Ten Fingers, One Brain




Typing is a science as well as a skill, and ever since the invention of the typewriter in the 1800s there have been people studying the process. How does information come in through the eyes and ears and flow out through the fingers, and what happens in the brain during that transmission? If you think about it, it’s pretty amazing that people have all ten fingers moving quickly and accurately when touch typing. Actually, don’t think about it – there’s no time to “think” about each of the finger movements in typing, at least not once you’ve built your skill to a certain level. It’s all about automatic muscle movements, stored memories, and developing the ability to keep typing what you’ve just processed in short-term memory while absorbing the next set of information to type out.

In the book Cognitive Aspects of Skilled Typewriting (Springer-Verlag, 1983), researcher and editor William E. Cooper collected a series of articles by scientists and theorists about typing, and specifically about transcription. “Transcription” is the act of taking in words via the ears or the eyes, and typing them into a document. Other topics discussed include the amount of information kept in short-term memory; in general, people’s eyes move ahead of their fingers by about 8 characters. In other words, you “read ahead” as you type, but only by a word or two, and your fingers are typing what your eyes have just finished looking at, not what they’re currently looking at. With practice, a good typist can increase the number of words/characters in short-term memory. It’s an important skill for a transcriptionist, especially since most people read faster than they type. It’s even more important to increase the speed at which you can take in information through your ears and type it out. All this happens with a lot of practice, so take every opportunity you can to work on this skill. Even if you don’t have or want a job that involves transcription, it’s a good way to hone your overall typing skills.

P.S. If you DO want a job as a transcriptionist, read this post.


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Visit the Virtual Typewriter Museum




There’s a good chance that a person born after 1985 has never used a typewriter – and an even better chance that anyone born after 2005 never will. Once a staple of the business environment, typewriters have been replaced by computers in almost every office in the developed world. However, they’re still valuable resources in places where electricity isn’t guaranteed, and they don’t need an internet connection to work. Some people still hold on to their old typewriters because they like the way using them changes the way they work as writers. Other people see vintage typewriters as works of art; they’re often very complex and highly-crafted machines, and the amount of work that goes into making them isn’t generally appreciated. Of course, the amount of work that goes into making a computer keyboard is also underappreciated, but everything that happens in a computer is hidden and usually on a microscopic scale. It’s easier to see how a typewriter works, and watch the interaction between the keys and the letters that appear on the page when those keys are struck.

It’s also interesting to see how keyboards and typewriters have changed over the years, and at the Virtual Typewriter Museum, you can do just that. You’ll also get a good overview of the history of typing, the important people who played a role in bringing typewriters into the mainstream, and even a set of recommended resources if you want to learn more. Take a break from your touch typing practice and click over to the Virtual Typewriter Museum – you’ll get a new perspective on what you’re learning. You might even be inspired to look for a typewriter of your own!


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What is a Motor Engram?




“And,” you might be wondering, “what does it have to do with learning to type or improving spelling?” The answer lies in the connection between the mind and the body. You know that your mind controls the nerves and muscles that make your body move in specific ways – you can think that you want to pick up a book, and tell your arm to reach out and your hand to grasp the book. But when you think about it, do you really think about it? Most likely there’s no “thought” involved. You don’t consciously say, “Okay, now I’m going to extend my arm six inches forward and slightly to the right, lower it by 30 degrees, open the fingers of my hand, …” and so on. The act of “picking something up” has been encoded into a motor engram: a pattern of movement that is treated as a single unit. What’s more, the creation of this movement pattern is as much the work of the body as the brain.

Scientists have found that, just as repeated mental commands teach muscles to work in a certain way, repeated muscle motions translate back to mental stimulus. This means that when you do something over and over, it become automatic, and not something you have to think about. This “muscle memory” is what gives a ballet dancer the ability to perform complicated sequences of movements perfectly in time to the music in a performance. If the dancer had to stop and think “now I’m going to do this, now I’m going to do that” they would fall behind the music and the rhythm. In other words, your body can actually move faster than your mind, sometimes!

That’s what makes typing so important for people who want to improve their spelling. When you know how to spell a word, you’ll look at letter patterns, not individual letters. That means instead of spelling the word thoughtfulness as 14 separate letters, you’ll spell it as four clusters of letters: TH OUGHT FUL NESS. That’s because the TH combination is a common one, and there are many words that have the OUGHT pattern (drought, thought, bought, brought, etc.); NESS is a common suffix for adjectives. You might have to think briefly about the difference between FUL and FULL, but isn’t it easier to have only one spelling issue rather than many?

