My Experience Learning to Type Dvorak

In January of this year, I made a momentous decision.  Instead of typing like a normal, English-speaking person on the ubiquitous QWERTY keyboard, I decided to switch to typing Dvorak.  Dvorak, for those not in the know, is an alternate keyboard layout designed to minimize finger movement when typing.  It looks like this:

The Dvorak keyboard layout.

I would like to tell you that this was a calm and rational choice that I made after considerable thought.  I would like to tell you that my decision-making process involved a complicated cost/benefit ratio analysis, or some sort of rudimentary pro/con list, or more than a few hours of consideration.  I would like to tell you those things, but I would be lying.

While my choice was, perhaps, not the most reasoned decision I have ever made, it was, however, one that was a long time in the making.

I first started developing repetitive stress injuries in my hands way back in high school.  It might have had something to do with the fact that my chosen ways of distracting myself from a developing illness were obsessively writing short stories and obsessively knitting.  Within a few months of this behavior, I began having pain in my hands, wrists and forearms – especially my right hand.  Like the stubborn person that I am, my first approach to dealing with this situation was to soldier on valiantly, as if by sheer will alone I could cause the growing pain to vanish, leaving me to my obsessive pastimes in peace.

Once I realized the inevitable failure of this approach, I went full speed in the other direction.  I banned myself from knitting, stopped typing unless it was absolutely required for schoolwork, and took to wearing a brace on my right wrist whenever possible, often taking it off only in the bathroom and at night.  I also bought an ergonomic split keyboard and a gel wrist-rest for my mouse.  Within a few months, I was able to begin cautiously typing for non-mandatory things – though the knitting, sadly, was forever banned.

Over the years, the problems returned.  Or, rather, the problems would flare up; in truth, the pain never fully went away.  It would only take something small – a story that just had to be finished, a busy time at work, too much internet – and there I would be, back in my brace, downing painkillers, and sadly avoiding extra computer use.  I added other defenses to my arsenal: exercises, massage, pain-relieving gels, the works.  I learned to use the mouse with my left hand.

But, see, I write for a living.  All day, every day, I type – and so the pain remained.

One day late in January, after having to return to using the brace for the second time in about six months, barely able to work on my novel because of the pain, I just … snapped.  I was so angry and frustrated and afraid of the long-term physical damage that I might be inflicting by following my dream of being a writer.  I have friends who type Dvorak.  One told me that she had switched to Dvorak because of similar issues, years before, and her problems had been fixed entirely (if, admittedly, slowly).  She told me that it had been a difficult process, but one that had been totally worth it.  I wanted that to be me.

Oh, sure, I was supposed to be writing a novel.  Yet, my reasoning went, if ever there was a time to change, it was right then.  I’d just landed my agent, and Radiant was heading out on submission – but I didn’t actually have a book deal.  There was no publisher eagerly awaiting my next novel, no deadlines.  If I was going to learn to type from the ground up, could I afford to wait?

Besides, I thought, how bad can it be?

(Ha.  Oh, poor, naïve me.)

Let me be totally honest here: The experience of actually switching keyboards was absolutely awful.  I have heard and read a variety of stories of people switching, some of whom stayed with Dvorak and some who changed back.  Even so, I was totally unprepared for the extent of the emotional distress that I felt at this change.

I wasn’t the fastest QWERTY typist in the world, but I was certainly faster than average; I generally tested out at somewhere between 80-90 wpm. And, as I said, my day job required me to write for the better part of 8 hours.  Writing was central not only to my ability to make a living, it was (is) tangled up with my sense of self and self-worth.

And suddenly it was gone.

With one little choice, I went from my comfortable 80+ wpm, to perhaps 5 wpm. No, I am not kidding.  You know the hunt-and-peck thing you do when you don’t know where the keys are (or when you’re trying to type one-handed while on the phone or attempting to talk on Facebook while eating a sandwich)?  Impossible.  I had only a little printed sign of the Dvorak layout propped up against my laptop monitor and sheer determination as my guide.  Unless you want to type A or M, looking down is a guaranteed route to confusion.

