Author Archive: Alex Kourvo

How to Talk to a Woman with a Broken Computer

There’s a right way and a wrong way.

Last week, I suffered a computer crash. All my files were backed up, so it wasn’t a disaster, just a bummer. But it could have been an even bigger bummer without my new friends Jason, Brandon and Joel.

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After trying to reset the machine myself, I headed to the Apple store. When they check you in, you don’t take a number. The greeter uses an iPad to check you in, jotting down some details of your appearance so the clerks can find you in the crowded store. I didn’t see what the greeter wrote down, but it was probably something like, “Middle-aged mom hugging her mac like a baby.  Looks clueless.” I braced myself for a guy half my age to mansplain my computer to me.

It never happened.

A tech named Jason was working on several computers at once at the “genius bar.” He listened patiently when I told him what was wrong with my mac, never interrupting me. His body language was relaxed, interested, even though I’m sure he hears the same thing all day long. He tried, unsuccessfully, to reinstall my operating system. He couldn’t figure out why it didn’t install, but he never acted like that was my fault or my problem to solve. (I’ve had that experience before. Yuck.) I peppered him with questions and he answered all of them, talking me through the problem without talking down to me.

He ultimately had to give up and turn my machine over to an even younger guy named Brandon. Brandon had a solution. I could either go to the earlier version of the OS, which would work fine, or get a new hard drive and use the current OS. We discussed price and time to service, and I decided to go to Best Buy for a new hard drive, since it would be cheaper and faster than going through Apple. Brandon thought that was a great idea and sent me on my way. He didn’t try to talk me into staying in the Apple family. He didn’t try to scare me into using their higher-priced services. He knew I could be trusted to do what was best for my own computer.

The next day, I went to Best Buy. I haven’t visited the Geek Squad in several years and my last experience wasn’t a great one. So my hackles were already up when I approached the counter. I was sure the Jack Black lookalike was going to treat me like an idiot.

It never happened.

Jack Black’s real name turned out to be Joel, and not only did he not talk down to me, he did the opposite. He empowered me. He said he couldn’t install a hard drive on my mac, but I could certainly do it myself. When I looked doubtful he said, “There are videos on YouTube. You’ll just need a phillips screwdriver and a star-shaped one. You have those, right?” (Bonus points to Joel for assuming I have tools.) He gave me his number to call if I had any trouble, but he assured me I wouldn’t. “You can do this!”

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Swapping out the hard drive was as easy as Joel said it was and so was reinstalling my OS and my backed-up files. (Always back up your files, kids!) And even though it was so easy a cat could do it, I’m still super proud of myself for accomplishing it.

And I’m proud of my new pals Jason, Brandon, and Joel for treating me as though I could.

Now, I’m not saying that sexism is solved simply because I had one good experience. In fact, a different man called me “sweetie” the day before and someone else talked over me the day after. And of course, there was the weird guy at the con last month. But I have hope. Somewhere along the line, these three young men were taught a better way. A mom, a wife, or (or more likely) a female boss clued them in.

Now let’s hope they clue in others.

About the Author: Alex Kourvo is a freelance editor who works on a macbook with a newly installed hard drive.

I Don’t Need His Approval

A pretty ring, quick thinking, and the best moment of my weekend.

I went to a great science fiction convention last weekend. I learned new things, got inspired, and hung out with friends old and new.

At one point, I wandered into the dealer’s room, which was filled with geeky things for sale. I admired the Firefly and Star Trek t-shirts, flipped through some awesome-looking books, and ended up at my favorite jeweler’s table, which was my ultimate destination all along. I was pretty sure I’d be bringing a new ring home with me.

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As I tried on rings and chatted with the jeweler, a man sidled up to me and inserted himself into the conversation. This would usually be an okay thing to do. People are very friendly at cons and we enjoy the small talk. But this guy was interrupting a nice conversation between two women, and he was critiquing my choice of jewelry.

I ignored him. I ignored him hard. No eye contact. Shoulders turned away. I was going to buy myself something pretty, and I didn’t need him to tell me what that was.

Then the “conversation” took a weird turn, and my new “friend” told me that he was surprised that a woman would buy a ring for herself. That’s when I quickly paid for my selection, slipped the ring on my finger, and got out of there. I recognize negging when I hear it, and I didn’t want to give this guy the satisfaction of a response.