Here’s why learning to touch type improves spelling: the repeated muscle movements in specific patterns help embed those patterns in the brain and the body at the same time. When you have the right motor engram encoded in your mind, it means that the letter sequence OUGHT will be as automatic for you when spelling a word as when typing it. This is one reason why touch typing helps people with dyslexia. When dyslexia interferes with the way the eye processes letter patterns, typing allows a person to bypass the eyes and use the fingers instead. To remember a word’s spelling, simply imagine how your fingers move to type the word out, and you’ll be spelling it correctly.

Reference: J.A. Kleim, M.H. Monfils, E.J. Plautz. In search of the motor engram: motor map plasticity as a mechanism for encoding motor experience. Neuroscientist (October 2005)

Cross-posted at the Ultimate Spelling blog.


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Vintage Typewriters and the Art of “Slow Writing”




You’ve probably owned several computers so far, and it’s likely that they all looked pretty much the same. When the computer screen starts having display problems or the applications stop working or the keys on the keyboard finally get stuck in all of the coffee and crumbs you’ve spilled on them, you’ll make a backup of your files, find another computer in your price range, and make the switch. You probably won’t want to hold on to your old computer for sentimental purposes, or because it’s a work of art.

For people who use old-fashioned typewriters, it’s different. Authors who use manual typewriters say that they develop a relationship with the machine, and that the typewriter often takes on a personality of its own. The sound and feel of the keys contribute to a more physical experience, and the fact that early typewriters had no [Delete] key means that a writer either has to carefully think about and select their words, or just bash away in a free-flow mode without worrying about vocabulary and typos. Either way, writing is a more “hands-on” process with a manual typewriter.

In Los Angeles, Ermanno Marzorati repairs and restores antique typewriters for modern authors who like to do things the old-fashioned way. According to Marzorati, most of the repairs he does aren’t for collectors – people who buy old typewriters for their “vintage” value – but for writers who use their machines to create the scripts and stories that make them famous. Marzorati has repaired typewriters for author and actor Tom Hanks, and has restored machines that once belonged to well-known writers like Ian Fleming and Orson Welles.

Will a move back to “slow writing” mean more people return to using typewriters? After all, the “slow food” movement has led to more small-scale farmers around the world, getting back to a time when quality was valued over quantity, and the virtues of old-fashioned methods over modern efficiency is an ongoing argument in many other areas. Still, since even the best typist would find it hard to keep up with the speed of thought, slow writing doesn’t mean you have to give up fast typing!

You can read the full Agence France Presse article on Ermanno Marzorati’s work here.


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Free Thought, Free Speech, and No Delete Key




It’s so easy to edit, revise, and redo text using a computer that we often forget that the first typewriters didn’t have a [Delete] key. Once you pressed the key that activated the lever that struck a carved raised letter through a band of ink-saturated ribbon onto the waiting piece of paper, that letter was there on the page, and the only way to remove it was to scroll the paper up and scrape the ink off the page – or toss away the whole sheet of paper and start over. Some people think that without the ability to delete (or copy and paste, or any of the other high-tech typing tools we have today) people who were typing had to really think about what they were going to say, and pay more careful attention to the words they chose. On the other hand, there are people who believe that the easy editing possible with computer keyboards means that people who have good typing skills can just let their fingers fly quickly, keeping up with their thoughts as they arrive, whether or not those thoughts are in the best order or use the most descriptive words. In any event, what both sides agree on is that using a typewriter is a very different experience than using a computer.

In St. Louis, Missouri, Henry Goldkamp uses a typewriter to create “mobile poetry” for people walking by his table on the sidewalk, and now he’s put 40 other typewriters around the city to let people create their own words. One of the things he’s discovered is that people are more focused on the act of typing simply because typewriters are so foreign to most peoples’ experience these days that they’re almost afraid to press the first key. When you have to stop and think about how to say something, then you’ll probably spend some time thinking about what to say as well. Goldkamp plans to collect the thoughts of the sidewalk authors citywide through the end of this month. What do you think – will typewriters encourage people to let their words flow freely?

If you’re in St. Louis, you can get more information about the typewriter project here.


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5 Books About Typing




It’s always interesting to look at the history of some of the things we use on a daily basis but rarely think about. For example, take a look at the keys on your computer keyboard. Why are they arranged in rows like that? Who chose the order of the letters on each row? And why did people start to type instead of writing things out by hand? You can read about the history of typewriters and typing to get the answers to these questions, and you can also find books that feature typewriters and how they’re used as part of the story. We’ve listed five of these books below. If you know of any more, or of books that have computer keyboards as central plot elements, share them in the comments!

