Writing digitally on paper

by Suw on December 30, 2010

I’m writing this biog post not on my laptop, or my iPad, or on my iPhone, but with a pen in a notebook. As I write, the pen tracks my movements by referring to a special pattern of dots on the paper, and when I plug it in to my computer it will upload an exact copy of each page. I can even use handwriting recognition software to turn my scrawl into editable text.

My Livescribe Echo pen was a Christmas present from Kevin, along with some journals and a carry case that his family gave me. It has the potential to change forever the way I write by letting me write both longhand and digitally at once. So far, I love it. I’ve already written pages of research notes for my next fiction project and have successfully transferred them to Scrivener for future reference. It has let me work in places where getting even an iPad would be a little awkward, e.g. in A&E, and in a way that would be difficult with a laptop, e.g. taking notes from a book as I’m reading it.

There’s just one drawback: It is difficult to get hold of the special dotted paper that the pen requires in order to work. In the UK, only three types of notebooks are available and all of them are lined. I prefer to use unlined notebooks: A5 for desk notes, A6 for taking out and about. I dislike using lined paper, but although plain notebooks are available in the US, I have yet to find a supplier in the UK. Kevin can probably get me a few next time he’s on the other side of the Pond, but even in the US, there are only a few types of notebook for sale.

This strikes me as a bit bonkers. It’s like inventing the world’s best razor and not selling the blades. Livescribe should be all over the stationery aspect of their business, with lots of choice and wide availability. After all, the success of their pen depends on users having access to lots and lots of paper.

They should also provide more choice for the pen itself. Right now you can write with a biro… or a biro. I know a fountain pen would be too bulky, but even a gel pen would be an improvement!

Ultimately, though, this pen has the potential to revolutionise my writing life. I usually write my friction by planning and researching my story, then writing the first draft out by hand. For some reason, it comes out better that way. Maybe it’s because it slows my brain down a bit, forcing me to think things through more carefully as I write.

Once I have a complete first draft, I then have to type it up. This pen removes that stage completely and, whilst the handwriting recognition isn’t perfect, it’s at least as good as my transcription, during which I introduce errors of my own. It’s also easier to spot handwriting recognition errors as they tend to stand out – e.g. a K instead of an H, rather than ‘birth’ instead of ‘berth’.

It is possible to print dot paper from within the Livescribe software, but again it’s lined, you can only print 25 pages, and it’s the wrong size. In order to get blank paper (i.e. dots but no lines) I apparently need to download and install the SDK, download custom paper files others have put together, do something fiddly in the SDK, load them on to the pen, print them out and hope my Mac likes the end result. (The Livescribe support forums seem to say that maybe custom paper won’t work on my Mac.) That’s an awful lot of work, even if you’re used to dealing with SDKs, which I am not.

I can’t understand why Livescribe have made it so hard to get hold of their stationery, or why it’s so difficult to design one’s own. I hope this is a problem I can find a way to solve, because this pen shows promise and it would be a shame for it not to fulfil that promise for lack of stationery.

My advice to Livescribe: Hire a stationery geek and give them a big budget. A wide range of stationery is essential to the success of these digital pens – without it, they are just very heavy, very fat biros. But given enough stationery and, also importantly, an easy way to make and print my own custom paper so I can bind my own notebooks, I could be a convert. I wouldn’t just use this pen for a few months until my current stash of paper runs out, but could end up using Livescribe pens for the rest of my life.

Livescribe, it’s really up to you.

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