← Chetan Surpur

Ditch QWERTY – Your Hands Need Colemak

If I offered you the choice of typing at half of your current typing speed for two months in exchange for typing even faster and more comfortably than you do now for the rest of your life, would you take it?

Let me ask you another question. Look down at your keyboard. Have you ever wondered why the keys are arranged in that way?

The answer might surprise you. The QWERTY key arrangement on almost every single keyboard in existence, including yours, was designed with the express purpose of preventing typewriters from jamming. That’s right, typewriters.

Turns out, when you typed too fast on one of the original typewriters, adjacent typebars would sometimes clash and jam. So a clever man named Mr. Sholes arranged the keys in such a way to bypass the mechanical problems with typewriters, and we’ve been stuck with that obsolete design all the way through the digital age.

Enter Colemak

That’s where Colemak comes in. It’s an alternate keyboard layout made for the modern age, engineered to provide maximally efficient typing. Here’s what it looks like:

The keys in Colemak are scientifically arranged with the following goals in mind:

  • Fingers should travel the least distance possible
  • Most of the typing should be done on the strongest and fastest fingers
  • Typing should alternate between the hands for greater speed and comfort
  • Should be easy to learn and switch from QWERTY

And it succeeds in meeting those goals (source):

  • Your fingers on QWERTY move 2.2x more than on Colemak.
  • QWERTY has 16x more same-hand row-jumping than Colemak.
  • There are 35x more words you can type using only the home row on Colemak.
  • Colemak easy transition from QWERTY; only 2 keys move between hands. Many common shortcuts (including Ctrl+Z/X/C/V/A/W/Q) remain the same.
  • Most of the typing is done on the strongest and fastest fingers, with a low same-finger ratio.
  • Encourages a natural “drum” motion of typing from pinkies to index fingers.
  • Typing in Colemak alternates between hands for speed.
  • It’s built-in to Mac OS X and most Linux distributions, and available as free software on Windows.

All this means you can frictionlessly switch to Colemak and type faster you ever could with QWERTY, and ward off RSI and Carpal Tunnel as you do. It’s really a no-brainer.

Through the eyes of another

I switched to Colemak over 3 years ago. I type a lot, and before Colemak I was using QWERTY but wasn’t touch typing. So starting to touch type was already an improvement, but Colemak really topped the cake. I also use a split keyboard, the Microsoft Natural Keyboard 4000 (my favorite keyboard by far).

Now, I can type for hours continuously with zero pain in my hands (something that just couldn’t happen before), and I type faster than my top speed with QWERTY.

It took me two weeks to learn and memorize the new layout, and then two months to get up to my old typing speed (75 WPM). From then on, it was smooth sailing all the way to 90 WPM, which I achieved about 4 months after I started. That’s 15 words more per minute that I can now type, every minute for the rest of my life. And I type with less effort and pain than before, all for just two months of a learning curve.

One neat thing is, even after 3 years, I can still type in QWERTY (albeit not very fast) when I absolutely have to. My friend who used to touch type QWERTY can also use it if necessary, so it’s not like we’re totally lost to the mainstream world. On the other hand, we find ourselves rarely if ever using QWERTY, because Colemak is already available on every keyboard we actually use, so there’s really no problem there.

And as for touch screens, since you use just your thumbs anyway, you’ll be able to type in touch screen QWERTY exactly as fast as you did before learning Colemak. (For the record, I type at 74 WPM on my iPhone screen, so it’s totally unaffected by the fact that I only use Colemak on my computer.)

How to switch

  1. Learn the layout. Use a typing tutor program to learn the layout, and do 1-2 hours of learning using the program every day. I used KTouch for Mac and finished this step in a week. On Windows, my friend used TypeFaster. If possible, choose a time to do this in which you won’t be typing a lot, so you don’t confuse yourself too much.
  2. Memorize the layout. Practice the layout with your typing tutor program for a week. You should be able to get to a point where you can slowly type anything from memory, without having to look at the layout diagram.
  3. Go cold turkey. This is the hardest step, and it requires the most patience. Use only Colemak for all your typing, and don’t look down. If necessary, you can print and keep a layout diagram on your desk, but don’t swap the keys on your keyboard or repaint them (because in about a week, you shouldn’t have to look at your hands at all). I typed less than 30 WPM for a month, and while initially frustrating, it gets fun when you start feeling yourself getting faster and faster.

Ideally, choose a time of your life in which you won’t have to type a whole lot, so you can ease into it. In the worst case, type in Colemak for half the day, and QWERTY half the day (that’s what my friend did).

You also want to set up a keyboard shortcut (mine is Ctrl+Shift+Z) that will swap between Colemak and QWERTY for easy switching when you need to hand your keyboard to someone else. (Or do what I do and just give it to them on Colemak, and happily watch their confusion as they type nonsense on to the screen.)

Other layouts

You might have heard of other alternative keyboard layouts, like Dvorak (which is actually the 2nd most popular layout after QWERTY, and sounds like it could be a character in Game of Thrones). So why Colemak, and not Dvorak?

First off, Colemak is just as well-designed as Dvorak. In fact, according to carpalx, which is the most extensive research on keyboard layouts done so far, Colemak wins over Dvorak and QWERTY in all different typing effort models. Dvorak just happened to be made and got popular first.

But really, they’re almost identical in terms of efficiency, so it’s the other stuff that really counts:

  • Colemak keeps the punctuation keys in the same place, and common shortcuts don’t change either, so it better utilizes your current brain wiring. In Dvorak, almost every key is changed, including punctuation.
  • Colemak is easier to learn, since it’s designed to be as similar to QWERTY as possible without compromising on efficiency.
  • Colemak was mathematically designed by computers.
  • The right hand does too much work in Dvorak, and weak fingers are used too much.

As more personal evidence, I actually switched to Dvorak first, and used it for 2 months before I heard of Colemak. I found the placement of the punctuation keys and keyboard shortcuts too painful to get used to with Dvorak, so I was willing to spend the extra effort to switch to Colemak instead. Now I can happily cut and paste with one hand, just as before.

Now go make your hands happy

Switch to Colemak, encourage your friends, and spit in the face of QWERTY, the most successful hindrance to efficiency since the age of typewriters. Your hands will thank you forever.

Either write something worth reading or do something worth writing. Benjamin Franklin