Saturday, February 16, 2013

(Re-)Learning to Touch Type – the hard way

For years, I was a two finger typist.  I learned where each of the letters was on the keyboard and over time I built up to a speed of around 40 words per minute typing in this manner.  I know some people can get even faster than that, but that was my speed cap no matter how much I tried to go faster.

On one of my old computers, I had a typing program where when you were typing lengthy passages as practice it showed your current speed in the top centre of the screen. I think the software developer deliberately put the meter there on purpose, as a feature to get typists to push harder to increase the number and thus take away any thoughts of watching their fingers in action which you do to ensure the striking of the correct key until you learn to trust that your fingers will hit the right keys once the skill is ingrained.

My best friend was a touch-typist and typed everyday as part of her job.  She was always rolling her eyes at me whenever she caught me two-finger typing, and, knowing I had the typing program on the computer, would tell me I really should try to use the touch typing program and learn how to touch type. I agreed, but never did anything about it.

One day, she must have tried to prove her point, because she wanted to ‘have a go’ so she could work out what speeds she could get up to – it is one thing to have an official word per minute count, and a totally different thing knowing the fastest speed you can achieve (even if you can’t sustain it for long periods).

I watched over her shoulder as the ‘speedometer’ went from zero to about seventy five words per minute within seconds.  All the while, my friend was chatting casually to and occasional glancing at me as she typed the paragraphs on the screen. She was achieving this high speed comfortably, and told me that when ‘warmed up’ at work she usually typed even faster than this.  I didn’t believe it; her fingers were flying quite fast but she reassured me that ‘this is nothing!’

Five minutes later, she really got into it, and when she felt she was ready she told me to keep an eye on the counter so she could fully concentrate on typing, because every time you made a mistake in the program, you couldn’t move on until you corrected your error, and when this happened for her, the speedometer started falling and I realised she was trying to get it corrected and the speed back up before it hit zero.  Almost like if it hit zero it was game over.

And I watched as her speed got faster.  80... 90 ... 100 – I was super impressed at this stage, and excitedly announced her speed, but she wasn’t done yet – 110... 120!

I didn’t know human fingers could move so fast!  And at this speed, she had attempted to type a full sentence before she realised she had made a mistake and could slow her fingers down again to correct the error and build the speed back up again.  The highest I saw it peak at was 129 words per minute. Incredible! 

I was impressed, but not spurred on to undertake the boring typing lessons for my own self.  It took me a few years before I learned how to touch-type.  I enrolled in a Business Administration course at Tafensw while the kids were young and at school, so that I could develop some skills to allow me to gain some part time work during school hours once I completed the course.  Keyboard Basics and Keyboard Speed were two modules that formed part of the qualification.

I had a much harder time learning to touch type compared to my fellow classmates, because of my having been a hunt-and-peck typist for so long.  Other classmates had to learn where each key was, but I already knew.  And whereas in any other learning environment, already having knowledge is to your advantage, in this case, it was putting me ‘behind the eight ball’.

You see, I naturally gravitated towards continuing to use my index fingers and avoid using the other fingers which were weaker and not used to striking the keyboard.  I persevered, but had to cut back my speed to being just as slow as everyone else in the class. And I had to concentrate extra hard to make sure that the right finger was striking the right key.  By the time I had finished the Basic Keyboarding module, I no longer resented my teacher covering our hands with a sheet of paper to stop us from watching what we were typing because I now had the basics, but boy did I hate it while I was trying to retrain.  I learned, as she intended, to eventually trust my own abilities, and to allow my brain to remember that every time I see the letter ‘a’ for example, that it was my left hand little finger that had to be called into action, not any other finger, and that for the ‘e’ my middle finger had to stretch up one row.

I performed the worst in our (first) Keyboard test, which upset me.  I was never bottom of the class back when I was at school, and I didn’t like being one of two students that failed and had to repeat the test. The trouble was, I had not created new ‘neural pathways’ that overrode the ones already created, so at the time of that first test, I struggled.  Afterwards, my teacher suggested that I keep my speed lower than I could type and keep practicing to train my brain the new method. So I did this, and sighed with relief when I passed at 28 words per minute on my second attempt – you needed 25 words per minute to pass.

Fifteen years later, and I occasionally still make the odd typing mistake directly due to my past ‘bad habit’ hunt and peck typing on days when I am tired.  But my typing speed has increased to over 65 words per minute. (My last official speed test was about seven years ago and I have fastened up even more since then).

One of the (quirky, or is that eccentric) things that I did to help me improve my typing was that I started borrowing books of interest from the library, and would type up extracts or summaries of the key information that I wanted to be able to remember.  On one occasion, when I was really broke and unable to afford to purchase a really expensive helpful book on novel writing that was just so useful I really, really needed to have on hand (and not being prepared to steal the book in order to have it), I spent an entire weekend typing while reading the rest of the book (to effectively ‘kill two birds with one stone’ of reading the remainder of it and copying the book for later reference.) (A couple of years later, when I could afford it, I printed out the book I had copied word for word so I could read the hardcopy whenever I wanted, and then deleted the electronic file, because I could no longer order the book).

After typing that book that weekend, the frequency of my old habits arising causing me to mistype dropped noticeably.

So where is this post leading, you ask?  Well, I guess the point here is that as an author it really is best if you develop touch typing skills. And, I suggest you learn them from the onset because it is so much quicker and better to learn how to type properly from the get-go than to have to go ‘back to the drawing board’ later to try unlearn bad habits that never needed to have been learnt in the first place.

There are some days when I am ‘in the flow’ where even at seventy or eighty words per minute which I think I now type at, my hands are still slower than my thoughts – and it is frustrating if you make a mistake and ‘have’ to fix up your error (because otherwise the error will irk at you and ruin the flow eventually) which forces you to get out of your flow.

It only takes about two weeks typing for an hour each day for you to nail the basics of using the right finger for each key and to know where each of those keys are, especially if you ‘talk’ to yourself as you are learning, and ‘say’ the letter (in your head) every time you strike the key.  After that, it is all just about developing your speed and accuracy.

So if you are one of those authors (I know you are out there!) that do not yet know how to touch type, I strongly recommend you start to learn... now!  It will really boost your novel writing, not having to work at hunting and pecking the keys while trying to capture your storylines or notes.