Doing Dvorak

I’m always the last to know about stuff. Take keyboards. Not the traditional Qwerty keyboard you, your parents, your grandparents, and probably your great-grandparents use and have used. I mean a different keyboard. One with letters completely rearranged from the traditional Qwerty layout, making you type faster, with less wasted movement. An urban legend, I always thought. Then I stumbled upon the blog of a fellow writer and learned it’s not an urban legend—this keyboard’s for real. The Dvorak keyboard, named after its psychologist inventor, Dr. August Dvorak (Duh-VOR-ack), has been around since the 1930s, is ANSI certified, and is used by thousands of IT people—and writers and editors like me.

My fellow writer was lamenting the slowness of her efforts to relearn typing using the Dvorak keyboard. However, in her final post about the subject, she reported she’d actually bettered her original Qwerty word-per-minute speed and had no more pain in her arms. When your ability to support your family depends on being able to type and to concentrate without pain, it’s critical to find ways to cope. And she had found one.

I’ve done my fair share of research about workplace ergonomics and tried to set up productive environments at home and at work. Being six feet tall, I’ve had to become responsible for my own comfort when my employers didn’t seem to care that their office furniture was made for someone much shorter. For example, right now I’ve got a flat screen monitor perched on two copies of The Windows XP/2000 Answer Book which are in turn stacked on a printer stand; I’m sitting in the fattest, tallest office chair I could find in the storeroom; I’ve got a mangy old gel wristpad snugged up against an extra-small Dell keyboard that Kevin, our soon-to-be-outsourced IT guy scrounged for me. But I’d never considered that the typing method I was using could be contributing to my pain.

So, as is typical of my modus operandi, I promptly dove in. I changed my Windows Vista laptop keyboard from English-US to English-US-Dvorak in Control Panel, taped a template from one of the Dvorak Web sites to the top of my laptop, and started typing.

Immediately I realized how little effort it took to type most common words—the converted say that your fingers will “walk” over 15 miles using Qwerty to type a document, compared to less than 100 feet typing the same document using Dvorak. All the letters most typically used are concentrated on the “home” row, as our typing teachers used to call that row where the bump on the F and the bump on the J keys live (U and H respectively on Dvorak).

However, typing an email to friends took me five minutes as opposed to thirty seconds or so using Qwerty, and though I’ve gotten better in the few days of daily practice at home, my slow speed is still comparable to a three year old’s—or worse. Which is why I still use Qwerty at work. Some sites say you shouldn’t switch around, but for me it’s either use Dvorak at home or don’t use it at all.

I expect a payoff of course—reduced or eliminated pain, less fatigue, faster speed. One side effect I’ve noticed already—my teenager can’t borrow my laptop anymore, especially if I “misplace” the template. (And how is that a bad thing?) We’ll see whether Dvorak becomes a mere exercise in frivolity and stubbornness or a way to add more years to my writing and editing career. Are there other benefits or side effects I might not have considered? Will Microsoft immediately void my copy of Vista? Will I develop a split personality? Stay tuned.

Qwerty Keyboard Layout:
A S D F G H J K L ; '
Z X C V B N M , . /

Dvorak Keyboard Layout:
' , . P Y F G C R L ?
A O E U I D H T N S -
; Q J K X B M W V Z

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