Saturday, July 13, 2013


Gone are the days of the typing pool full of ladies busily banging away on typewriters.

Now much, if not most, communication takes the form of texting by thumb.

If, though, you do any serious writing on your computer, you should learn to touch-type.

Here's how:

Astonishingly, given the technological innovation under the keyboard, almost all laptop, notebook and tablet computers in English-speaking countries still use the QWERTY keyboard adopted in the days of early manual typewriters. (In France they have AZERTY keyboards and in countries with non-romanized scripts they generally use the local phonetic system or a QWERTY keyboard).

The experience of people who use the QWERTY keyboard verifies that this is not the most convenient way to produce script. This is not surprising once you are aware that it was adopted not to speed up typing but to slow it down. On a manual typewriter (which many younger people may never have seen, let alone used), the letters are carried to the paper on a typebar activated by the appropriate key. The letter on the typebar hits a black or red ribbon which leaves an image of the letter on the paper below it.

Pressing keys that activated adjacent typebars in quick succession often led to the two typebars being stuck together so that they had to be manually separated before typing could continue. The QWERTY keyboard renders this less likely by slowing down the rate of typing.

When electrical typing machines were invented, the problem persisted, until the advent of the IBM golfball. On the IBM electrical typewriter, a typeball made of metal carries all the letters and numbers, so there is no need for typebars. The ball rotates so that the letter selected by the key turns to face the ribbon and make the impression. This sounds complicated, but it can speed up typing by removing the possibility of keybars sticking together. By the time IBM had developed it, however, typists had become used to the QWERTY keyboard and there was no major move to replace it.

I am not entirely sure why computers use the QWERTY keyboard, but I can guess. First of all, there is the force of habit on the part of former users of typewriters, like myself. Having learned to touch-type with this layout, it might be difficult to adapt to a new one. Secondly, I don't know many computer engineers who can touch-type. The ones I have come across have almost all been of the "hunt and peck" variety. It is a pain to watch them trying to locate a letter or number in the time it would have taken a normal typist to type several words. (I will write about "techies" and how they can screw up your PowerPoint presentation if you let them, in a subsequent post.)

What you need to consider is that this technological conservatism is likely to persist. So if you want to do any serious writing such as a report or a book, you need to learn to type with the QWERTY keyboard on your computer. Only one in a million writers can produce a beautiful book by hand -- and his name was Wainwright.

Why not just "hunt and peck"? Because it's stupid to spend your time locating letters on a machine and jabbing at them with one finger on each hand when you could be enjoying a nice cup of tea or watching tennis on the television instead. Learn to touch type. Just do it.

So how can you learn to touch type? Do you need some special talent to do it? Of course not. Look at all the people who can touch type. Do they fit your picture of the average genius? Probably not. It's rather like driving. Until you've done it, it looks daunting. Once you can do it, you wonder why you didn't learn earlier.

You can probably find lots of expensive and extensive courses teaching you how to type. Unless you're so rich that you have run out of things to waste your money on, like slot machines (which have a 40% advantage to the house) or have so much time to fill because your life is vacuous and you don't have any other people in it, don't bother with these.

You can teach yourself.

And it doesn't take long.

If you really want to learn in a week, you can do it. If you would rather dither, you can take six months. I know which I prefer, and did. And that was in the days of the manual typewriter, years before desktop computers became available.

Go to your local bookshop, or to, and find a book that has exercises that start with single letters and then move on to increasingly large combinations, starting with things like "fj". If you want to use software instead, then do so, but use Google to find a free teaching program. It will do the same as a book but may have some interactive features that are nice to have but not necessary.

Then block off as much time as you can, ideally several days (consecutive, one lump of time, not spread over weeks). Tell your loved ones that you are not to be disturbed during that time unless your house is discovered to be in the direct path of a large asteroid.

You will need to take frequent breaks to let your fingers relax, so don't work continuously for several hours at a time. Schedule short breaks to coincide with your other tasks.

Then start with the first exercise, typing the single letters while looking only at the computer screen, not at the keyboard. I can't emphasise that last bit too much. If you look at the keyboard, you will never learn. I was fortunate to learn on a typewriter with opaque plastic covers on each key so that you couldn't see which letter was on the key. The covers had different colors to indicate which finger to use, such as blue for keys requiring the middle finger. I haven't seen anything like it for computers, so the next best thing is to discipline yourself not to look at the keyboard.

Do not jump to a later exercise until you have mastered all the previous exercises. In other words, start at the first page and go forward as soon as you are completely comfortable with touch-typing that page. Touch-typing is a mechanical skill you have to learn incrementally. If you want to learn why, look up "synapse" on Google or read a short book on the psychology of learning. Keep leaps of faith for religion, politics and taking advice from lawyers.

Aim for regularity, not speed. If you find you are straining to find a letter and then the letter after that, then suddenly you can type several letters very quickly, you are not learning correctly. You should slow down so that you are typing at a regular speed. You will need to type faster, but you should only increase your speed after you have managed to keep up a regular pace.

After a week of doing this, you will be able to type complete sentences without looking even once at the keyboard. If you know someone who has been typing with a teacher, for example in an evening class, you might like to compare typing speeds. If you have followed the above instructions, you should easily win such a contest.

From then on, make sure to use your new skill every day. Don't revert to Neanderthal hunting and pecking for emails. If you do, your capability will be eroded. View all your writing tasks, however small, as opportunities to consolidate and develop your touch-typing.

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