more than a keyboard, some memory and an LCD screen. Teachers around the world have used these devices to help children - especially those who are prone to distraction - to learn to write.

AlphaSmart Neo

With some add-on apps it can also be used as a mathematics tutor and a typing teacher, and there are some clever management tools available for handling pupils' scores and learning paths.

Which is all well and good, but what can it do for writers? Why do I have one? Actually, why do I have three?

I'll answer those questions in reverse order. I have three because the company that made the Neo devices stopped making them earlier this year. Since I don't want to be stuck without one of my favourite writing tools, I've made sure I have a couple of backups stashed away.

Along with many other writers, I love the Neo because of its simplicity, durability and portability. Its memory is enough for about 9,000 words, divided into eight memory blocks (though you can also save as separate files). There's a spell-checker and word-count, but that's all: no formatting options. You just type and type... and then type some more.

When you've finished typing, connect a USB cable to the top of the Neo and press 'send': your text will flow at fast typing speed into whatever document you have open. No drivers required for Mac, Linux, Windows, whatever, because to all intents and purposes this is a USB keyboard.

Since it was developed for use in schools, the Neo is a tough machine. Drop it, kick it, drown it... I've done at least one of those things and it survived. Not sure about the others, but in a toughness test between a Neo and a laptop, I know which would win.

As for portability, how does a 700-hour battery life sound? That's three months of solid typing for eight hours a day, using just three alkaline AA batteries. Turn on (instantly), type, switch off again until needed. Even the most prolific writers are unlikely to need to change batteries more than once a year.

You can take the Neo anywhere, and I do. Its monochrome LCD screen means I can sit in the garden or a park in summer and write. I could go away into the wilderness for a week or more and just write, no power supply needed. No distractions, no internet, no games, no flashy graphics or audio. Its one of the most liberating writing machines I've owned, especially since the keyboard is lovely: light but with good feedback.

And I'm not alone. Writers have snapped up these machines in their thousands, especially at this time of year, for National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo). Once a US-only tradition, this month-long event has spread around the world, with writers trying to finish a 50,000-word novel in the space of November's 30 days. The Neo is the ideal tool for this, at least for the drafting stage.

NaNoWriMo is not for me, though. I have too much paid writing work at the moment to take a punt on anyone enjoying my more creative output. But if and when I do finish writing my novel(s), large chunks of prose will have been written on a Neo. If it had removable storage it would be the best writing device ever made. Even though it does look like a child's toy.

Alex Cruickshank has been a professional writer since 1994 and favours function over form.

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