Switching to Colemak

Automattic has an abnormally high density of non-QWERTY typists. Matt types Dvorak and pretty vocally supports everyone taking the time to learn a layout that will help us be efficient and ergonomic. Not everyone sees increases in speed, but its very common to see reduction in wrist pain after switching away from QWERTY.

As part of the new year resolution phase, a lot of Automatticians decided to finally make the jump to either Dvorak or Colemak. Since I’m on paternity leave, I thought I might take the same leap. In 2014, I briefly attempted a switch to Dvorak but with some frequent needs for fast typing it wasn’t very successful. While the baby doesn’t let me have long periods of concentration for any serious projects, 20 minutes of typing practice here and there, along with a cold turkey approach, was something I could accomodate.

Colemak, I Choose You

My previous failure with Dvorak was the biggest reason I chose to try out Colemak this time. Learning the following facts helped seal the deal:

  • Only 17 keys change from QWERTY to Colemak (33 change with Dvorak)
  • Many of the ones that don’t move are low-frequency keys you’d have a harder time practicing anyway
  • Punctuation largely stays the same, so it doesn’t really require practice
  • Z, X, C, V all stay the same making it easy to not change my shortcuts for undo, cut, copy, and paste.
  • My Macbook already had the Colemak keyboard layout pre-installed, which I had no idea was the case.

LearnColemak.com

My first steps were using Chuck Smith’s Learn Colemak in 9 Days lessons. They’re not anything too crazy, just a prompt followed by a plain HTML textarea for you to type in.

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The biggest downside to these is that there’s not much by way of stats or validation as you go. If your browser has spellcheck running, that’s what you’ve got. It’d be easy to make a mistake and never know it. The upside is that they’re free, simple to use, and get the job done. I completed the lessons in five days instead of the proposed nine and got good enough to stop switching back to QWERTY.

I sent a message of thanks to Chuck and he replied saying how fun it was to receive so many brief messages from new Colemak typists. I guess I wasn’t the first to email him while still typing uncomfortably slow.

Typing Club

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Once I felt comfortable touch-typing in Colemak, I started using the lessons at Typing Club. Right now everything there is QWERTY-focused, but you can turn off all the aids and just use it as typing prompts. I really liked how you got little mini updates on words while you typed in addition to the final stats at the end. I liked their design enough that I went back and did all the QWERTY lessons too, just keeping it in Colemak. Things like “jfjf fjfj dkdk kdkd jkjk fdfd” are simple in QWERTY but really challenging in another layout, so I think that was actually time well spent.

Beyond

Once I completed the prompts at Typing Club, I found myself regularly typing upwards of 45 words per minute with occasional moments of true speed. I was now an average typer who happens to use Colemak, which is not a bad start. However, since I’m used to typing several thousands words a day for work at an average of over 70 wpm, this was nowhere near the end.

Since then I’ve had daily bouts of typing practice, mostly using news articles and blog posts as prompts. Combining my reading desires with my need to practice just seemed efficient. Most recently, I’ve started trying to catch up on the lore of the Magic: The Gathering universe. Those stories are simple fiction that don’t require much consideration, so they make for good prompts. I can focus on the typing and I’ll assuredly still catch the plot.

The last hurtle is really thinking-and-typing more often instead of typing out words I’m reading. While I can now type out a prompt upwards of 50wpm, thinking about my own words and typing is always much slower. I’ve got several blog post drafts going, so hopefully that will provide me enough practice to rejoin the elite typists’ speed.