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Forsooth, facilitate fixing my four-fingered typing
February 5, 2007 4:53 PM   Subscribe

Help me break some bad keyboarding habits as painlessly as possible.

I'm a relatively young guy and a computer nerd both vocationally and avocationally, yet I have somehow (laziness is the most likely culprit) managed to learn how to type with only four fingers. How do I fix this?

I use the index finger of my left hand and the thumb, index and middle finger of my right hand to type. I am remarkably fast, proficient and error-free given the structural inefficiency of my hackneyed technique, and I don't have to look at the keys when I'm typing.

However, I recognize that I much slower than I could be, and also that I am courting repetitive stress injuries. So... how do I fix it? The bad habits are so ingrained that I find it intensely difficult and frustrating to try to involve my "inactive" fingers in the process. I've thought about switching to Dvorak and learning everything anew. Short of this, what are some other things I can do to retrain myself as a ten-finger typist?
posted by perissodactyl to Computers & Internet (24 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
You should be able to find a typing class at a community college. Or you can try any of dozens of "typing tutor" programs on your computer. They take you through the process of learning to touch-type. You'll need to be disciplined about using the finger they tell you to use, and doing the practice they tell you to do.

I would recommend against the Dvorak keyboard. You're better off sticking with QWERTY.
posted by Steven C. Den Beste at 5:06 PM on February 5, 2007

I'm trying to relearn how to type right now, and it really sucks. There's plenty of computer programs you can try-and-buy online.

You've just got to learn what to do and keep typing the right way np matter how much it slows you at first.
posted by Bookhouse at 5:08 PM on February 5, 2007

Thanks for the suggestions so far.

To clarify: taking a course is probably not an option right now. I'm seeking strategies I can employ during normal computer work time to "fix" my broken technique and retrain my brain.
posted by perissodactyl at 5:11 PM on February 5, 2007

It may be extremely lame, but I learned how to type (about 10 years ago or so) with Mario Teaches Typing (download available). That got the basic finger structure down and combined with a strict regimen of late-night AIM, I am now a fairly proficient typer (though not perfect with the HOME keys, as there's some crossover).
However, I feel that if I tried to change my typing habits right now, it wouldn't work too well; I would suggest that if you are error free (how many wpm?) then maybe you shouldn't change? Switching to Dvorak might make it easier for you to revamp your typing, but I have never tried it so I do now know. Good luck.
posted by shokod at 5:13 PM on February 5, 2007

If you know the basics of ten-finger typing (ie. the rules behind what you should and shouldn't do - use this finger for that key, use the shift with the left pinky for letters typed by the right hand, etc.)...

then the answer is simple:

Start making yourself consciously go back and re-type correctly anytime you find yourself typing it incorrectly. That is, start focusing on the times you break the rule and mentally punish yourself by backspacing, and then consciously typing it with the correct fingers.

I got into a couple of bad habits (still using all 5 fingers of both hands in my case), mainly around shift keys, but I was able to train myself back into proper form fairly quickly by using this technique. Still not sure if using the left pinky for shift when typing a capital "S" is faster than using the right one and hitting the "S" at the same time, but at least I know I'm following the rule I first learned as a kid, to a T.

Just typed that capital T with a right-pinky shift. Twice. Three times. Dammit.
posted by allkindsoftime at 5:17 PM on February 5, 2007

I'm in a similar situation, can type like the dickens, but in an odd manner. So I recently got one of them 'ergonomic' keyboards which is split in the middle, with the middle raised, which almost forces you to consiously re-learn typing, and physically breaks many inefficient habits. Its annoying as hell at the moment, and I keep making mistakes, but I can feel new, more efficient neural pathways being made as I get used to it. Its also much more comfortable, and makes you feel like you're controlling a space-ship.
posted by MetaMonkey at 5:26 PM on February 5, 2007

Learning to type properly is a frustrating experience. It feels bad, it is inefficient, and drives you nuts. It is also one of the best investments of your time and energy as a computer nerd. It really is as simple as learning the proper finger placement and doing lots of drills and practice the right way. There's plenty of free and cheap typing software out there, but you can probably do fine by looking at a chart of the appropriate fingers for each key, then blocking your view of your fingers and transcribing a book or news articles. Using typing software or printed lessons will be a bit less frustrating, as you will focus on the home row and your index fingers first. The advantage of just typing real text is that you get more practice typing the letters you will most commonly use.

Learning Dvorak has the added benefit of making it harder to rely on your bad habits. I found the process of learning Dvorak fascinating. I was already a proficient qwerty typist, and spent 1 hour a day transcribing an interesting book using the new layout. I tracked my performance, watching the power law of practice take effect. After 21 days, my Dvorak proficiency was high enough that I made it my primary layout. I currently switch (relatively) seamlessly between Dvorak and qwerty, depending on which computer I'm using.
posted by i love cheese at 5:38 PM on February 5, 2007

My wife calls my typing style "The Claw," because I type with three fingers on each hand. I don't think my style needs to be "cured," and I don't think yours does, either, provided you're going fast enough and not hurting yourself.