I sat on a nearby bench and took out my phone. A moment later, he was standing in front of me. “Well?” he said. “Let me see the ring you bought.”

I was wearing it on my middle finger and I should have flipped him the bird. But I held up my whole hand instead.

“Very nice!” he said. “I approve.”

And that’s when I had my best moment of the weekend.

Because usually things like this make me tongue-tied. I usually think of the right thing to say hours—or even days—later. Not this time. This time, the right words came immediately out of my mouth. I even nailed the tone of voice. Not mean, not defensive, just completely deadpan. Just telling it like it is.

I didn’t even look at him. I kept my eyes on my phone. “Don’t need your approval, buddy.”

There was a moment of surprised silence as he backed away a step. Then another. Then he turned tail and fled.

Honestly, I was not trying to be mean or put him in his place. I was simply stating a fact. But it got me thinking. Why do men do this?

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Why do they assume their opinion is always welcomed and their approval always needed?

Why do they insert themselves into conversations and talk over women and mainsplain things to people who know more than they do?

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Why do they think random women can be negged into interacting with them?

And could they just…you know…not?

About the Author: Alex Kourvo is an editor-for-hire. She likes to buy herself pretty things, and doesn’t need anyone’s approval to do so.

Nerd Nite

“It’s like the Discovery Channel…with beer.”

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Once a month, nerds gather at their favorite bars to see a trio of 20-minute talks about…well…everything. It’s called Nerd Nite and it happens in cities all across the country. Because I live in a college town, and our Nerd Nite is sponsored by our library, we get a wide range of topics. I’ve attended talks about the science of LED light bulbs, how to critique architecture, and why fruit flies love cake. You never know what you’re going to get at Nerd Nite. Sometimes it’s history, sometimes it’s physics, sometimes it’s…me.

In October, I was a featured speaker at Ann Arbor’s Nerd Nite talking about everyone’s favorite science fiction genre—cyberpunk!

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Cyberpunk was everywhere in the 1980s. It started in science fiction, but it influenced fashion, movies, comics, games, advertising, and architecture. After a decade of high-tech, neon-colored, future-looking pop culture, cyberpunk just…went away. Or did it? Could cyberpunk stories still be with us, hiding in plain sight?

Our awesome Ann Arbor District Library taped the talk for their collection, and you can watch the video right on their site.

So if you want to see me nerd out about the genre I love best, here’s the video you never knew you needed.

About the Author: Alex Kourvo is a freelance editor. She loves seeing people nerd out about their passions.

[Photo: Lara Zielin]

The Bravest Writer I Ever Met

It takes guts to write something. It takes even more guts to delete it.

I recently got a new job working as a part-time editor for a small press. The first book I was assigned to work on was a memoir called Ginger Stands her Ground. It was written by the bravest writer I’ve ever met.

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Ginger Ford has lived with polio for 66 of her 70 years. Her life’s story details the complexities of being disabled before the ADA. In the era before ramps and automatic doors, Ginger had to learn to adapt to a world not built for her. She recalls trying to hide her leg braces to fit in at school, the terror of learning to drive a hand-controlled car, the near-impossibility of finding an accessible college, and the worry that she’d never get married and have a family of her own.

But here’s the thing. Ginger Stands her Ground is not a downer. Ginger has a relentlessly cheerful spirit and she always, always looks on the bright side of things. It’s as if the word “resilient” was coined just for her.

The memoir she wrote was utterly fascinating. It had a problem, though. A big one. The manuscript she turned in was 235 pages long, but the story effectively ended on page 200. The final 35 pages were well-written, but they didn’t fit the current story whatsoever.

I paced the floor, agonizing. Could I really ask her to lop off the entire last section of her book? How would she take it? Would she complain to my boss? This was my first project with Fifth Avenue Press. Ginger was a first-time author. I saw so many ways this could go badly.

But I’m an experienced editor, and I knew my instincts were right. Those 35 pages had to go. So I wrote the most gentle editorial letter of my life, explaining what needed to be done, and then I held my breath, waiting to see what Ginger would do.

She cut those pages without a second glance.

It was the bravest thing I’ve ever seen a writer do.

