09 Jan

Why I stopped using QWERTY and switched to an entirely different key layout

I’m prone to being into the cult of self-improvement. I keep track of how much I write via spreadsheets and have figured out when in the day I can write more, and when I am more creative. I have kept body weight, body fat, and tape measurements since 2003 (I an not super fit, if anything since 2008 I tracked because I had a heart defect and not allowed to exercise, so I had to be careful about fighting the pounds as they added strain to the heart and I wanted more life, as Roy Batty once famously said). I occasionally will identify things that bug me and set out to change them.

One of the things I had been suffering from over the last few years is wrist pain.

I love being a writer, but I hated that on days when the words would flow, I would end up back on my armchair with bags of ice wrapped around my wrist. So I decided that I would set out to attack it.

Part One: A Better Keyboard

First I decided to try a new keyboard. I had been using a Microsoft Sculpt for ages:

I really liked it, and when I briefly tried a flat keyboard again, went running back as wrist pain got even worse.

I had long been eyeing a Kinesis Advantage. The bowl-shaped tray for the keys seemed wild, but the reviews were so positive I kept a link to one bookmarked on my desktop for years. But the idea of dropping over $300 on a keyboard seemed far out. But then, I thought, how much would damaged hands cost me?

I used some old Christmas and birthday money I had lying around and ordered the Kinesis finally, realizing that if it worked it would be well worth the investment and I could return it if it was a total disaster. It came, if purchased from Kinesis, with a 30-day guarantee.

It looked wild when I got it. Taller and taking up more space than my trusty old Sculpt.

Right away, I saw that getting the keys broken up in the middle created a more natural spacing for my hands. The bowls for my keys also meant that my wrists dipped down, a more natural position for them to hold for long periods. The bowl of keys also meant that my fingers didn’t have to stretch as far to make a strike.

Having more keys for my thumbs was a bit weird at first, but I adapted.

Adapting to the whole keyboard was a trip.

I took a test of how fast I could type online before I ditched the Sculpt. It was about 70-80 words per minute, and I had a high accuracy rate of 98%. By comparison the average touch typer is around 41 words per minute with a 92% accuracy rate (that 92% accuracy rate would kill me, by the way).

Now to clarify: I don’t write fiction at that speed, that’s just how fast I can type words flashed at me on a screen on an online test. But it does give me a good idea of how comfortable I am on the keyboard.

My first day on the Kinesis, October 31st, my ass was well and truly kicked. The bowl shape meant the muscle memory of the fingers would often make me reach too far and trip over the keys.

By the end of the first day I managed to get back up to 41 words per minute. Enough to know that I could make the switch. I felt ‘slow’ and the keyboard felt alien, but I could see myself adapting in real time. I really wanted to be able to get past 55, but tripped whenever I tried to force it.

On the second day my speed kept improving and I soon hit 70 words per minute, though I kept tripping over the N and M key.

It took another six days before I hit my pre-switch comfort and speed levels:

So there, it took a week for me to make the switch.

Was it enough to make me fall in love with the keyboard?

Yes, because two things happened:

1) My speed kept creeping up. I didn’t notice it until I checked my speed again a few days later, I hit scores in the high 80s. Then a few days later, I logged a typing score in the 90s. And finally, 10 days after feeling fully adapted and 17 days after getting the Kinesis in the mail, I passed 100 words per minute on a typing test online.

2) My wrist pain fell off in those 17 days. And I was even able to write four thousand words in a day without needing to ice my wrists.

I was sold.

In fact, just getting a Kinesis may be one of the greatest writerly life hacks I’ve stumbled across. I radically increased my typing speed and decreased wrist pain in one stroke.

But, like Daedalus given wings and the ability to fly, I decided to see how close to the sun I could fly. I wanted more improvement, more help for my hands over the decades of typing to come. Because while the Kinesis would help me in my office, I still used the laptop keyboard when at the coffee shop, or traveling, or upstairs. And whenever I used it my wrists howled.

I decided I would abandon QWERTY…

Part Two: I rearrange all the keys on my keyboard!