The Iron Whim: A Fragmented History of Typing (Darren Wershler-Henry)
A global and a personal look at the history of the typewriter, and the way that it has influenced authors and writing over the years.

The Typewriter: An Illustrated History (Dover Publications)
First published in the 1920s, this is a fascinating look – a real look, with pictures – at early typewriter models dating all the way back to 1829. Although the antique typewriters are no longer used, it’s fun to think about what they might look like when put into an ultra-modern setting in one of today’s high-tech office spaces!

The Typewriter Sketchbook (Paul Robert)
Another look back at the first typewriters, the people who invented and improved them, and how these machines were gradually incorporated into business use.

The Story of My Typewriter (Paul Auster)
Novelist Paul Auster has written many award-winning books, including In the Country of Last Things, The Brooklyn Follies, and Sunset Park – and he wrote all of them on his typewriter, a manual machine that he’s had for more than 30 years. In 2002, he wrote a short book about his faithful typewriter, illustrated with sketches and paintings by artist Sam Messer, which shows that the tools we use to write with can be just as compelling as the works themselves.

Typewriter in the Sky (L. Ron Hubbard)
A novel about a man who finds himself transformed into a character in a book that someone else is writing on a typewriter. Are we writing our own story, or is there someone else tapping out the keys to what happens next in our lives? Read this book and find out!


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Praktizieren, Practicar, Praksis – Using Languages To Improve Typing




When you’re touch typing, your fingers are moving to the letters that make up the words your eyes are seeing or your brain is thinking. Good touch typists have “muscle memory” that allows their fingers to automatically type common letter patterns, which increases both speed and accuracy. That’s why practicing with text written in regular phrases and sentences is a good way to improve typing skills – you’ll be forming the connections between the words as a whole and the order of the letters in those words, and essentially teaching your fingers to spell a word at a time.

You can look at typing from the perspective of letter strings as well, and not words. This is a more difficult way to practice, but it really helps you focus on the keys each finger hits on the keyboard. Even though it’s a challenging method, it’s a good one for even beginner typists, because it makes the letter-key-finger link directly and requires a lot of concentration. In order to eliminate any automatic word formation and focus only on the letters, you need to use a text that is written in a language that you don’t know. You won’t be able to guess which letters will come next in a word, and at first this will slow you down. However, you’ll find that you’re training your eyes to move more quickly and your fingers to be more accurate in hitting the keys corresponding to the letters that you’re seeing. We’ve provided three practice texts in different languages that you can use to work on your touch typing skills. (Note: You can ignore the accents and just type the letters that you see.)

En skrivemaskin er en mekanisk eller elektrisk innretning med et sett med tangenter som, når de presses ned, avsettes avtrykk av bokstaver på et papirstykke. En skrivemaskin har et tastatur med taster for hver bokstav og talltegn, festet til metallarmer; og når man trykket på tasten, slo metallarmen mot papiret, og avsatte bokstavens avtrykk gjennom et fargebånd. Selv om den fremdeles benyttes i mindre utviklede land er skrivemaskinen nå erstattet av datamaskiner for tekstbehandling, eller en PC med skriver.

Cuando Remington empezó a comercializar máquinas de escribir supuso que la máquina no se utilizaría para escribir textos creativos, sino para labores de amanuense, y que serían mecanógrafas quienes las utilizasen. Así, se imprimieron flores sobre la carcasa de los primeros modelos, de forma que la máquina fuese más atractiva para las mujeres. En los Estados Unidos las mujeres empezaron a incorporarse al mercado laboral con frecuencia como mecanógrafas y, según el censo de 1910, el 81% de los mecanógrafos eran mujeres.

Bei der elektromechanischen Schreibmaschine wird das bei der herkömmlichen Schreibmaschine kraftaufwändige “Tippen” von einem Motor unterstützt. Ein wesentlicher Vorteil ist auch, dass die Taste nur geringfügig heruntergedrückt werden muss. Das verringert bei ungeübten Schreibern die Gefahr, dass benachbarte Tasten versehentlich mitbewegt werden und sich die Typenhebel dadurch verhaken. Die Konstruktion der elektromechanischen Schreibmaschine entspricht jedoch im Wesentlichen der handbetriebenen Typenhebelschreibmaschine.


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Is KALQ The New QWERTY?