I tried going Dvorak, which is fine, provided you're going to use that keyboard exclusively, and you won't, because everyone else in the world will use QWERTY forever.
posted by frogan at 5:40 PM on February 5, 2007

I was almost 30 before I stopped using the 4-6 finger claw techniques I had used for 20 years. My chief reason for turning to Mavis Beacon Teaches Typing was so that I didn't have to look at the keyboard anymore while typing, and Mavis got me up to numbers and punctuation in a matter of a week or two. I type magnitudes faster than I did when I was a pretty good claw typist and I can look at the screen while doing it and be sure that I'm not making any mistakes.

Seriously, just get some junky typing tutor. There may even be free ones out on the web these days. I don't think the teachings are rocket science, so as long as there's something telling you what finger to put where and scoring on your spelling, you'll do okay.
posted by rhizome at 5:46 PM on February 5, 2007

I am remarkably fast, proficient and error-free .

Ok, so what's the problem? I've been a two finger typer since grade school, and am quite efficient and error-free as well. It has worked quite well for me, and despite typing the "wrong" way, I've never had concerns about my method.

I once tried to learn the "right" way using one of the software typing tutors, and only found myself slower, making more errors, and getting extremely frustrated.

If your current method works, why change it?
posted by galimatias at 5:51 PM on February 5, 2007

I made a decent living as a typesetter with a modified hunt-and-peck system I taught myself on an old Royal manual typewriter as a kid.

Anecdotal experience has suggested to me that moving your hands more around the keyboard is less likely to give you repetitive stress syndrome than the rigid position of touch-typing, but this is only from chatting with other people in that business.
posted by zadcat at 5:53 PM on February 5, 2007

If you're not a touch typist, this keyboard might help a bit. It's completely blank. Not only might it help your typing, but if you're a geek I think you'll appreciate it for other reasons.

I'm a touch-typist who is lucky enough to use all fingers, but I still have trouble with some of the bottom row keys, (especially punctuation) and I've decided that my bad habits are probably not going anywhere short of something drastic like the above keyboard or learning Dvorak.

If you do decide to go the Dvorak route, that keyboard could also be really handy because it doesn't actually have the qwerty layout annoyingly placed on it, so you can switch back and forth.

This is basically what I had decided for myself, should I decide to finally break my own bad habits. The ergonomic keyboard also sounds like a pretty good idea.

I do not, alas, own one of these keyboards, but as you can tell, I want one! So this isn't a review, just a suggestion.
posted by ZeroDivides at 6:18 PM on February 5, 2007

I did take a typing class in HS and thought it was was well worth it. If you absolutely can't take a class, a typing program is probably an okay second choice. I've heard good things about Mavis Beacon, though I've not used the program.

I type with Dvorak. I made the switch in college and got used to it fairly quickly, though I was already proficient at touch typing with a QWERTY layout. When I made the switch to Dvorak I popped my keys off and rearranged them to the Dvorak layout. This made the angles wonky and I switched them back after I learned and no longer needed to look at the keyboard. I think the Dvorak layout is worth learning but I doubt you'll learn to touch type just by switching layouts.

To the Dvorak naysayers, I use Dvorak exclusively on my own computers but I can use QWERTY as well, when it's inconvenient or impossible to switch the layout. I'm a bit slower with QWERTY and have to look at the keyboard some, but it's not too tedious. If I'm on a QWERTY keyboard for half hour or so a lot of the speed comes back. I don't know if I'm unusual in that ability.

I've seen the keyboard ZeroDivides links to before and thought it looked pretty cool. I kind of wanted to get one since I can't look at the keyboard using Dvorak anyway. But it's expensive for what it is and imagine some sandpaper or a solvent on a normal keyboard would work just as well. Since you don't need to look at the keys it's not going to help at all.

You've really just got to learn to touch type the way a beginner does. It will definitely be frustrating at first because you'll be much slower than you currently are. But don't give up and don't ever go back to your current method, just to get something done fast that you need to. You'll set yourself back. That's why a class would really help because Ms. Beacon won't know if you're cheating. The downside to a class or a typing program is that they aren't set up for Dvorak, if you're really interested. I vaguely recall finding a shareware/freeware typing program that was aimed towards learning Dvorak so you might try to hunt one down.
posted by 6550 at 7:02 PM on February 5, 2007

I would recommend against the Dvorak keyboard. You're better off sticking with QWERTY.

