I don’t use a Qwerty keyboard any more. I didn’t know that there was any alternative until I stumbled across one towards the end of 2013. Having just moved across the country to a city where I didn’t know anyone, I had plenty of free time to try something different.
The Dvorak layout is supposed to make touch typing a whole lot easier. All of the most common keys, such as the vowels, are right under your fingertips so you don’t have to stretch awkwardly for them. It’s easy enough to have a go: you can change the settings on your computer to map the keys to different letters, which is most commonly used to help type in different languages. There are alternative English layouts available too, however – of which Dvorak is one.
Being able to touch type has always been a sort of weird ambition. It does seem a bit ridiculous to me that so many of us spend so much time using a keyboard, yet so few of us know how to use it properly. I have made half-hearted attempts to learn in the past, but the Qwerty layout always felt so unintuitive and cumbersome. Dvorak appealed for that reason, and the claim that you could learn how to touch-type (albeit slowly) in about ten hours was enough encouragement for me to stick with it. And so it was that for those first few months in a new city, between meeting as many new people as I could, I would spend evenings on the sofa practicing my typing.
This was all well and good. You feel as though you’re making real progress when you can see your words-per-minute gradually creeping up every time you repeat an exercise, eyes locked on the screen, brain forced into overdrive as it struggles against years of reinforced muscle memory to forge new connections. The problem was, this was an all-or-nothing exercise: learning how to type again could not be confined to an hour in the evenings on the sofa; I had to force change on myself during office hours, too.
This made work hell. I felt utterly crippled by my slow typing speeds, and the amount of mental effort required to type out a brief, “Hey, are you about?” on Skype. Not to mention the fact that the exercises I had been using may have taught me the alphabet quite effectively, but had completely missed out punctuation, which made writing code a whole new level of torment.
It was a baptism of fire. I bought tiny labels to stick over the keys on my keyboards, so I wouldn’t be tempted to look down or revert back to Qwerty. I did make the concession of marking out the punctuation keys though with a black pen, which turned out to be not so permanent after transferring much of the ink to my fingers after the first day. It was a necessary compromise.
Perhaps one of the most confusing aspects of making this slow, painful transition was deciding what to do about my phone, a device that I do enough typing on not to be ignored. I was using an Android phone at the time, and I did dabble with a Dvorak keyboard for a short while, but it didn’t last long. Typing on my phone needs to be quick and easy, and in the end I switched back to Qwerty and trusted my brain to still manage to adapt on a physical keyboard, which is, after all, still quite different from typing on a phone.
Interestingly, now that my typing speed is back to normal, this has developed in an interesting way: the Qwerty practice I kept on my phone has meant that I can now do both. If I’m using someone else’s computer, I have no trouble adapting back to my old habits quickly, but if I switch the computer settings to Dvorak instead, I can start touch-typing again. I do find it difficult to type with Dvorak when I’m looking at the keyboard, though, even if the keys have the right letters on them.
In the end, it took around a year for my typing speeds to recover to levels that weren’t infuriating on some level, and throughout I kept the little stickers on the keyboards of every computer I used to force myself not to cheat. It wasn’t particularly fun, but I appreciate the effort that I put into it now – and the patience of my colleagues when I made weird typos or took half an hour to send them a one-paragraph email.
At around the two-year mark, towards the end of last year, I splurged a fiver on some new stickers for my keyboards, as a sort of graduation present to myself for finally being able to touch type at a reasonable speed. These stickers are clear so you can still see the Qwerty letters through them, but they have the Dvorak layout printed in one corner: the best of both worlds. They look a lot nicer, too.
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