I just looked at my calendar the other day and realized that I’ve been typing full-time on Colemak for over a year now. I think that calls for a blog post.
What is Colemak?
In case you don’t know, Colemak is a modern, alternative keyboard layout. That is, it’s a replacement for QWERTY (the most common keyboard layout). To see the locations of all the keys when using Colemak, take a look at colemak.com.
The QWERTY keyboard as we know it was created for typewriters, and its design was optimized to prevent keys from jamming. As a result, common letters are placed further apart, increasing the distance that fingers and hands need to move while typing.
The purpose of Colemak is to make typing more comfortable and faster for typing English text. Since the jamming issues of the typewriter era no longer exist, Colemak is designed to minimize finger movement. It does this by putting the most common letters on the home row, utilizing your strongest fingers the most, reducing the “same-finger ratio” (the number of times you need to use the same finger for adjacent letters in a word), and so on.
Why make the switch?
Despite having spent many years typing, I never did learn to touch-type properly. I was completely self-taught and my typing was all over the place. My hands would fly around the keyboard, using my index and middle fingers almost exclusively. I had been considering learning to touch-type for some time.
I decided that if I wanted to put in the effort to learn to touch-type, I had the opportunity to choose a keyboard layout that would best suit the task. When touch-typing, by definition, you don’t need to actually look at the keys. Thus, I could simply change the layout in software, and I wouldn’t have to purchase a separate keyboard. It doesn’t matter that the letters printed on the keys don’t match the letters being typed, because I’m not looking at them!
This was not my first time trying to learn a new layout. A few years ago I tried to learn Dvorak, another very popular alternative, and after that I had tried to learn Colemak. Both attempts were unsuccessful.
This time, I made a real commitment to it, and a year later, I would say that it was finally successful!
Was it hard?
I started with a standard “typing tutor” web app, which gradually taught me to type English text on Colemak. I don’t remember when I started that, but it was several months before I started typing Colemak full-time.
I was pretty strict with myself about practising and building up muscle memory. I tried not to tolerate too many mistakes. I preferred to slow down and get it right than to do it fast and wrong.
Once I got a bit better, I started trying to use Colemak for specific things. I write a 750-word journal every day, so I started using Colemak for the first 100 words. Then, when I got better, I bumped it to 200 words. Then 300 words.
This was a really painful process. I was so much slower typing Colemak that it made writing my journals really difficult. My typing wasn’t able to keep up with my thinking the way it could on QWERTY. I would think of a sentence that I wanted to write and take several minutes to write it. There was no shortcut here, I just had to plod through.
Eventually, I started using Colemak for some day-to-day work. This is where I ran into a whole new problem: keyboard shortcuts!
Colemak is much better than Dvorak for most keyboard shortcuts. Many keys are actually in the same place (such as Z, X, C, V, B, and most punctuation). Only two keys switch which hand they use (P and E). But being a developer, and also using the Vim text editor, many of my shortcuts and terminal commands were completely different. This was a whole other class of muscle memory that I had to relearn, and it was very hard. Not as hard as the general typing, but it still took some time.
Was it worth it?
For me in particular, having not previously learned to touch-type, I can say that it is absolutely worth learning, regardless of the keyboard layout. I can type confidently and quickly without looking at my keyboard at all.
Colemak feels very comfortable. I don’t often have to make awkward movements with my fingers, and I type on the home row quite a lot.
To be honest, I’m not sure that I’m any faster typing Colemak than I was on QWERTY. Despite not typing properly on QWERTY, I had gotten pretty fast over the years. I’m not slower on Colemak, though, and I think I have the potential to get a lot faster if I work at it.
So if you haven’t yet learned to touch-type, you should definitely consider doing so. Especially if you are going to be doing a lot of typing in your career. It is well worth it. You don’t have to choose an alternative keyboard layout like I did, but it does have some very real benefits.