Typing for nonconformists

Typing for nonconformists: By Alex Marshall. The Dvorak alternative keyboard is a boon for the aching hand.

By Alex Marshall
October 12, 1998 11:00PM (UTC)
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I'm writing this essay in a different language. It's called Dvorak.

The words in my mind and on the screen are coming out the same as always. But my fingers on the keyboard, the tool I use to translate mental words to written ones, are moving differently than they have over the last 20 years. My fingers are speaking Dvorak.


Perhaps it was an impending middle-age crisis, but at age 39, after a decade as a journalist and two decades typing everything from college papers to months-long newspaper projects, I wanted to see if I could do something as fundamental as shift my system of typing.

So I switched. "Dvorak" (pronounced duh-VOR-ak), to the uninitiated, is the more efficient keyboard layout designed by efficiency expert August Dvorak in the 1930s. With Dvorak, the letters are laid out to correspond, roughly, with their frequency of use: All five vowels, for example, repose under the left hand. Five common consonants rest under the right hand. Your fingers stay put more and cover less ground.

As I write this, my fingers are staying mostly on the middle row of the keyboard -- the home row. In Dvorak, 70 percent of one's typing usually happens there. This compares to just 30 percent on Qwerty, as the standard keyboard layout is dubbed.


It wasn't just a whim that prompted my switch. Although I liked the idea of typing more quickly and easily, I also thought it might ease my RSI (repetitive stress injury). Like roughly half the adult population, it seems, I am bothered by wrist and hand pain brought on by too much typing. I thought Dvorak might help.

Dvorak is also one of those visionary systems I have a weakness for -- one of those big "if onlys," like Esperanto, the invented language that its proponents hoped the world would adopt as a universal tongue. Or the Wankel rotary engine. Or the Macintosh computer. Or the flat tax. All these systems hold out the appeal that "if only" the world switched over, everything would work better. They're frankly utopian visions: Someday, we will all use Dvorak on Macintosh computers as we write in Esperanto to our congressmen about the new flat tax.

But this particular revolution may indeed be coming. In the typewriter era, switching to Dvorak was virtually impossible: No one made typewriters with Dvorak keyboards -- and even if they had done so, you would have had to lug around your own machine to every job or place you wanted to type.


But with computers, all you have to do is change a file in the operating system and presto -- you have a new keyboard. Boosted by these possibilities, thousands of people around the country are switching to Dvorak. Dvorak has also inspired a dozen or so Web sites that promulgate its virtues.

The biggest boost for Dvorak came when Microsoft began pre-installing it in Windows. In most versions, you simply open the Keyboard file inside the Control Panel and then switch to Dvorak using the Properties file inside the Language selection category. (Depending on the computer, you may then be prompted to insert the installation disk to complete the switch.)


For this milestone on the road to universal Dvorak typing, we can thank two Dvorak fanatics, Linda Lewis and Randy Cassingham. Lewis is the founder and president of Keytime, a typing school and products seller in Seattle; Cassingham is author of "The Dvorak Book" and the online column This Is True.

A few years ago, Lewis and Cassingham journeyed across the water from Seattle to Redmond to meet with Microsoft executives and argue the case for Dvorak. It worked -- the 800-pound gorilla of operating systems began including Dvorak in Windows soon afterward. It was a huge victory for the Dvorak contingent. Before that, Cassingham said, to use Dvorak, you had to type in MS-DOS, because Windows would not recognize a software conversion to Dvorak.

My own dear Macintosh, I'm sorry to say, does not pre-install a Dvorak file. But switching is still pretty simple. You can buy a Dvorak file from Keytime or download one free from several sites, like this. Then, you just drop it in your system folder, and Dvorak becomes one of the languages you can switch the keyboard to, like Dutch or Finnish.


Just how many people use Dvorak? Hard to say, but far more people than ever have in the past. Cassingham said offices are studded with people who have switched to Dvorak on their own. Among the high-profile converts to Dvorak use is Nathan Myhrvold, chief technology officer for Microsoft.

Cassingham has been typing in Dvorak for about 15 years. At first, he relied on software conversion programs he wrote himself. "I'm a writer, and as a writer, output is money," Cassingham says. "I used to type on Qwerty, and my hands would be aching after a long article. My hands never ache now, even though I write a lot more. I used to type 55 words a minute. Now I type over 100."

But the Dvorak revolution has implications beyond helping freelancers make more money. Along with the standard Dvorak layout, August Dvorak also invented a one-handed layout for both the right and left hands. Microsoft now also includes these in Windows as a benefit for disabled users.


Switching to Dvorak is more an effort of will than of skill. When I switched a year ago, I gave myself one week for the task, during a break I had in researching a book. For those seven days, I dedicated one hour each morning to practicing Dvorak. I used a book and software package called "Skillbuilder" that's available from Keytime.

It was a scary time. There was that moment midweek when I found myself between shores, unable to type Qwerty, but still not having mastered Dvorak. My fingers felt awkward and clumsy. But at the end of seven days, I had learned Dvorak enough to do my work -- to walk, if not run, where I wanted to go.

And a year later? I count the switch a success, if a mixed one. My typing speed is only slightly faster than it was before. (I was shocked to learn, when I tested myself before I switched, that I was typing 90 words per minute in Qwerty -- I guess daily journalism is good for something.) I now type about 100 words a minute in Dvorak. Cassingham says I will gradually increase in speed and flexibility over the years to come.

Dvorak is integrated into most of my environment. It's installed on my Macintosh desktop and laptop. It even comes pre-installed on my AlphaSmart, the $250 word processor I use on the road. If I desired, I could buy premade Dvorak keyboards from several vendors. As it is, I've attached clear plastic letters, which I bought from Keytime, to show the Dvorak layout without hiding Qwerty.


My RSI is still there, but it has diminished. Under Qwerty, my hands resembled deranged spiders as they flew over the keyboard, making awkward stretches to this or that letter. Now, they are more like workers in a good union, as they hoe away at the main row.

Alex Marshall

Alex Marshall is the transportation columnist for Governing magazine and the author of "How Cities Work: Suburbs, Sprawl and the Roads Not Taken."

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