Some people might think it wasn’t a big deal, but let me tell you something. It was. I’ve seen professional writers who’ve been writing for decades fight to preserve pages they know aren’t working. I’ve been one of those writers from time to time.

It would be one thing if I’d asked her to cut bad or ineffective writing. But I was asking her to cut pages that were very, very good. Later, Ginger took that section and submitted it as a stand-alone piece to the Writer’s Digest competition, where she won an honorable mention. But at the time, she didn’t know she could do that. For all she knew, removing those pages meant they were lost forever. But her editor asked her to remove 1/6 of her book, so she immediately ripped it out and didn’t look back.

That’s not just brave. That’s like, writer superhero brave.

And the thing is? She didn’t think she did anything remarkable. She approached the editing of her memoir the way she approaches everything—with cheerful good humor and the determination to make the best of the situation, no matter what.

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If you want to check out Ginger Stands her Ground, it’s on sale now at Amazon and everywhere else. Ginger isn’t on social media, but she gave me permission to post this, and I’ll be sure to pass along any words of encouragement left in the comments.

About the Author: Alex Kourvo is an editor-for-hire who works with all kinds of writers, especially brave ones.

Alex’s Three Rules for Life

Three no-bullshit rules for happier living.

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Do you have rules for life? I have a lot, although most of them are common sense and many are more like guidelines than actual rules. But I have three unbreakable ones.

1. Leave useless lectures

I love a good informative presentation. I seek out opportunities to hear smart people say smart things, and TED talks are my jam. But I’ll leave any presentation that consists of the speaker reading the slides out loud. I’ve walked out of three important meetings this year and will happily walk out of more. These meetings were billed as “essential” and “attendance mandatory,” like the one about college scholarships and the one about a big field trip for my kid.

But this is a hard limit for me. If the presenter is doing PowerPoint Karaoke, I’m leaving. I know how to read. I don’t need anyone to do it for me. But what about the question-and-answer period that always comes at the end? Isn’t that valuable? No. The questions are always super specific and come from people seeking an exception to the rules. No one asks a question seeking clarification. They all want a dispensation.

Fun fact: one hundred percent of the time, the lecture I’ve left has either included a handout or a website with all the information on it. There is never any downside to walking out of a purely informational meeting because the information is always available elsewhere.

2. Never keep a folder of papers

People love to give me those shiny cardboard folders filled with papers. I got my taxes done with a new accountant. She gave me a folder. I hired a realtor to sell my house. She gave me a folder. I got a new insurance policy. It came with a folder. My doctor, my banker, my lawyer…in fact, it seems that anytime I hire someone, trying to deal with them adult-to-adult, I’m given a folder, as if I were a child still in school.

I have my own filing cabinet and folders don’t fit in it. Besides, ninety percent of what’s in the folder is crap and the other ten percent can be found online. I can’t stop people from giving me folders, but I don’t have to keep them. I take out anything with my signature on it, file it in my own filing cabinet, and immediately recycle the rest of the papers and the stupid folder too.

3. Don’t photograph events

Every time I go to a show, a play or a concert, especially one my child is in, my phone/camera is powered off and in my pocket. I came to the event to experience it, not to document it.

I’m a parent of two musicians. My kids have been in multiple concerts every year since fifth grade and I’ve adored every single one of them. But I don’t have photos to prove it. What would be the point? Music is auditory. Plays are a story told in time. They can’t be captured by a static image. Besides, studies have shown that taking photographs can keep us from forming detailed memories. Do I want to hear the music, or do I want to stare through a three-inch screen trying to get the perfect picture that I’ll post to Facebook and never look at again?

I take photos of my children after the show. They look amazing in their band tuxedos and after the concert, they are relaxed and happy. But during the show, I sit down, shut up, and listen to the music.

These three rules for life have eased my way and made me happier. I’m thinking of adding a fourth rule: delete all voicemails without listening to them. My mom still calls me sometimes, so that one isn’t absolute. But for everyone else? Text me.

About the Author: Alex Kourvo is an editor-for-hire who knows that writing rules are more like guidelines.

[Photo by Sholeh used under a creative commons 2.0 license]

Five Books for Writers that Aren’t About Writing

Sometimes the best how-to books don’t look like how-to books.

