Finally Touch Typing With Dvorak

l never learned to type “properly” with a standard QWERTY keyboard. Oh, I gave it a try, getting hold of the Mavis Beacon software, circa 1992, and getting thoroughly frustrated typing nonsense like “fff jjj fjfj jjff” over and over again, never feeling like I was getting anywhere. Over the years, I’ve been able to achieve a respectable forty or fifty words per minute with two-fingered hunt and peck, although there hasn’t been a lot of hunting needed for years. “Eagle Finger” has sounded more appropriate. It never seemed likely I could get close enough to that kind of speed with disheartening touch typing exercises, and I never felt I needed to.

Then my wrists began to hurt. It never occurred to me that it would be possible for a two-finger typist to suffer such problems, but it is. Simply the sheer number of keystrokes covered with the distance my entire arm was moving added up to a lot of strenuous exercise. I had to do something, but a QWERTY course wasn’t going to cut it. I’d quit before I felt competent, just like I’d done in the past.

Then I thought about giving the Dvorak layout a try. The story behind why we have the QWERTY layout is astonishing. It is essentially based on an effort to slow the typist down to avoid jamming the early mechanisms; it seems ridiculous that we are stuck with that legacy. Dvorak studied film of typists in action and the frequency of letter use in English, and produced an alternative layout that is both faster and more comfortable.

KB_United_States_DvorakThe ubiquitous QWERTY makes the Dvorak layout appear utterly alien. However, part of the point of touch typing is you’re not supposed to look down at the keys. It is best just to dive in, and the genius of the design becomes apparent. Over half of all keystrokes are on the home (middle) row, with vowels on the left hand, consonants on the right. In the very first lesson, you can be typing real words; it’s comforting to discover words like “and” and “the” are among the first to learn, rather than at the end of all too many exercises in gibberish.

There are plenty of resources to learn the layout, although some are just converted QWERTY lessons; avoid those, they will just see you typing different gibberish. Sites like learn.dvorak.nl dive straight into words. You don’t even have to change your computer settings to start. The gtypist program comes with some excellent quality lessons, and is my recommendation. An hour every evening during my train commute saw me ready to switch my keyboard settings after two weeks; I hadn’t even learnt the bottom row by then. After a month I felt competent, and I’m never switching back. I’ve even switched my Android phone over, using the excellent Multiling O app. The most common sequences of alternating left and right work great for two thumbs too.

I never relabeled my keys, there was never any point – I rarely look at them; when I do the perplexed feeling of seeing QWERTY reminds me I shouldn’t be looking. On the Mac I use the DQ layout, which keeps those familiar cut, copy, paste and other keyboard shortcuts in their original places. It works in some places but not others; Eclipse for instance treats the keys in Dvorak position, command key or not. I doubt I’ll be bothering with this compatibility option much longer. There’s even a programmers’ variant that tweaks a few symbols such as those pesky curly braces; I haven’t gone that far. When I’m coding, the speed limit is set by plenty of things other than the typing.

206501020_057fb78f96_oI now also have a new insight on what comfortable keyboard usage is like. I have a better posture at my desk; I was astonished how a split keyboard felt even better. I have a Microsoft Natural Ergonomic 4000 at home; I very quickly made sure to get another at work. It’s now very easy for me to tell if my desk and chair are set up correctly. My wrists no longer hurt.

And the speed? Before starting, I took a speed test in gtypist to set a benchmark to compare my progress, and… I’m nowhere close to that yet. To be fair, though, my two eagle fingers have something like a forty year head start.

United States Dvorak image from Wikimedia Commons (public domain).
My new Microsoft Natural 4000 Keyboard image from Peter Cooper (CC BY-SA 2.0)

 

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