So the thing about QWERTY is that it is not an efficient layout of keys and this is pretty common knowledge. When mechanical keyboards first came out and typers got faster and faster, the typewriters started jamming. QWERTY wasn’t, as some folk say, designed to slow typists down, it was more designed to scatter the more common combined strikes apart to prevent jamming. That results in forcing the typist to have to have more common keys scattered among less common keys, which is efficient for keeping mechanical systems working but not for the amount of travel the fingers do.

You can see this on the home row of the QWERTY keyboard:

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How many words can you type on the home row of a QWERTY layout?

About a hundred.

Most of the letters you have to type are on the rows above the home row where your fingers rest (52%). Only 32% of the strokes you make on a QWERTY keyboard are on the home row.

Contrast this to the Dvorak layout, where 70% of your typing strokes are on the home row, 22% are on the top.

Another issue that QWERTY has is an unevenness in the English language that often forces fingers to hurdle whole rows, hit the same keys with the same fingers, and only use a single hand for some long words:

QWERTY typing tends to degenerate into long one-handed strings of letters, especially strings for the weak left hand. More than 3,000 English words utilize QWERTY’s left hand alone, and about 300 the right hand alone. (Try typing exaggerated and greatest, then try million and monopoly). The underlying reason for this shortcoming is that most English syllables contain both vowels and consonants, but QWERTY assigns some vowels (A and E) as well as some common consonants (R, S, and D) to the left hand, and others (I, O, and U, plus H, L, and N) to the right hand. Hence, for about half of all digraphs (two consecutive letters) in a typical English text, QWERTY allocates both letters to the same hand.

There’s even evidence that this causes us to favor different words in our writing:

A past study published in Psychonomic Bulletin and Review tested the QWERTY Effect, even asking English, Spanish, and Dutch speakers to rate words. They found words that used right-hand letters were favored. They even asked people to rate made up words like “pleek” and “ploke.”

One of the sites that I found useful was Carpalx, a site that brings a lot of thinking together about various keyboard layouts into one place.

While CarpalX recommends a computer generated keyboard layout, I found that there were two already installed on my Mac laptop, both of which promised tremendous improvements over QWERTY. Those were DVORAK and Colemak.

Here is the Dvorak keyboard, invented in the 1930s:

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It puts more common letters on the home row and alternates the consonants and vowels to create an alternating strike system, which allows the other hand to move to position itself.

Dvorak is used by many super fast typers, and running a test of words typed on it (running the entire Gutenberg collection through a virtual test of it) showed it nearly halves the distance your fingers travel in a day compared to QWERTY.

Dvorak also has a lot of use in various circles, and it is usually offered in the keyboard layout of most Operating Systems, so it would be very easy for me to use anywhere I went.

Many keyboards will also come with keys in DVORAK.

But…

The idea of relearning not just letters, but all my punctuation, it daunted me.

Additionally, the N and S key, two very frequent letters, being on the two weaker right keys, meant that I could see some difficulty in adapting.

Lastly, I have a lot of muscle memory devoted to hitting CTRL and C to copy something with a left hand while mousing with my right. Losing that on the DVORAK looked like a tall order.

Which is why I decided on Colemak.

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Like DVORAK there was a strong lean toward alternating the vowels and consonants, with the vowels on the right. Most of the most commonly used letters are on the home row. That means that while one can make around 100 words with QWERTY, you can type almost 6,000 on the home row in Colemak.

I could type words like disorientation or station or tender all on the home row without ever moving the fingers about!

I also liked that the more common letters were placed under the strongest fingers. No S on a pinky.

That and I would not have to relearn all my punctuation and keyboard shortcuts, plus similar efficiency improvements, meant that I decided to adopt Colemak on November 15th. I switched my keyboard layout in the settings for Keyboard Inputs and there it was.

Cold turkey. Jump right on in.

Part Three: What is like to actually use a whole new keyboard layout?