Perhaps the biggest mistake I made was choosing to switch on a Wednesday evening, instead of after work on a Friday.  I could have done without those two days of extreme frustration at work.  (What happened at work and their response to their writer suddenly typing less than 10 wpm could fill an blog entry in and of itself.)

Within two weeks, I was typing about 30 wpm.  In that same timeframe, the pain I felt – especially in my forearms – had noticeably lessened, even though I was spending longer hours typing due to the need to learn and practice (though, admittedly, typing fewer keystrokes overall).  But, as I said in a slowly typed tweet, “What I didn’t anticipate was how deeply distressing it would be to lose my ability to type, even temporarily.”  I even had dreams where I tried desperately to write or speak, and my words all came out wrong.

But it felt – and I know that this sounds ridiculous, but it is true – that I should be better than this.  That, as a generally intelligent, stubborn, and hard-working person, I should have been able to just put my head down, practice, and get this stupid thing right.  I mean, it’s only changing a keyboard, really – how hard can it be?  So my daily flailing felt like a failure of me as a person.  I should have been better, I should have been able to getthis, but there I was, barely hanging on.

Yet I had just one rule: no turning back.  No confusing my poor brain with going back and forth between layouts.  That first night, I made my husband promise that he wouldn’t let me abandon Dvorak mid-switch – give me Dvorak or give me death.  There were many evenings that only Greg kept me going, pain be damned.  He reminded me of the long-term benefits, of the reasons that I’d made this drastic choice, whenever I became frustrated or despondent or questioned whether I should keep going.  (Which is to say, often.)

What followed was a slow process of regaining my typing speed – a very slow process for me, with many more speed bumps than my friends had mentioned.  During that time, I tried pretty much every “learn Dvorak” typing resource there was, and found that they ranged from useless to frustrating but acceptable for the basics.  I also tried playing some typing tutor games (Word Shark, anyone?), but after a long day of repeated failure in the office, games were little more than a surefire route to anxiety.

In retrospect, what kept tripping me up was my awareness of what I was doing.  See, typing QWERTY has a particular rhythm, a sound as your fingers hit the keys.  You hear it every day, even though you aren’t really aware of it.  With its entirely different layout, Dvorak typing has a very different cadence.  Any time I’d get into a rhythm, I’d hear that different sound and think, “OMG, I’m doing it!” At which point I became aware of the movement of my fingers, and everything fell apart.

Needless to say, writing fiction was a near impossibility. Previously, I had typed fast enough that it felt as if the words appeared nearly as fast as I thought them.  This is critical to how I draft stories – immersion in the sound and rhythms and flow of the words.  Typing slowly only netted me stilted garbage. (Not to mention that my awareness of the rhythm of Dvorak-typing-sound conflicted with the story-rhythms of what I was trying to write.)   And writing with a pen?  Oh, no – but that, too, is a story for another entry.

I have gone back, now, and re-read fellow fantasy author Holly Lisle’s entry on her experience switching to Dvorak, “With Fingers Struck Dumb.”  I read it before, but only now do I truly understand what she’s saying.  Yes, I think,yes, yes, yes, with every word and thought she conveys.  And, like her, now that I have switched I would never go back.

Perhaps I should praise my ignorance: if I knew how bad the switching experience would be, I don’t know that I would have had the nerve to go through with it.  Now that I have well and truly switched, I can’t think of anything that would make me go back.

I know some people switch to gain more speed, and I certainly believe that that’s possible – though, to date, I have only nearly regained my speed, not gone rocketing into the ranks of the world’s fastest typists.

But the pain?  That daily ache, the days when it hurt enough to keep me awake?  GONE.  Yes, I can still aggravate my wrists and forearms, but to date I have only done so by using the mouse with my right hand instead of my left, and by obsessively playing hours upon hours of Diablo 3 on the Xbox.

Let me repeat that: after more than 15 years of near-daily RSI pain from typing, a full day of heavy computer use doesn’t hurt at all.  And as a person whose career, livelihood, and self-identity is tied to typing, that is worth every single thing I went through to get here.