On my other blog, I review how-to books for writers. I learn a ton from them, and I love sharing what I’ve learned. But there’s another kind of book I review: the ones not written for writers that writers can learn a lot from anyway.

Here are my five favorites.

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Mistakes Were Made (But Not by Me) by Carol Tavris and Elliot Aronson
This book explains all the different ways humans justify our actions. Our brains can trick us into thinking everything from bickering with our spouse to going to war is perfectly rational. We all work very hard to maintain our positive self-image, and when we do something that’s not in keeping with the great person we think we are, we are quick to think up excuses that make perfect sense in our own heads. This book taught me how to write convincing villains who do all the wrong things for what they think are the right reasons.

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The Introvert Advantage by Marti Olsen Laney
Introverts may have the perfect temperament for writing, but we do not have the perfect temperament to deal with the rest of the world. Our culture values extroversion to such an extent, it’s considered the norm, and introverts are considered oddballs. We can’t quiet the whole world, but we can cope with it, and even thrive.

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Switch by Chip Heath and Dan Heath
This is a book about change. Most writers want to change something about their writing life, whether it’s working at a different time of day, trying a different genre, or simply turning off the internet and putting butt-in-chair. It turns out, change is driven by three different things: planning, motivation, and the environment. People can achieve remarkable changes by working on just one of these, but lasting success relies on all three.

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Better Than Before by Gretchen Rubin
I’m interested in anything that can help me be more productive, and cultivating better habits is the number one way to do it. I have often said that it’s not inspiration that makes a writer. Nor do you have to have a lot of free time, a set schedule, or a deadline. Those things help, but are nothing without the consistent output of words, day after day. In other words, what a writer needs is a habit. This book takes you through every step of habit formation, from initial inspiration to follow-through.

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Eat that Frog by Brian Tracy
Years spent trying to cram writing into overstuffed days has led me to read dozens of time management and organization books. This is my favorite. It’s less a time-management book and more an anti-procrastination book. By focusing on priorities instead of to-dos, I’m able to get the most important things done without over-scheduling myself.

I love diving deeply into the craft of writing, and that’s where I focus most of my attention when reading how-to books. But these five books have helped me become a happier, more productive, and better writer, even though they had nothing to do with writing itself.

About the Author: Alex Kourvo is an editor-for-hire who is passionate about helping writers. 

This One’s for you, Dad

Thirty years ago, I made a promise. I’ve kept it ever since.

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I hate wearing a bike helmet. When I wheel my bike out of the garage, I always pause with the helmet in my hand, fantasizing about riding with a bare head, arriving at my destination without a sweaty neck and flat hair.

But every time I go somewhere on my bike, I plop the helmet on my head. Not because I think it will save my life. It probably won’t. Not because of peer pressure. In the town where I live, hardly anyone wears a bike helmet. But still, I wear mine each and every time I ride my bike.

Because of this guy.

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That’s my dad, holding me as a baby. I bet he’d still hold me that tenderly if he could.

When I was in college, we worked together one summer painting houses. I loved hanging out with him, working side by side, listening to the radio and chatting. One day, I mentioned that a few months earlier, while biking to class, I’d fallen off my bike and hurt my knee and elbow. Dad expressed sympathy, but didn’t say anything else about it until the next afternoon.

“You know, I’ve been thinking.” He dipped his brush into the can for more paint and expertly applied a line. “If I bought you a bike helmet, would you wear it?”

“Sure, Dad.”

I could tell by his expression that this meant a lot to him.

“I’ll wear it every time,” I added. This was the late 80’s. Nobody on my college campus wore a bike helmet. I’d certainly never worn one growing up. I had no idea how hot and uncomfortable it would be.

I wore it anyway. And when I went back to college, I got teased for it. The girls mostly left me alone, but the guys always had something to say.

“Are you wearing that so your brains don’t fall out?”

“Do you just walk around with that on all day like a special ed kid?”

“Did you leave your motorcycle somewhere?”

My campus was ninety miles from home. My dad would never know if I rode without a helmet. I could take it off, ride bare-headed, be cool, fit in.

I didn’t. I kept it on. Every ride. Every time. I didn’t care what the other kids said. I wasn’t wearing the helmet for them.

I was wearing it for someone more important.

And I still do.