I would recommend the Dvorak keyboard. I've been using it for about ten years now. It won't help you type faster compared to a QWERTY touch-typist, but it will keep you from hunting and pecking, but it will give you an opportunity to learn proper technique without the temptation to get lazy. And it will probably reduce the likelihood of repetitive stress injury.

Don't buy a special keyboard. Every modern OS can switch to Dvorak in software. Using a QWERTY keyboard will also keep you from cheating by looking at the keys. The way to learn Dvorak is to print out a small keyboard chart and tape it to the top bezel of your monitor, then go about your daily work. You must not look at the keys or you'll be back to hunting and pecking. When you're getting started, look at the key chart continuously and think about what finger to use for each letter you type.

Don't overtrain. Type Dvorak one or two hours a day, then switch back to QWERTY, until you are fast enough with Dvorak to do it full-time. If possible, type with Dvorak at night before you go to bed.
posted by kindall at 7:19 PM on February 5, 2007

My own touch typing technique is about as informal as yours. I can type quickly and reasonably accurately without looking at the keyboard, and after doing it this way for over twenty years, the only time I have never experienced anything even close to RSI is the few weeks after I first started using a wheel mouse.

It really is all about muscle memory and practice. I find myself making typing errors on nonstandard keyboards (notably the 5%-narrower-than-standard keyboards on some laptops that have real numeric keypads on the right), because my hands and fingers are making wrong assumptions about where the keys are; this happens even if I'm looking at the keys while I'm typing.

I second the idea that keeping your hands moving around as you type, and using dominant fingers to do most of the work, is better for your health than keeping your hands still and letting the fingers do all the reaching and stretching.
posted by flabdablet at 7:38 PM on February 5, 2007

Google "typing games" for numerous freeware games. Also, try your favorite stress release/relaxation exercise before you start so you might be in a more comfortable place to rewire your neurons.
posted by Burhanistan at 7:49 PM on February 5, 2007

I tried to type in the proper manner several months ago. I use all 10 fingers but incorrectly. When I tried forcing myself the proper ways I found that some keys I am not able to hit properly without twisting my hand only (I have above average sized hands). This was especially troublesome with the "p" key for me.

I support the above idea of retyping everything until you type it "properly", I used that technique and manage to fix the way I type "?". I use to type it with my ring finger but fixed that by continuesly correcting myself, and I must say it feels much better and more natural to type it with my pinkie.

If you use chat programs a lot then you can practice on there and you won't be wasting much time, or as a matter of fact, you can correct yourself ALL the time and eventually you'll make a habit of it.
posted by Sonic_Molson at 8:17 PM on February 5, 2007

nth the recommendation for a split ergonomic keyboard. While I am not yet a perfect typist, I got an ergo keyboard and typed with it in my lap for a couple of months. Looking down at your lap to consult the keys is hilariously awkward, so I found I had to learn to touch type at least a little bit. At this point I rarely need to look down even though my fingers jump around a lot on the keyboard. I think I use all my fingers, although when I think about it I type differently so it's hard to say. I think I don't use my pinkies as much as I'm supposed to...but I ain't hunting and pecking, that's for sure.

If you're anything like me you won't learn from a typing teacher. I knew I could get along perfectly well with the way I was typing so I had little incentive to change. The ergo keyboard was so much comfier (along with the fact that it was in my lap, a very comfy place for hands to reach) that I really had a reason to try to change the way I typed - so I could avoid reaching up to my laptop keyboard.
posted by crinklebat at 8:21 PM on February 5, 2007

As long as you're accurate and can touch type, what's the problem? I don't know what is with the elemenary obsession with the home row keys or whatever. I've found that exstensive use of AIM and a split keyboard has turned me into a touch typist through simple memorization of the keyboard and common words. I'm getting better simply by typing more without looking down. I dunno about repetitive stress injuries though, I could be full of crap. The right way to type is the way that works best for you, same as holding a pen (which I also do funny).
posted by MadamM at 9:37 PM on February 5, 2007

As long as you're accurate and can touch type, what's the problem? I don't know what is with the elemenary obsession with the home row keys or whatever.

The "obsession with the home row keys" is touch-typing.
posted by kindall at 9:55 PM on February 5, 2007

Since you don't really know how to touch-type anyway, I echo the suggestion that you make the touch-typing choice that'll save you hand-strain all life long: Dvorak. (Possibly, the new keymap might of itself serve to help you to break your old four-fingered habits, given that the old habits won't help you much at all, but I speculate.)

As many have noted, switching isn't some big deal that isolates you and your computer from the rest of the world. I've never owned a keyboard labeled in Dvorak. Mac OS X, Windows, the major Linux Desktops all offer easy ways to switch keymaps. It doesn't have to take much to switch it for someone else, then switch back to you. I can get by on QWERTY keyboards for short doses, but I'm not a touch-typist any more.

