I’m Paul Herron, a full-stack developer and technical manager.
I focus mainly on back-end development with tools like Symfony
and devops with tools like Docker

I just relearned to type

by Paul Herron on 16 March 2014

I’ve been typing for nearly 20 years and only recently realised I’d been doing it all wrong. Although I could touch type in that I didn’t need to look at the keys, my technique bore absolutely no relation to the “proper” touch typing technique you’d be taught in typing class.

Mine was a bizarre method where I’d type every single character with my index fingers, except for the space bar which I’d hit with my right thumb, and Enter and backspace which I’d hit with my little finger. The result was an absurd amount of travel for each index finger, with each one darting around wildly to get coverage of its portion of keyboard. I’m not sure how but I made this technique work, and was able to go at about 60 words per minute. That’s not particularly fast but it’s pretty decent considering the daft nature of the technique.

I’ve got a couple of ideas why this happened. Talking to Sally at SHOWstudio (who types like a pro), she mentions typing lessons at school in the States, which sounds like a superb idea. A mechanical skill that’s tricky and tedious to pick up: what better group to teach that to than a captive audience with young, malleable brains? Unfortunately I have no memory of ever getting that sort of tuition myself in the UK. Did I skip school the day (or week, or month) this was taught and simply miss it? Perhaps my primary school assumed that sort of tuition would come later in my academic career, then my middle school assume I would already have been taught it in primary school? Perhaps this just isn’t something that’s deemed important in UK schools?

If I remember correctly I only really cottoned on in my teens to the idea that typing without looking at the keys would be beneficial. So I tentatively started doing that, with no particular sense that there was a “correct” technique for doing so. I definitely had no idea there were little protrusions on the F and J keys to help you out. Fast forward a decade or so and you have a professional developer who’s bashing away with a technique all day every day that’s just servicable enough to go unnoticed.

Even after I realised there was a correct way to do it – and that I was absolutely not doing it correctly – it never quite seemed worthwhile to go back the beginning and learn to type properly. I suspected it would slow me down and be immensely frustrating, for only a small potential gain. A few things eventually pushed me over the edge:

So two weeks ago I suddenly took the plunge and decided to fix it once and for all!

Typing online

The first thing I did was to get an overview of what the right technique was, because I still didn’t really know. Happily there are real people on YouTube who have been kind enough to record a video of themselves going through the basics. I love these sorts of videos and the many like them; it’s like having access to a mentor on any subject you could possibly be interested in them, and just watching something like that for a couple of minutes can tell you more than reams of text can.

Then it was onto an online typing course. There are many free options but typeonline.co.uk worked well for me. I spent about 90 minutes on those exercises in total, done in 3 sittings on separate days. Initially it was excrutiating – the site gives you a speed and accuracy report and I was getting something like the equivalent of 8 words per minute and 80% accuracy at the beginning, and I fail to see how I could have scored much worse than that if I’d never tried typing before at all.

Splitting the exercises over multiple days really helped though. I love that feeling when you come back to something the next day and your brain has magically made huge progress while you slept, presumably by crunching all that data it gathered during your practice session.

Cold turkey

The next step was to ban myself from using the old technique, which is something that worked very well for me when I switched to Vim as my main text editor last year. As you hit the learning curve of the new technique it’s massively tempting to revert back to the old technique. In learning Vim I (of course) found it horrendous and frustrating to use; then a bug report would come in, I’d need to do some quick coding and it would be too tempting to switch back to my old editor so I could code at full speed – skills progression be damned! With typing it was more subtle: I’d get into an animated IM conversation (yes I have those) or need to send a long email quickly, and the thought of typing it out inaccurately at 8 words per minute was so grim that I’d suddenly find myself typing the old way. But broadly speaking I managed to keep it under control and make the change of technique stick.

Mission accomplished, more or less

This is day 13 since I made the switch.

Days 1 - 3 were a real pain and there were moments I wanted to hurl my keyboard out the window. Days 4 - 6 were still slow but the feeling of being riled simply by typing had subsided. On days 7 - 8 I suddenly turned a corner, in that typing properly no longer felt significantly slower. The next few days just built on that and things felt more and more fluent.

Today, day 13, is another milestone in that I just tried typing the old way and whilst I the old technique hasn’t got “rusty”, it felt inhibiting, and not a technique I’d want to use over the proper way.

Once again I’d stress the benefit of splitting your progress over many days. Pretty much every day I was doing this, I’d have weird abstract dreams that night about typing (sounds sick I know – exactly the same thing happened when I was learning to fly a remote controlled helicopter, and again when I learned to inline skate – any new mechanical skill that involves rewiring the brain a bit seems to have the same effect). It would always correspond with waking up the next day and suddenly having made noticeable progress overnight while sleeping. Obviously I was refreshed at the start of a new day, but that only accounts for a small part of the improvement; most of it is down to the brain’s magical ability to work on things for you even when you don’t realise it’s doing so.

I’m still not quite as fast as I used to be: I just did a speed test and I’m doing 40 words per minute now. But for a couple of weeks practice that’s a turnaround I’m pretty happy with. I’m confident I can get that up to 60 wpm by the end of the month, and here’s hoping for the magical 100 wpm by the end of the year.

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