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A Different Way to Type 

Does your typing slow down your writing? Do you peer down at the keys to decide which one to jab? Have you tried and failed to master touch-typing.

If you answered "yes" to any of those questions, don't blame yourself, your fingers or your typing tutor - the problem lies in your keyboard. Its traditional QWERTY layout was designed more than a hundred years ago when the first typewriters came on the market. Those early machines jammed easily if the keys were struck too quickly so the most common letters were spread around the board to slow down the typist. It did the job so efficiently that it's still slowing you and me down long after the jamming problem has disappeared.

But there is an alternative - a keyboard layout designed specifically with touch-typing in mind, a layout which is so easy to learn and easy to use that it's transformed the way I write. After only a few hours practise on the Dvorak keyboard, I can touch-type with confidence, concentrating on the screen while my fingers find their own way around.

Named after its inventor, August Dvorak, this keyboard has all the vowels and the most common consonants in the middle row. Should I need to tell the world that the sun shone on Aunt Susan as she ate her toast, I can do so without even taking my fingers off the home keys. The other letters are arranged to minimise awkward reaches and to split the effort of typing evenly between both hands. I find my fingers no longer ache after a long session at the keyboard so RSI sufferers may feel this is worth a try. 

Amazingly, it costs nothing at all to change to this improved layout as any popular computer can be set up so that a standard QWERTY keyboard acts like a Dvorak one. If you use a PC running Windows 98 or 2000, you just go to Control Panel, double click on Keyboard, select Language and choose  the Dvorak layout. (Have your Windows system disc ready in case you are asked to insert it.) If you're using XP, got to the Control Panel, click Regional and Language Options, select the Language tab and click Details. If you use a Mac, the necessary software isn't built in but you can download it free from the Internet. (Look at Marcus Brooks' excellent site if you need more help with the technical side of changing to Dvorak). 

Now, with the help of a layout diagram propped against your monitor, you are ready to start typing. Except for M and A, the letters on the keys will no longer bear any relation to the symbols they produce when pressed so you'll be forced to abandon your old habit of peering at the keyboard - it just causes confusion. Your first attempts to type will be slow and awkward but don't let that put you off. I was amazed how quickly I improved and learnt the position of the keys by heart - something I never managed to do during my ten years struggle with QWERTY. 

The only slight snag is that Dvorak was an American so there is no key for the pound sign. However this is easily overcome. On a Windows PC you can use ALT 0163 instead while on a Mac, you can use the Key Cap control panel.

My progress was helped by a few hours spent with ABCD, a typing tutor available free from the Internet which you can save and use off line. In contrast to QWERTY courses, this one quickly has you typing real words and sentences instead of meaningless groups of letters. Perhaps this is why the Dvorak layout is so easy to learn. My son found it only took him an hour to learn the middle row so thoroughly that he could still remember it a week later without any further practise.

Although the Dvorak keyboard sounds revolutionary, it isn't new. It's been around for more than 60 years but so far it has failed to oust its more awkward competitor. With so many QWERTY keyboards and trained QWERTY typists already in existence, there has always been strong resistance to change. Typewriter manufacturers didn't want to alter their designs and those who had already learnt to contort their hands across the keys were reluctant to retrain.

The advent of computers makes that resistance far less important. With the Dvorak keyboard so easily available, there is nothing to stop you and I taking full advantage of its user-friendly layout. Why not give it a try and abandon two-finger typing for ever? It could make your writing a more pleasurable and productive experience.

                                                                     Diana Kimpton

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