About the Author: Alex Kourvo is an editor-for-hire. She hopes her dad has a wonderful father’s day.

A Woman Who Can Ride a Unicycle Can Do Anything

No matter what you got your mom for mother’s day, it’s not as cool as what my kids got me.

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I have wanted a unicycle for years. I was always delighted to see one-wheel riders in parades and shows. Seeing a unicycle for sale made me sigh wistfully. I watched videos on YouTube and thought “someday…”

Then I came across this quote.

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It made me think about what I was capable of. And then I realized why I’d never bought myself a unicycle and why I’d never tried to ride one.

For twenty-five years, I lived with a partner who didn’t think I was capable of anything. He didn’t think I could be a successful writer, or a good mother, or a skilled editor, or an inspiring teacher. Even when I clearly was all those things, he insisted I was not. He second-guessed every independent decision I made and never once told me he was proud of me. When we divorced, I told him I’d be fine. He snorted, “No, you won’t.”

But I am. I am more than fine. In the past few years, I’ve learned just how capable I am on my own. I sold my house and bought another. I dealt with evil realtors and surly bankers and the odd rules of court. My son needed surgery at a special clinic in another state, so I arranged it and financed it. I launched my oldest kid into college. I held my little family together.

Turns out my kids were watching the whole time. And they always knew what I was capable of. So when I asked for a unicycle for mother’s day, they didn’t try to talk me out of it. They didn’t undermine my confidence by asking, “are you sure?” Without any hesitation or debate, they pooled their money and bought me the exact model I wanted.

They gave me more than a unicycle. They gave me a symbol. Every time I ride it, I’ll know how much my kids believe in me. No matter how many times I fall off, they expect me to get right back on again.

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I’ve been practicing twenty minutes a day, wobbling up and down the driveway, clinging to the garden wall. Losing my balance, falling off, getting on again. But I’m not giving up.

I’m going to learn to ride this unicycle.

Because I can do anything.

About the Author: Alex Kourvo is a freelance editor. She is finding her balance.

How to Make a Protest Sign That Doesn’t Suck

You don’t have to be an artist to make your sign a work of art.

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Marches are a regular part of my life these days, and every good protester needs a sign. I used to just grab a piece of cardboard from the recycling bin and throw some words on it. My signs were legible, and my message sincere, but my designs left a lot be desired.

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With three protests in April, I needed to up my sign-making game. After all, if I care enough to march, I care enough to make a good sign. The problem? I don’t have much free time, I refuse to buy any new materials like stencils or paints, and I’m terrible at art.

So I had to figure out a way to make a decent sign in less than an hour, for less than a dollar, with zero artistic ability. I’m not saying my method—or my sign—is the best. But it is a cut above my recycled cardboard ones, and looks quite good for the amount of time/money/effort I put into it. Want to make one too?

Here’s what you’ll need:
Poster board (One sheet cut in half to make two signs)
An index card
A ruler or yardstick
Markers, pencil, and scissors

I had all these things on hand except for the poster board. That cost me 79 cents.

Here are some optional things:
Tape
Artwork printed off the internet
glue

Here’s how to do it in ten easy steps:

1. Decide what your sign will say.  Shorter is better! The experts say fewer than seven words is ideal. My sign for the tax march says “No one is above the law.” That’s a message I think we can all agree on!

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2. Measure your space. Now that you know what you want to say, you know how many letters per line you’ll be writing. Be sure to count the space between words! In my case, I was doing two words per line, so my longest string was “is above.” I’d need eight spaces for that.

3. Do the math to figure out how big each letter should be. My poster board was 14 inches wide. Therefore, each letter could only be 1.5 inches wide. (8 x 1.5 = 12 inches, plus .25 inches between each letter for a total of 14 inches.)

4. Make a rectangular stencil out of your index card. I made mine 1.5 inches wide and 2.5 inches tall. That’s the orange rectangle in my photo.

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5. Very lightly, in pencil, trace around the index card as many times as you have letters. For me, that was 6 boxes for line one, 8 boxes for line two, and 7 boxes for line three. Remember that the space between the words counts as a box! (Also: I discovered that with fewer letters on lines one and three, I could make those boxes slightly bigger. But let’s pretend for this tutorial that they were the same.)