It's frustrating for the first couple of months, but you get fairly rapidly up to speed after that.

And find The Typing of the Dead. Nothing says keystroke accuracy like ripping holes in the rotting flesh of zombies.
posted by Zed_Lopez at 11:49 PM on February 5, 2007

If you want to try for more efficient four fingered typing, you could go with a Frogpad. (mentioned a few times before - I do not use one).

If you want something to practice typing with, Typing of the Dead is awesome. It's also easily findable at various abandonware sites. TYPE OR DIE!
posted by easyasy3k at 11:53 PM on February 5, 2007

Just stop looking at the keyboard. It's slower for a while, but it speeds up. When you no longer need to look, it's amazing how much faster it is- and you fix your mistakes as you make them.
posted by Four Flavors at 9:58 AM on February 6, 2007

One more vote for Dvorak. After my schools failed twice to persuade me to type QWERTY properly, with their cute tutorial programs and stern warnings about proper form and all, I finally taught myself proper finger placement. But I also entrained a Bad Habit, namely looking at the keyboard to help myself identify keys. Subsequently I tried to break this habit, both by force of will and by the use of yet another cute tutorial program. In all such efforts I failed miserably. But discovering abcd, A Brief Course in Dvorak, gave me the confidence to try learning Dvorak. (Gah, I sound like a testimonial in a weight-loss infomercial.) In the end I didn't actually use abcd—I just went cold-turkey with a printed-out chart and a changed OS setting—but it was nice to have it as a safety net. (During the cold-turkey phase, I had to use some shared computers I could not reconfigure. I avoided confusing my fingers by temporarily reverting to two-finger typing when I was forced to QWERTify.)

Here's the result. The first twelve to fifteen hours of typing in Dvorak were mind-bending. Then it suddenly (like, over the course of two hours) became much easier, and I started building speed without even thinking about it. (The oft-quoted statistic is one hour of practice for every WPM you previously had in QWERTY, but really it's a little faster.) Once I was comfortable in Dvorak, I gave it another hundred-plus hours of exclusive use before I (reluctantly, out of necessity) reintroduced ten-finger QWERTY to my life. Dvorak is now my system of choice, and I have successfully evangelized a roommate to it and seen him learn it in a similar timeframe. Although with his friggin' eidetic memory, he only had the chart out for about an hour. Show-off.
  1. I type connected text faster in Dvorak.
  2. It's enormously more comfortable.
  3. It deters people from inviting themselves to use my computer.
  4. I think it loosened up my synapses somehow, in that I subsequently learned the basic use of the Cyrillic keyboard with less pain than my early Dvorak learning.
  5. Most relevantly, my Bad Habit does not exist in Dvorak-land. I can honestly touch-type, and the gains in convenience are enormous.
  1. Because I'm too lazy/cheap to change all my keycaps, I'm impaired in the tap-it-out-with-one-hand department. I can do it—with my 'wrong' hand, even— but not as fast as I can on a labeled QWERTY. I have to square up on the home row with both hands if I want to type anything quickly.
  2. If you do use the cold-turkey pedagogy, the avoid-QWERTY phase may have pitfalls, like those shared computers at the library or the lab, and you've got to use dorky kludges like my two-finger schtick.
  3. The easier it is to type, the worse my can't-shut-up problem gets.
  1. Dvorak does not help me type code and commands as much as it helps me type text. Still helps with the word-like portions, but the more the code looks like line noise (yes, I'm a Perl weenie), the less difference it makes vs. QWERTY.
  2. If I remain too lazy/cheap to make my keycaps match my typing, the loose-synapses bit will probably help with picking up either of the Dvorak one-handed layouts. cue a young Dvork Vader:'Keycaps can't save you, Eritain. Only my new powers can do that.'
  3. Like 6550 above, I use Dvorak exclusively on my own accounts but can still type QWERTY just fine. Give me a ten-minute warm-up, and my QWERTY speed is past 80% of my Dvorak speed. (Not as comfortable, and 1% erroneous-and-uncorrected, but still....)
  4. This is the big one: My previous bad habit helps me keep my keyboarding styles straight. If I'm looking at my fingers, I quite unconsciously start using QWERTY strokes. If I look away, the Dvorak strokes come right back. I believe you'll find the same thing: When your left hand is down and your right hand in position, you'll type Dvorak. Curl your left hand up into pointer position, and I bet your four-finger trick will come right back. So you needn't worry that learning Dvorak will 'debilitate you in the real world' or anything like that.
There may be those who were able to sort things out by just firmly deciding to use proper form, practicing with a typing program, getting a teacher, et cetera, but for me, making a clean break with Dvorak was just what was needed.
posted by eritain at 3:06 PM on February 6, 2007

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