Touch typing

by Roman Zolotarev

Hi, my name is Roman, and I am addicted to tools.

Do you type for hours every day like I do? Then let me share a year-long journey to the holy grail ergonomic typing. If you are looking for a new keyboard or considering learning an alternative layout, you definitely should read this. Touch typing can change your life (in a good way). Keep reading.

Long story short

I was “touch typing” with seven fingers for decades and managed to type at average speed with pretty poor accuracy. I tried so many times to learn proper technique; always gave up in a week. A year ago I decided: now or never. I had the only goal: to type faster, e.g. 100 wpm. Spoiler: I’m not there yet. Back then I was using QWERTY on Apple Wireless keyboard. “Okay, roll your sleeves, just memorize every key for every of ten fingers.” It took two days. I remembered all keys during that weekend. Typing speed plummeted to 10 wpm on the first day. I was “thinking” before pressing almost every key. I could type with 100% accuracy without looking, but that was very very slow. Next phase: typing lessons every day for an hour. From time to time I was typing with my seven fingers when I needed to get work done, but in few days I switched to ten-finger method cold turkey. I continued practicing every day at keybr.com and keyhero.com and finally reached 40 wpm in two weeks.

Phew…

As soon as I reached my original speed and accuracy, I decided to upgrade my keyboard to ergonomic one. Two months later ErgoDox arrived. And of course, I wanted to try alternative keyboard layout on it. After a quick analysis, I picked Norman layout: it’s easy to learn, and it significantly reduces distance travel from the home row.

Relearning. The speed dropped to 10 wpm. Recovered to 40 wpm in three weeks. Switched to ErgoDox full time. Played with ErgoDox layers. Ended up with a single layer solution. I reached 50 wpm in 40 days and stopped all typing lessons.

Norman learning curve

Today I am a happy ErgoDox user. My average speed on Norman is 60 wpm, and it is increasing very month. Slowly but steadily.

Lessons learned

Fast and accurate typing is a must-have skill for a programmer. I wish I’d switched to the right path earlier.

I am not the fastest typist, just a bit quicker than an average one. My achievements in terms of “words per minute” are very humble. Still, I can say the return on investment is overwhelmingly high.

Proper typing style

Better typing speed saves me few hours every week on code documentation, notes, and emails. Fast typing enables blogging: you can find an hour for a draft, but it is harder to find two. So the difference in 20 wpm can affect your productivity quite significantly.

If you are an average typist, you should invest few minutes a day in your typing lessons. Totally worth it. Focus on accuracy and practice every day.

Ergonomic keyboard

If you have a Mac, it is a good chance your keyboard is excellent. Apple keyboards are robust, compact, and quiet.

ErgoDox is louder and bigger. The primary benefit of ErgoDox is ergonomic. Surprise! As with any split keyboard, you can sit (or stand) straight, so your posture is healthier, and it is just relaxing.

My initial goal was just to improve my typing speed. Of course, high speed is necessary, but when I started using ErgoDox, I realized that the comfort is the primary reward: my hands, shoulders, and back are much happier now. Yes, ErgoDox costs three hundred dollars, but it is the best keyboard available today for this price, and the keyboard is the most important part of my workplace. If you are typing all day long, you can connect your awesome keyboard to a nine-dollar computer and be productive in no time.

ErgoDox Photo from ergodox-ez.com

Why EZ? Wrist rest and tilt kit. High quality. Excellent service. 2-year warranty.

I have chosen ErgoDox with Gateron Brown switches, blank DCS keycaps, and my custom single-layer layout.

Why Gateron Brown? Blue switches are louder than brown; other switches are not that good for typing. If you are not sure, browns are the great default choice.

Why DCS? Have tried DSA for a month, but during that experiment, accuracy was lower than with DCS. With sculpted keycaps my fingers “know” where they are, while it is a bit harder with DSA profile keycaps to find home row.

Family Profile
DCS DCS
DSA DSA

Why custom single-layer layout? Layout switch is an extra step I would like to avoid. Everything I need fits well into one layer (I even have one key left unused). By default, ErgoDox comes with a multiple-layer layout. I liked the idea and tried to use layers, but I found out that layer switching is expensive. You have to press and sometimes hold two or more keys simultaneously. I encourage every ErgoDox use to check single-layer layout first and add extra layers only when you need to assign more keys, and the base layer is full.

Why blank keycaps? I do not look at my keyboard anymore, so I don’t need any labels.

Alternative keyboard layout

I use Norman and like it better than QWERTY. I have not tried any other of layouts, and honestly, I am not totally sure if learning alternative layout worth it. What I am 100% sure I can learn any keyboard layout and be productive in two weeks. Layout or keyboard do not limit my speed. My fingers can move faster than I can compose words in English.

Why not stay with QWERTY on all my keyboards? Switching to a different layout and different keyboard helped me with breaking my bad typing habits. It is easier to learn on an entirely new instrument in a correct way for the beginning, that to fix those mistakes deeply wired into your brain.

How did I choose Norman? Two sources. First, people who already who use multiple layouts for years: Gary Bernhardt, Aaron Patterson, good review by Ted. Second, I compared Dvorak, Colemak, Workman, Norman, and even my custom layout with a keyboard layout analyzer (made by Patrick Gillespie). Norman was performing slightly better than others on my custom corpus of text.

One more reason I picked Norman: it is easy to switch to QWERTY and back to Norman in few minutes (I use QWERTY when I travel). Norman is just the fifteen-key difference from QWERTY.

Key Swap
D E I O L ; row
F T J Y N row and column
P H finger
K R hand — those were the hardest

Norman layout on ErgoDox

I use Vim with both QWERTY and Norman, and I do not remap anything in Vim. In the beginning, I had one annoying issue: HJKL on Norman are in weird locations. I was hitting U instead of J. That was such a painful week. Now everything is just fine.

Looking back, I am not entirely sure if all these layouts make any difference for my case. I can learn any crazy layout and reach an average speed in few weeks. But it won’t increase my speed beyond that level. Maybe I should try QWERTY on ErgoDox someday.

Level up

If you need to type at high speed for hours in a row, then probably you should follow Mirabai Knight and learn stenography. Beware: learning curve for steno is steep and you need a steno machine (or for the first time you can use NKRO keyboard, e.g. ErgoDox).

Conclusion

Typing can be fun if you can fix your bad typing habits. Earlier you start learning more rewarding it can be. Teach kids to touch type as soon as they start playing with the computer. This skill stays relevant at least for one more generation.

If you want to take away only one thing from my story: Learn proper touch typing technique today.

Recipe

  1. Take typing test on Keyhero.
    • Slower than 40 wpm? Practice 15 minutes every day for a month.
    • If your accuracy is lower than 95%, slow down and try to type as accurate as possible for awhile.
  2. If you type more than four hours every day, you better use an ergonomic keyboard.

If you are typing faster than 100 wpm, share your story. How do you do this? ;)

Ask me anything on Twitter.


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Further reading

A random illustration