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6. Now you have neat little boxes to make your letters in. Every letter will be the same size and you won’t run out of room. A good artist would simply freehand the letters at this point, but I am not a good artist. I penciled in every letter. It didn’t take long and made me more confident with the markers. Make your letters really thick! Thin ones can’t be read from far away.

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7. Color in the words with markers. This is always my favorite part. I love to color.

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8. Erase the pencil lines. Also my favorite part.

9. How about some artwork? Here’s my big secret. I simply found an image I liked on the internet, printed it, cut it out and glued it to my sign with glue stick. Done! The sign is ready to be carried to the march. But what about that second piece of poster board?

10. If you want to, you can use the other piece of poster board to make a second sign. Tape the signs back to back, and put a yardstick (or a cardboard tube) in the middle for a handle. Your sign will be more visible if you carry it above your head.

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Have a good march! Make new friends. Yell really loudly. Connect with important local organizations. Remember to stay hydrated and always clean up your trash. Peaceful assembly is your constitutional right and speaking truth to power is one of the very best things Americans can do.

Especially when our signs don’t suck.

About the Author: Alex Kourvo is a freelance editor. She finds protesting an important part of being a good American citizen.

[Update: Want to see more of my signs? Click here or here.]

Unexpected Tools for Writers

Some non-writing things that help me write better

Most writers use the same tools to get the job done. We all have a library of how-to books, both inspirational and instructional. We all have computers with useful software. Many of us also have things like kitchen timers for writing sprints. But I use three tools that most other writers don’t. I’ve been using each one less than a year, but in that short time, they’ve become essential.

1. Alphasmart Neo.

Remember these from the 1990s? Before laptop computers became affordable, these little word processors were state of the art. I thought they were outdated, but after hearing my friends rave about them, I decided to try one myself.

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The Alphasmart has a keyboard and a tiny screen. You type, the Alphasmart saves your text, and when you’re done, you use a USB cord to transfer the words to your computer for editing. It weighs almost nothing and runs on three AAA batteries that last about six months.

I love it because literally all I can do with an Alphasmart is type. That means no Twitter, no Google to “just look up one little thing” (that leads to hours of browsing), no email. Even better: I can’t really edit on the Alphasmart. Scrolling backward is tedious, and not worth it for more than a few sentences. It’s much easier to just write myself a note in the text, telling myself to fix it later, and then push forward.

You can’t imagine what this has done for my productivity. I’ve gone from 1000 words an hour on the computer to 1500 an hour on the Alphasmart. And I think they are better words, too.

Back in the day, when these were new, they were a couple hundred dollars. Now you can get them used for $35. Amazon and eBay always seem to have a dozen or so, but they aren’t being made anymore, so the supply is finite.

2. Fitdesk

Writing is appallingly sedentary. People always tell beginning writers that the secret to success is “butt in chair.” Unfortunately, that’s also the secret to numerous health problems. But what choice do writers have? We need our fingers on a keyboard, which means we need to be sitting still. Some people use a standing desk, but that doesn’t incorporate movement.

Even worse, I live in Michigan, where the winters are cold and dark. If I want to get out for a walk, I have to use limited daytime hours, which are also prime writing hours.

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A Fitdesk solved that problem neatly. It’s an exercise bike with a desk on it. Now I sit and pedal and the more I write, the fitter I am. The pedals are silent, and not at all distracting. I’ve had my Fitdesk for six months, I weigh five pounds less than I did when I got it, and I feel amazing. I’m no longer thinking about what I’m missing by not exercising outside. I just pedal and write.

3. Gunnar Glasses

Although I write on the Alphasmart, I edit on the computer, staring at a screen for hours at a time. My eyes always gave out before my creativity did.

Until I got Gunnar Glasses.

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They look ridiculous. I don’t care.

The glasses block the blue light and glare that can cause “computer vision syndrome.” When I wear my Gunnars, I can edit for a full day without eye strain. Plus, I think they are a subconscious signal to my mind. Glasses on? It must be time to work.

I don’t need these three things to write. Give me a pen and a piece of paper and I will happily write anywhere. But I like having these tools.

One helps me write faster.

One helps me edit longer.

And one makes me happier while I do it.

Who wouldn’t want that?

About the Author: Alex Kourvo is an editor-for-hire who is passionate about helping writers.