Day one was spent memorizing the new keys. I had a print out of the new layout on top of my monitor and I started working with a new typing tutor. My initial speed was 10 words per minute and it hurt my brain.

But I figured I had only taken a few days to learn my new keyboard, so surely that showed I would be a quick study at this.

I thought all I had to do was learn all the new placements, and then it would be a case of building my speed up.

On day three I learned about something called the Colemak-DH variant.

Even after just three days of using Colemak, I noticed something annoying on my ergo keyboard: the most common digraph that I employ is ‘HE’ in the English language. On Colemak that meant hitting the H by moving the index finger over one, which pulled the middle finger over the N key with it in that motion. Then to strike the E key I had to reposition. There were enough other benefits, but that was a weakness on my ergo keyboard, though the travel distance was less noticeable and annoying on the more cramped laptop keyboard.

It looked like this:

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This was amazing, because my pointer fingers naturally slightly ‘curl’ and rest on the very bottom of their respective home keys. The folks behind the ‘DH’ mod argue that this curl makes the key right under your pointer finger a next best thing for effortless strikes:

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With D and H moved down for a curl and strike, I felt the new layout to be more powerful. Of course, I had to relearn things yet again on day three as B, G, V and M, K and J moved around. But the new layout scored very high, keeping the benefits of Colemak and getting rid of its one big pain point that made me really worried about adopting it.

My speed dipped again, but within a day or so was back into the low 20s:

Now, for me, typing at about 25 words per minute felt so slow as to be falling behind in work. I was drilling on the typing tutors, but a whole week had gone by and I didn’t feel like I was making amazing progress. I did not feel confident enough to type and get that ‘flow’ where the words appear on the screen as I will them. I had to think of a word, then spell it out, then think about the letters, and type those letters.

It was painful.

After quick, easy to see growth periods, I got stuck at just under 30 words per minute:

In my second week of the experiment I legitimately panicked. Unable to really type much at under 30WPM I briefly thought I would switch back to QWERTY for a few days to get work done. I tried to use QWERTY and couldn’t. I was torn between two worlds. I couldn’t type in either.

I freaked out.

I couldn’t write! That was what I did! To make money! To earn!

What an idiot I was, I thought. I broke myself!

Well, I was standing at the crossroads, wasn’t I?

One of the things I was learning was that muscle memory is what we use to type with, and just memorizing a new keyboard layout wasn’t the only thing going on. Learning each individual key, that would take me from 10WPM to about 20WPM. But, it turns out, to touch type, we have learned not just individual keys, but combinations of letters.

As I got above the 20 WPM speed, my fingers knew where the Colemak keys were, but when I tried to quickly type a combo, they would then type that combo out in QWERTY, giving me gibberish. So then I had to start memorizing and relearning combos. ‘HE’ is the most common. But ‘IE’ ‘EI’ ‘ED’ ‘ON’ ‘ONE’ ‘ION’ and so on and so on are all baked into my head.

In fact, when I taught myself to touch type 20 years ago I finished up at 35WPM. Over the 20 years, I had slowly burned more and more combos into my finger muscle memory, and that memory kept trying to take over the moment my mind wandered, got flustered, or tried to speed up past where it was ready.

I focused not on speeding up, after that, but on just practice. Just kept drilling, realizing that this was an extreme exercise in neuro-plasticity.

After a couple days I finally broke out of the sub-30 WPM doldrums.

I put in hours of practice every day. In fact, I undid the healing the Kinesis had brought to me. I got so obsessed with getting back to 70 WPM I started drilling 6,000 and then 7,000 and then finally somewhere almost near 9,000 words of quotes in a drill. I started waking up in wrist pain in the middle of the night. I didn’t understand what was happening until I pulled the stats of the typing tutor and realized what I’d done: written almost a novel’s worth of words in a week.

If I had this to do over, instead of spending two weeks drilling on the keyboard for over five hours a day, I would follow the advice of neurologists for the changeover and learning of a new physical skill: use the tutor for 40 minutes before bed, let the physical pathways develop in sleep. The rest of the time, slowly type as accurately as you can.

