A quick guide to quick typing

A quick guide to quick typing

9/20/08

Kenneth Burchfiel

 

Throughout our lives, we receive plenty of education on what to type. It is the question of how to type that does not get enough attention.

One could make the argument that how fast one writes does not make much of a difference. After all, if it takes someone an hour just to write a thousand-word paper (an average rate of fourteen to fifteen words a minute), their actual typing ability does not factor into the equation—seeing as they could easily match that typing rate with a pencil.

This argument, however, makes the pretense that typists go at the same rate for hours on end; in truth, writing is better modeled as a series of pauses punctuated by moments of intense—sometimes furious—typing. It’s those moments of fury that require one to be proficient in typing, lest a great thought or a chain of ideas for a paragraph slip away.

 

I invite anyone reading this to look at the keys below their fingers—should they be near a computer. If the top row of keys reads “QWERTYUIOP,” they’ve got a problem they might not even know about.

The QWERTY layout was developed more than a century ago for typewriter models. With all due respect to the inventor, Christopher Sholes’ layout has since become outdated. It puts some of the most-used keys—E, R, T, I and O—on the top row, meaning the hand must travel an uncomfortable distance to type even the most basic words. Simultaneously, it puts rarely-used letters like “K” and “J” on the middle row where they do not belong. QWERTY keyboard users use the top row, which requires hand travel, much more than they do the “home” or middle row.

At first, this may seem like an unimportant issue. But the more one must move their fingers up and down to type, the more strain they put on the fingers—and the less potential they have when it comes to speed typing.

With all this in mind, I recommend that anyone serious about typing quickly change the layout of their keyboard. (This is the point at which most will stop reading.) Going from QWERTY to a more ergonomic layout, in fact, is easier done than said. Windows and Apple computers both feature alternate layout compatibility, and rearranging the keys is as simple as popping the letters out with a knife and moving them around.

For about three years, I’ve used the “Dvorak” keyboard layout. Switching was as simple as taking a utensil and manually rearranging the keys, then going to the Windows control panel and changing the key layout. Since then, I’ve never looked back. At school, I can use online converters to type quickly; at home, with my keyboard configured for Dvorak typing, I can reach speeds of 100 WPM in regular typing—and 120 or above in typing tests. Best of all, I’ve rarely felt hand or wrist pain from typing at extended lengths.

Dvorak is the leading rival to QWERTY, but users looking to break the mold even further can try out the COLEMAK layout. This one is technically superior to Dvorak, but the achievement gap between the two is miniscule compared to the gap between QWERTY and either.

 

But neither the COLEMAK or Dvorak layout will make a hint of difference unless one learns to “touch type,” or memorize the key layout so that one need not look at the board while typing. With all due respect to the mathematicians of this world, I consider my ability in this field much more important than my skills in trigonometry or calculus.

There are more typing programs than there are sushi bars in Tokyo, but all of them are, more or less, the same: by starting with the most frequently used keys and extending outward, they teach users—letter by letter—to memorize the board. Some programs have elaborate tracking systems, incorporated games and voice narrators. Others, like the 1995 HTML program I used to learn Dvorak, are East German in their appearance but do just as fine a job.

The specific program one chooses, in the end, does not make a difference. What matters is that they use that program to its fullest potential and emerge with the ability to type while looking at the screen.

 

These two measures get one 85 percent of the way to their full typing potential. This final step can be eschewed if one is satisfied with their current keyboard, but important nonetheless.

Most keyboards—and most cars—perform more or less the same at slow speeds. The plastic keyboard that came from your computer and the steel-frame, mechanical-switch, ergonomic-everything product you can buy online will each feel about the same at 30 or 40 words a minute. But for typists capable of hitting 80 WPM or above, the specific keyboard one users begins to make a difference in their final score.

Keyboard styles can be separated by two main categories: keyswitch technology and physical key arrangement. By far, the majority of keyboards use rubber domes to pop depressed keys back up and feature three straight rows of letters. This setup works fine for infrequent typists with a WPM score in the 30-60 range.

A plethora of keyswitch alternatives exist on the market. Take “Buckling Spring” boards, for example. These keyboards use actual springs to recoil keys to their original position. Because springs do their job much quicker than standard rubber domes, the keyboard is more responsive and less susceptible to “mushy” typing, in which one’s fingers sink into the keys and have trouble getting back up. Mechanical boards register strokes using actual switches, not just the wire membrane technology found in most buckling spring and regular keyboards.

Both of these technologies result in faster typing for two reasons: the keys are more responsive to finger input, and the “click” sound resulting from springs and switches helps the typist recognize when they’ve depressed a key. These are just two popular alternatives out of dozens.

My personal keyboard is standard in terms of letter arrangement; like most devices, it has the letters and numbers in four parallel rows. For typists interested in a more ergonomic (and faster, perhaps) experience, there are a number of keyboards available with a V-shaped layout; the letter rows, split in the middle and curved inward, better match the natural hand position of typists. This theme has plenty of variations (search for “vertical keyboard” for an especially wild one), but all serve to make the typing experience more intuitive and easier on the fingers.

 

This guide is but an introduction to the world of speed typing, but it covers most of the steps interested typists should take to write faster. As for writing better… well, that’s a separate matter.

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1 Comment

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One response to “A quick guide to quick typing

  1. MichaelL

    What might shock the average computer user is the knowledge that Qwerty was originally published to reduce the speed of typing in the early development of the type writer, because the mechanical print keys kept getting stuck with a more efficient layout.

    Don’t gasp just yet, there is of course more to this story. None of the articles that relay the above information ever tell you that, the original users of Qwerty were happy with the layout, and were able to type at reasonable speeds. If Qwerty was that bad it would have been boycotted during the early phases of its development.

    The fact that Qwerty is still the most widely used keyboard layout in the world proves after all that it can’t be that bad, once you get used to it, and adapt your own typing style.

    Lastly – your article provides some great motivation to switch, but if it really was as easy to switch to a more suitable layout, and if the layout was really that much more suitable then don’t you think more people would have done it already. Don’t you think that education facilities would be teaching this new layout, rather than outdated old Qwerty?

    In all my 21 years of computing experience, I’ve never even met a person who uses anything other than Qwerty.

    Not that I have a problem with people using alternative layouts, diversity is a good thing after all. And so is matter of opinion, otherwise very well written article, and a great writing style.