Keyboards, touch typing, dictation

Shawn Blanc has done some research on keyboards for the Macintosh and written an exhaustive piece on using them as a professional writer: Clicky Keyboards. It’s not clear from the piece if Shawn is a touch typist but my guess is he is.

In 1985 I witnessed my friend Steve Splonskowski (still in college) typing at lightening speed on the awful Macintosh 128K keyboard. He was looking at the screen and typing away and it was a thing of beauty. I wanted to type like that so I bought a copy of the keyboarding instruction program “Typing Intrigue” and started playing the rain game (type a letter as it falls from the top of the screen) and quickly moved on to typing odd practice sentences.

At that time I was starting to contribute articles to early computer magazines and between that writing and early email with AppleLink, bitnet and a few other email networks I had enough of a writing load so that within a few weeks I was able to leave hunting and pecking behind. Once I’d made the transition to touch typing my speed and accuracy went down for a while but as I felt more confident and kept my eyes comfortably on the screen and my writing the feedback loop between fingers and brain got tighter and faster. The more writing, the better it got and as a person who had avoided writing for most of my life, a computer and touch typing was like opening a dam: writing spilled out of me on a daily basis.

The way to become a better writer is to write more. If improving your writing tool (a keyboard, a pen) helps then improve it.

Touch typing has changed my life by being one (important) part of the process of getting my ideas outside my head and encoded into writing. Before computers, keyboards, and touch typing my image of myself did not include “writer.” Here’s a now dated piece I did on the mechanics of this experience: How Computers Change the Writing Process for People with Learning Disabilities.

At some point, maybe after I’m compost, touch typing will probably go the way of cursive handwriting but until then it’s a useful skill to have and if you have it the layout and feel of your keyboard is an important part of your writing experience.

One of the things that will send keyboards and with them, touch typing to their grave is dictation: being able to talk to your computer, iPad, iPhone or whatever and have the device type out (encode) your voice. We used to call this “speech to text” or “speech recognition” but the single term “dictation” will no doubt supplant those awkward phrases.

I bought a new iPad (3) for one reason (not the screen): it has dictation capabilities. I’ve been using dictation quite a bit on my iPhone 4S and I’m finding it quite useful and it’s quite good on the new iPad as well. However, it’s a very different writing experience from touch typing and so, my brain is making a feeble attempt to adapt. I really like the tight feedback loop that happens with touch typing and dictation is a different kind of experience. We’ll see how touch typists like me adapt (or not).

No doubt we’re in transition: I’m touch typing this on my MacBook Pro’s keyboard which works quite well for me and for any longer piece of writing/editing I’ll probably be using this tool but for a lot of the other writing I do I’ll just as easily be using the iPad or iPhone with dictation (or with their awful but useable onscreen keyboards).

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