Why can’t you type?

If you can type at 120 wpm or more then you can feel pretty pleased with yourself as you read the rest of this article. But the evidence would suggest that your typing speed is actually considerably less than this.

How can this be? Surely as a writer you get plenty of practise?

Yet most of us still tap away using two, three, four, maybe even six fingers. We might just about manage a word a second (60 wpm) if we’re lucky, and we have to stop every few words to fix the mistakes. Most of us are probably in the 40 – 50 wpm range, even on a good day.

You might argue that this is as fast as your brain goes anyway, and your typing speed comfortably matches your thinking speed. That’s a fair point. However, based on the standard of typing I’ve seen amongst writers, and the amount of effort it takes them, and the number of mistakes they have to go back and fix, I can honestly say that most writers’ typing really is holding them back and slowing them down. They’re achieving much less than they could.

In fact I carried out an experiment at the Annual Writers’ Conference in Winchester the last time I was there. On the ideas4writers stall I offered a rather nice bottle of champagne to whoever could type the fastest. I provided a set piece of text. All they had to do was copy what was written on the card – or get as far as they could – within one minute. No thinking required – just type. If they wanted to read what was on the card before starting the test they could, though most people declined. There was no entry fee.

Now, bearing in mind that there were around 450 writers at the conference, and most of them passed by¬†my stall, surprisingly few were willing to take on the challenge. Only twelve in fact. Everyone else who passed by declined to take part. “No,” they all said, smiling sadly and shrugging, “I can’t type. My typing is rubbish.”

Of the twelve brave souls who did take part, the average speed was 67 wpm. That’s about the same as I can manage with six fingers. (Oh, yes, I’m just as guilty as you are! More on this in a moment.) Even the winner only managed 86 wpm, which, although respectable, is nothing to write home about. Typing, it seems, is a very rare skill indeed amongst writers.

Now, the thing is, I used to be able to type reasonably well. I could easily achieve speeds of 100 wpm or more, with complete accuracy, without looking at either the screen or the keyboard. People used to stop and watch and make admiring noises as they passed my desk.

This amazing skill didn’t take much learning – just ten minutes a day for perhaps three weeks or so, using a copy of Mavis Beacon Teaches Typing. Yes, you feel awkward at first, forcing your hands and fingers into strange positions. And you feel terribly limited by the fact that you can only press certain keys with certain fingers, rather than any key with any finger, as most of us do. But once you get into the habit, you instinctively know where each key is. The correct finger reaches for it automatically, without you having to think about it or go looking for it. In fact you’ll often look back at the screen and find that you’ve typed an entire sentence without being consciously aware of it – spooky! Once you reach that stage you experience a massive increase in your typing speed, and you rarely make any mistakes.

I found that the mistakes I did make tended to be with words that sounded the same, rather than actual typing mistakes. So I might type the wrong version of “their” or “there”, for example. I was obviously hearing the word in my head somehow and my fingers were automatically transcribing that word without any conscious direction. Most of the time it worked perfectly…

And then… well, I don’t really know what happened then. Somehow I lapsed back into my old ways. I dropped down to six-fingered typing rather than ten. I pressed any key with any finger. I started making mistakes. I had to think about how to spell each word as I typed it. And my typing speed plummeted from over a hundred words per minute, back down to sixty or so.

At least I still know where all the keys are, so I don’t waste time hunting for them. That’s probably why my typing speed is in the sixties rather than the forties. And I can even type without looking at the keyboard if I try really hard, though I still make mistakes. But I make just as many mistakes when I do look at the keyboard.

The thing is, I know this is bad and wrong. I’ve experienced the joy of typing well and I would love to experience it again. And I know I could (and indeed should) do something about it. Mavis is only a click away, and she’s a fun program to use. I could easily start retraining myself. After a few weeks I’d be back up to 100+wpm again, and I’d be able to get so much more done in a day. I could certainly do with that!

And yet I still don’t do anything about it.

It’s not a question of my brain working at the same speed as I type. Those who have read The Fastest Way to Write Your Book will know that I advocate thinking about what you’re going to write (at least a few sentences, and ideally a paragraph or two) before touching the keyboard or picking up your pen. Then you can just hammer it out as fast as you can and move on to the next bit. (If you haven’t read the book, that’s a tip for free there, but there are still over 300 more in the book.)

That’s exactly what I do… but with only six fingers, and lots of mistakes. My typing is definitely slowing me down. There’s absolutely no doubt about that.

What I can’t understand is why. Why was I once a good typist when I’m now no better than most other writers? Why won’t I do something about it when I know something is wrong and the advantages are clear? Why won’t I make the effort when it’s hardly any effort at all, and quite a lot of fun really? And why won’t anyone else do it either?

I don’t have the answers and I wish I did. Maybe we need to form a support group and cajole each other into achieving higher and higher speeds.

Let’s all resolve to become better typists!


One Response to “Why can’t you type?”

  1. geoffnelder Says:

    I was one of the “brave souls” who took part in your how fast can you type experiment. I can’t remember my abysmal score now, but I was red-faced considering I am a touch-typist and can normally exceed 100 wpm without looking at the keyboard. I put it down to the “my blood pressure is always high when you do it, doctor” syndrome. That is, I was urging my fingers to type faster and so they tripped up. Flustered is the word I can’t think of…

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