As computer screens get smaller, so do their virtual keyboards. The standard two-hand home row position that touch typists use to type quickly and accurately isn’t possible if the device you’re typing on isn’t even as big as one of your hands. People have been using their thumbs to text on these miniature keyboards, but this is a slow method of text input for most people. Even the world record holders for text-messaging don’t type much faster than 60wpm, which is nearly half of an expert touch typist’s speed. Designers and engineers are now looking for ways to make text input quicker on these smaller devices, and they’ve started looking for alternatives to the QWERTY layout.

Researchers at the Max Planck Institute For Informatics in Saarbrücken, Germany have designed a new layout they call KALQ that rearranges the letters according to thumb movement distances and letter frequency. The letters are split so that 11 letters are on the right side (including all the vowels) with the rest of the letters in a block on the left side, in order to minimize the amount of double-tapping; by maximizing the alternation from left to right, it’s easier to type. The layout is designed for right-handed people, but there are plans to build a mirror-image keyboard for left-handers as well. The research team says that this new layout will let people increase the average texting speed of approximately 20-25wpm to nearly double that speed, and that the people they trained to use this keyboard averaged 37wpm in texting at 95% accuracy.

The new KALQ keyboard was demonstrated at a seminar on May 1, 2013 at the ACM SIGCHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems in Paris, and is now available for Android devices. You can read more about the system and the theory behind it, and get the download, at the research team’s webpage here.


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How To Prevent Eyestrain




You can’t be a touch typist without using your fingers to accurately hit the keys, but you also need your eyes to successfully complete the typing tasks in front of you. Your fingers might know exactly what keys to hit to create the words you’re writing down, but if you’re trying to transcribe a handwritten letter from your boss into an official format, or spell-check a document you’ve already typed, then you need the use of your eyes. Healthy eyes are important for many reasons, including typing, but unfortunately typing itself can be a major cause of eyestrain. Here are some tips for keeping your eyes in good shape so that you can keep typing at top speed:

Fix the lighting in your office or at home, wherever you do most of your typing work. Make sure that the light fixtures are positioned so that there is no reflected glare on the screen, but that they are still providing enough light to see both the computer screen, the keyboard, and any paper documents you’re working with. Too little light is just as bad as too much, so don’t try to work in the dark, thinking that the glow from the computer screen is enough. This rule applies to all electronic devices you use, like e-readers; don’t read in the dark on line either. The contrast between the bright screen and the dark room will cause eye problems in the long run.

Change your computer settings to get the contrast right, so that the screen is neither too bright nor too dim. You can adjust the display size to make things easier to see so that you don’t have to lean forward and squint at the text on the screen, something that’s bad for your muscles and posture and also prevents you from typing quickly. If you need to adjust the font size so that the letters on the screen are larger, that’s easy to do in most programs as well as the main display controls. You can also change background colors if you need to reduce distractions.

Reduce eye fatigue by taking breaks more often. Stop what you’re doing – yes, you, stop reading right now! – and look away from the computer for at least 15 seconds, focusing on something that is at least 15 feet away. Do this every 15 minutes. In addition, if you find that your eyes are feeling dry, it’s probably because you’re not blinking enough. It’s easy to get involved in what you’re doing and just stare at the screen in concentration, but your eyes need to stay moist in order to work well, and the natural liquid from your tear ducts is the best way to keep them that way.

Exercise your eye muscles just like you exercise the rest of the muscles in your body to keep them strong and flexible. Typing requires a lot of back-and-forth eye movement as you track words on the screen or switch between the computer text and paper documents. Check out these eye exercise suggestions and practice them regularly.


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As Technology Enters The Classroom, Typing Skills Gain Importance




It seems like most children have a cell phone or smartphone these days, and many have tablets and internet-connected readers that they carry with them even to school. Schools often have rules about using these devices in class, and teachers sometimes even take cell phones away if the students are texting each other instead of paying attention in class. In some classrooms, however, the teachers are integrating these devices into their instruction, and the “Bring Your Own Device” rule is gaining popularity in several regions.

This trend towards incorporating technology into classroom instruction means that instead of watching someone else, students will be taking an active role in writing, researching, and playing games related to a topic. Since most of the devices used have keyboard interfaces, this means that in order to keep up with the rest of the class, students are going to have to know how to type. Good typing skills will be necessary for everyday class activities, and not just for typing up papers and assignments at home.

The Common Core Standards now being implemented in most school districts across the United States recognize the importance of modern technology and the skills needed to use it effectively. These standards require students to learn how to type, and to be able to type well by the 5th grade (age 10-12). Learning these skills early will make it easier for students to stay productive and efficient throughout the rest of their time in school, and especially if they decide to go on to get an advanced degree.


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