Touch-screens, and now also voice, are becoming the main interface between us and technology and our output is not only being auto-corrected, but in some cases also written for us (think Google’s auto-complete for example). I find that being able to type in a clear and precise way is becoming more of a skill that requires care and nourishing and less of a simple side effect of using technology.
While complexity of devices that we use daily gets abstracted further and further away from us, resulting in convenience but also — restricted freedom, keyboard historically remains the most powerful tool for explicitly making machines do what we want. So until Elon’s Neuralink comes up with something groundbraking, I see touch-typing still as a truly valuable skill to invest in.
Although research shows that using more fingers does not necessarily imply faster typing, it’s the ability to look at the computer screen without interruptions, that makes all the difference. Ability to have simultaneous input and output has made my laptop feel more like an instrument, extension of myself rather than a predefined service that I happen to depend on.
So here I wanted to share how I went from juggling four fingers to touch-typing averaging 50–60 words per minute within couple months.
Many classical musicians are spending well over thousand hours in a year practicing their instrument which makes efficiency of this practice absolutely crucial. Theories on the matter are well fleshed out and rigorously tested.
As with any motor skill there are certain similarities, however I found that touch-typing and cello playing had striking resemblance! To show what I mean, I wrote a small typing exercise for left hand only and then overlaid keyboard with the fingerboard of my cello.
Here is the result!
From this learning experience I have isolated few but important points that should enable any person to quickly develop reliable touch-typing skill.
Everyone’s hands are different and so can be keyboards. Having everybody adhere to the same supposedly correct layout seems like an oversimplification for the sake of easier teaching. It’s important to come up with a layout that is comfortable for you personally and takes into account both shape and flexibility of your hands. This helps to mitigate any injuries that might arise from typing tension.
The easiest way of doing this is by placing index fingers on “F” and “J” keys while keeping palms rounded and relaxed. Then simply exploring which fingers are best suited for reaching rest of the keyboard. For example this is the traditional layout and the edited that I chose to use, since my thumbs are rather long.
It is also important to note that stretching (while keeping index fingers in contact with “F” and “J” ) is almost always preferred over jumping around since it becomes much more reliable even at medium speeds.
It’s alright to take time while deciding on a layout since muscle memory is as fast as it is basic and it works best when there is only one possible way of stroking a key. This also means that changing layout would take extra effort after it has been already practised.
Some characters or actions require modifier keys and in this case it is almost always a great idea to split the work between both hands. Spending some time on practising and developing muscle memory for these keys separately will save more time later on — when motions are combined.
If two keys of consecutive letters share a common edge it’s possible to optimise two motions into one sliding motion. The most common example in English language is “e” + “d” combination at the end of past-tense verbs.
In further attempts to reduce jumping around it is possible to lend the closest available finger. In common layouts this mostly occurs between index and middle finger since index finger tends to have higher amount of keys it’s responsible for.
It is possible to differentiate between two types of lending that I chose to call post-lend and pre-lend
- post-lend happens after the mitigated jump. This is more common version that most people, who have gained their skills simply by typing, are already intuitively using. An example of this would be word “greater” where index finger is swapped with middle finger in order to avoid the “g” -> “r” jump, which can be followed by a “r” -> “e” slide to revert hand into default position.
- pre-lend on the other hand means substituting finger before the jump that gets avoided. This is less common as it requires planning few characters ahead. I myself have been able to use this only in more commonly used words like “after” for example.
Finger lending has been copied directly from cello playing and from experience it starts to make notable difference only at greater speeds. However, it is best practised slowly which means that results might not be immediately visible.
Relaxation > Accuracy > Speed
Now this might be the most important point of them all and success of your practice will be directly dependent on these two principles!
- Relaxation is the key to Accuracy. Only relaxed movements are predictably repeatable. Anything that’s done with force will depend on muscle fatigue and one could find oneself being able to type accurately for 10–15 minutes max and seeing great increase in errors afterwards.
- Accuracy it the key to Speed The fastest way of learning to type fast is by tying slowly! Practising is like building a tower where slower speeds serve as foundation for higher ones. Any irregularities in slower speeds will have an amplified effect on higher ones setting a hard limit to maximum possible typing speed.
English language has on average of 4.5 characters in a word. Let’s imagine that a person’s goal is 80 words per minute, and he starts out with 96% accuracy. This would mean that by the time he reaches his desired speed he would be making a mistake every (60s / (4% ×(4.5 × 80))) = 4.2 seconds at best!
Library of Words
Obviously all of this substituting and sliding around won’t happen automatically after just understanding the principle of it. A nice way of incorporating this into your typing technique is creating a small library of commonly used words, for which you have figured out ahead of time, where to apply these techniques. Then this library can be slowly expanded, till at one point you will just start to use them without any thinking involved.
Why learn to type when you can Type to Learn?
Type to Learn
Now, when all the principles are set, it’s time to burn them into the muscle memory!
After looking at many available tools, I started my practice simply by playing type-racer games. However, I found that one of the reasons I was getting better, is that I started to memorise the quotes given by the game. Also, the competitive nature of type-racer made me prioritise speed over accuracy.
So I decided to write my own tool that would allow choosing the input text to practice on. This has been one of the best decisions since, not only I was able to practice language and terminology of my choice, but also retype texts that had to be memorised anyway.
If you happen to be using macOS, the app is called “Type to Learn”. It allows the user to choose his own text source to practice on. Typing Speed and Accuracy is tracked while colour of the text marks any incorrectly written words and stops progress till all errors are corrected. The app is available for free on the App Store and my LevitatingPineapple.com as a direct download.
- Learning touch-typing means creating an explicit model of movements in our slow, critically thinking part of brain and then burning this model into fast and dumb muscle memory through repeated and precise actions.
- I offered a mental structure for this model which consists of three layers where every layer depends on previous one(s). These layers are:
1. Personal Layout
2. Set of substitution rules
3. Library of commonly used words
- Touch-typing practice can be a great learning tool. Retyping similar texts to those, you would like to produce yourself can greatly amplify the effects of this practice, and also help with memorisation of the material.