Michael Eriksson
A Swede in Germany
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The benefits of touch typing

One of the best ways for a software developer (and many others who spend a lot of time in front of a keyboard) to improve himself is to learn touch typing.

The main benefit of this is the ability to detach the typing process almost entirely from his conscious mind: Anyone who does not type “blindly” spends mental effort on something not immediately relevant for his work, which is obviously detrimental. Further, this extra effort can make it harder for him to relax and easier to become tired. For a really poor typist, the act of typing can, in and by it self, become so tiring and frustrating that it dominates his work.

Other benefits include:

  1. A higher typing speed—potentially, much higher.

  2. A lower basic error rate than for most other typing styles. (This may seem paradoxical: Intuitively, one would expect a style based on looking at the keyboard to be less prone to errors; however, in my observations, this does not seem to be the case.)

  3. Being able to watch the screen whilst typing, which implies that errors in the text can be found earlier and with a higher degree of likelihood, and corrected easier. Further, merely changing the visual focus (e.g. from screen to keyboard) can have a noticeable negative effect on typing speed.

  4. A much higher rate of transfer when typing something from a paper document into a computer, because the eyes can rest on the paper the entire time. (Not, I admit, a common scenario for software developers.)

  5. At least some typists have a tendency to hit the keys with a lot of force. This increases the risk for long-term damages. Among good touch typists this error is extremely rare.

  6. Going from scratch to a decent proficiency is, in my impression, easier with touch typing than with other methods, because they require a much higher degree of mastery to reach a decent level.

A few counter-arguments that I have encountered:

  1. The time spent typing can be used to think about what to do next; in consequence, the gains from typing faster are small, because the bottle-neck is formed by the amount of time needed to think, not the time needed to type.

    This is partially correct; however, it overlooks my main argument (or, I suspect, simply underestimates the losses that can occur by the extra mental effort). Further, it obviously only addresses the speed issue.

  2. “My current style of typing is fast enough, I would not benefit from touch typing.”

    This is largely self-flattery: Only the very best non-touch typist can compete with even a mid-range touch typist.

  3. “..., my benefits in speed would be too small to make a major difference.”

    This, OTOH, can actually be true: Provided that the speaker is sufficiently skilled that he types fast, without effort, with a low error-rate, and without needing to look at the keyboard, he can indeed be good enough that a speed increase would not make a major difference. (He should, however, be very careful not to over-estimate his skill: False pride is more common than high skill.)

    The down-side is that this argumentation can only apply to someone who has already spent an enormous amount of time typing, be it with the purpose of entering text or of improving his typing ability. For a beginner, or someone with only semi-considerable experience, it would still pay to go with touch typing. Giving a beginner the advice not to bother with touch typing is down-right irresponsible.

  4. “I simply do not type enough that it would make a difference.”

    This will obviously depend on the individual: For some people it will be true, for others not. However, it is easy to underestimate the amount of time spent typing, and anyone who spends a lot of time before a computer should be very careful about making the assumption—more likely than not, it is false.

    Further, one of the reasons that the speaker types little could be the effort involved and the time needed. By learning how to touch type, some documents/emails/whatnot could be written that would previously have been neglected. Simply speaking: If a poor typist and good typist have the same (office) tasks, the poor one will type less and the good one more. (Measured in text, not necessarily time.)

  5. Re-training will take too long, take too much effort, cause a temporary set-back which is too inconvenient, ...

    This will almost always be false. Getting back to a decent, probably even superior, typing speed will be a matter of days or, rarely, weeks of daily work, and from there on it is all gain. In few situations will this temporary drop be unacceptable. Notably, it is also possibly to limit touch typing to e.g. the first half of the work-day; which limits the short-term disadvantages at the price of a longer training period.

A note on speed: I have done some timing experiments on myself, and recorded burst rates of roughly one word (standard size of five letters) in 1/4 of a second in some cases. Obviously, this was under ideal circumstances, where my one focus was on raw speed. My normal burst rate will be lower, because increasing the speed also increases the risk for errors; further, my sustained speed is much lower. Experiments with a sustained speed are much harder, because I invariable tense up and start to think on what I am doing; however, they indicate a minimum of 50 words per minute when I know what I should type. (Notably, my real-life writings do not match either situation—instead I have periods of typing ranging from a few words to a few sentences, surrounded by time where I think about what to write next or about the topic in general, revise the text, or similar.) I have seen references of 50–100 words per minute being typical speeds among professional typists (who e.g. take down dictation).