Learning Dvorak can save your writing

In 2011, I participated in Milwordy, a challenge to write 1,000,000 words in a year. For those of you who know NaNoWriMo, that’s about one and a half times the NaNo amount, every month, for twelve months in a row — so nothing to sneeze at. I had just come out of NaNo 2010 and was so caught up in the rush of writing that I desperately wanted to continue.

I came out of that year with six overly wordy first drafts for novels, several short stories, some journaling, and lots of bits and pieces that never amounted to much. But what a fantastic year I had! I was writing like in a trance, in one big rush, and it was brilliant.

I recently found my writing diary from that year and remembered the big crisis I had in the middle of it. Writing a million words in a year means an average of 2,700+ words a day, every day. Inspiration wasn’t the problem. I had story ideas, I had lots of free time, I loved it. I threw myself in head first and wrote, wrote, wrote. Didn’t talk about anything else but writing, either. I was probably annoying. 😀

Then I noticed the first wrist pains in February. They weren’t bad, nothing to worry about, I took a little break, put on some bandages, and kept writing. Things got worse in March, and I worried a little, but I was too caught up in my writing to think much of it.

In April, the joints of my fingers started to ache. My fingers would grow stiff after a time of writing, and more and more often I’d end up crying at the computer because I had words I wanted to say, and fingers that refused to write them down. But I kept going. I was doing Milwordy and I wasn’t going to drop out early.

I finally had to accept in May that I couldn’t keep going. Whenever I sat down to type, my fingers were on fire, and it got to the point where I couldn’t even pick up my teacup. I had a very bad couple of days, crying and cursing Fate and the world and everything, and then I picked myself up and started doing research.

I’d heard about the Dvorak Simplified Keyboard layout before from my mentor, Holly Lisle. I’d even considered learning it before, but thought it too much effort, especially since I was typing very quickly with Qwerty and couldn’t afford to lose my momentum in the middle of writing.

Well, guess what? I couldn’t afford to lose my hands in the middle of Milwordy! Or writing in general. I knew I wanted to keep writing well beyond 2011, so I had to do something.

I jumped in cold turkey and started typing only Dvorak once my decision was made. The first day, I got 200 words, and they took me two hours. I taped the printed keyboard layout to my screen and never looked at the keys again, because every time I did, my fingers would go automatically to the old layout and throw me. So to find the right keys, I first had to find the correct letter on the print-out and then feel my way to the correct key, and it took ages. I cried a lot during those first days, which is hard to explain to someone who doesn’t write. If you do, you’ll be able to understand: The sentences are there, the scenes are ready in your head, and you sit there struck dumb in front of your screen, unable to get them down.

Learning Dvorak gave me a new kind of respect for mute people. It was a matter of weeks for me to learn to “speak” with my fingers again (and obviously I was able to talk all the time), but I now have a faint idea what it must be like to live with a disability like that. I felt like I had lost my voice, my most important means of communicating with the world.

Things got better eventually. After a couple of weeks my writing speed was up to 20 words a minute and I was doing around 1,000 words a day again. Needless to say I had a LOT of words to catch up to finish Milwordy on time, but — the pain in my fingers and in my wrists was gone. Much of it was due to that initial (forced) resting period, I’m sure, but it’s been years since, and I’ve had long periods of intense, high-word-count writing, and while my wrists still ache occasionally, it’s never been that bad again. My fingers are okay. I got my writing back because I chose to learn Dvorak, and I’m eternally to the creators.

So, is it worth learning? My answer is, it depends. If you’re happy with how much you’re putting out and you’re not experiencing pain (not only in your fingers or wrists — neck, back, and shoulders can all be affected by typing!), you’re fine. It would probably be a waste of time and effort to do this to yourself. If, however, you do have problems, or you plan to be writing a lot more than you have and worry about your health, yes, it’s so worth it. You may also need the actual motivation of a health problem to be able to do this. It’s not a thing you learn quickly and easily while happily going about your business.

How to go about it? There are several excellent websites to help you, but I found the best way for me was just the simplest: Print the layout, tape it to your screen, and “feel” your way to the right keys. This will also at the same teach you to type without looking at the keys, if you aren’t able to do that. I wasn’t, and I learnt it by learning Dvorak.

What about Qwerty, then? Isn’t it troublesome to use computers other than your own? Not at all. Dvorak in a standard keyboard layout in Windows, so it’s a matter of two minutes to set it up (one-time), and then you simply shift between layouts by pressing Alt+Shift. It takes only half a second of your time when you sit down at the computer. So you can use any computer you like and still type Dvorak. If you use multiple languages, like I do, and you need special characters (å, á, ä etc.), I recommend downloading the Dvorak International Custom layout. This, too, is a one-time installation and you can easily switch between layouts.

I’ve heard that there are people who can type both Dvorak and Qwerty, depending on where they are and what they need. I think if you really put your mind to it, it’s possible. I found it unnecessary, so today I use Dvorak for everyhing. I can still type some Qwerty at a reasonable speed (about 40 wpm), but that doesn’t satisfy me, so I don’t really do it.

Incidentally, although it’s said that with Dvorak, your typing speed can go up, I never quite reached my Qwerty speed again. With Dvorak, I do type around 80-100 words per minute, depending on the text, and I’m happy with that. It took me about a year to get up to that speed, and three months to hit 50 words a minute so I could write decently fast again.

I’d love to hear your opinions on this. Have you heard about Dvorak before? Do you use it? What’s your experience?

Please leave a comment below. 🙂