I went full obsessed.

By the middle of the third week I was as fast as an average typist and slightly more accurate, at 43 words per minute. By the fourth week I was able to get into the mid 50s. And that was when I took my winter break and a break to let my hands heal.

I would also add that there is a third layer (one is just memorizing where the keys are, two is memorizing common patterns) to learning a new keying system. This is that as one hand types, the other positions itself to hit the next letter. From about 50wpm and up, I noticed that my waiting hand moves to the old QWERTY position, so that even as a struck a Colemak as I switched over to it, I’d be placed on the wrong row! So that’s also being retrained now as well.

I now seem to be able to type in the 55-62 words per minute range, with about 50 being comfortable. I fall into the low 40s when I get tired or confused. My accuracy rate is high compared to the average touch typist, but still low for me personally. I am hitting 94-96% accuracy, and I prefer 99%. I feel like I am a month or so away from the old speeds, and sometimes I fall into a nice rhythm here and it’s like, ‘yes, there it is, that’s just typing without me having to think about it.’

My hands are slowly healing again from the stupidity of my typing drills, but it is not as fast as I would like. I wish I had not been so driven, but just went with the flow. I was so determined to make the switch as fast as possible it may have actually backfired and slowed me down and hurt my wrists. This wasn’t the fault of Colemak, but me pushing through pain due to being stubborn. I’ve done it before on novels for deadlines, I did it again here.

However, typing on the laptop doesn’t aggravate my wrists as much. And the keyboard feels… I don’t know, easier. Like the keys I need are always right nearby. The new keyboard on the new MacBook Pro has really sucked for me, I keep missing the right key, and with Colemak now, I am actually starting to not hate it.

Now, to answer some questions:

Part Four: Am I glad I did this?

Yes. If for no other reason than there are few moments in this world to retrain the core muscle memory of something you’ve done almost all your life. I could feel my mind pulling against doing something so profoundly new. I could feel new pathways being etched in.

I don’t feel so restricted by the cramped laptop keyboard now. I strongly suspect this will help me save my wrists some when using the laptop keyboard.

Do you think you will end up faster?

I’m not sure. In theory since more of the common keys are on the home row I might end up faster, but since I am using a whole new system I am probably going to take a while to get back to where I was.

What about when you need to use a keyboard on another computer?

That was a serious question I asked myself. But I mainly only ever use my computer. Plus other keyboards all have the QWERTY printed out on them, I can hunt and peck in the rare event I need to. My phone is in QWERTY, so I haven’t forgotten where the keys are, actually, I’m just slower at it. Eventually as I get stronger at Colemak I’ll go back and practice QWERTY again. I view it like being bilingual.

Would you recommend anyone else do this?

Buy a Kinesis keyboard and that gets you 90% of all the benefits, most likely. This is months of relearning something you’ve spent years learning. If you’re obsessed only with speed, you want to learn stenography. The machines for court reporters use ‘chording’ (striking two keys at the same time’) to get up to 225 WPM and higher, they move at the speed of speech.

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I just thought, after seeing so many writers with RSI in their later years, that a few steps toward ameliorating that would be something valuable for me to do. I don’t regret that down payment on my future at all.

Anything still frustrating about the switchover?

Yeah, the S key. If you looked at the images I shared you will note that the S key moved over one. Just one space. And the reason is a good one. But for some reason the most common mistake I make is to hit R instead of S. When I get going fast it it still the most common mistake I make and have to fix, or get flustered by.

I also have trouble with the M key a little, but I had trouble with the N in the same place on the Kinesis. On Colemak-DH, the K goes where the H is in regular Colemak, that means that words like ‘know’ require a single finger reposition. Because you hardly do that on Colemak compared to QWERTY it stands out a bit.

Mostly I have to remember to slow down and focus on accuracy because even though I have absorbed a lot of it, I still have 20 years of QWERTY lurking about. When I get tired, flustered, or impatient my mind falls back into old patterns and I start making mistakes… which makes me more flustered. Right now I still have to be a little mindful as I type.