Dvorak Experience

It’s going to be a month from the time I started learning Dvorak keyboard layout. I just wanted to find out on my own what made it different? What better way to find out than learning it?

Qwerty has been the layout I’ve used ever since I came across computers. But recently when I came to know about some of Dvorak’s benefit, I was tempted to try it out.  Or if you straight away want to jump to why Dvorak’s good, head on to this section. Small research

Converting Qwerty to Dvorak

Since I use a keyboard with a Qwerty layout, the major hurdle was to turn it into Dvorak. I didn’t know how it would be done, but I knew that it would be possible for sure. I knew that it was possible to exchange keys (I recently swapped the Caps Lock key with the escape key. It made vi experience blazing fast!). So if need be, I was ready to write a script to map my qwerty keys to Dvorak one by one. But thankfully it didn’t come to this.
Recently one of my friends shifted to Fedora. He was trying out a live USB and couldn’t get the command the command working that he used to remap keyboard keys on ubuntu. So while trying to help him out I read the man pages of the few alternatives that he wanted me to check if they work working on my dual boot install of Fedora.

One of them was setxkbmap. That exactly served my purpose.

All I had to do was write one command and voila, I had Dvorak layout. To be on the safer side lets know about our current layout so that we can switch back without issues.

By default, you would be using the us layout. To check you can type:

setxkbmap -query

In the short output, you can see the layout defined.

This is your key to home. If you lose it, you’d have fun typing out weird qwerty characters even to say qwerty 😛

Let’s get a short demo. First, we need some keys that don’t change with the keyboard layout. Like the arrow keys. And since we are trying out commands at the terminal, it would serve us perfectly.
So go ahead and create your safe home. The default layout in the command history would be one for us.

setxkbmap us

Don’t expect anything to happen, since you are reapplying the default layout. Now if we mess up, we can just press the UP arrow key and go back up and hit enter to get the cozy qwerty back.
If you feel like doing it, then type out:

setxkbmap Dvorak

Now try typing qwerty at your terminal. When I did this first time I couldn’t help but laugh at how simple and weird it was that your keyboard has gone haywire.
NOTE: Don’t let your PC sleep. As this layout is set for your account now, so it would be applied to every window that requires input. Even your login screen!
But if you were too excited and ended up doing that anyway, just search for Dvorak on any other device and try to type the key combination back, one key at a time.

Though this sufficed my necessity, I knew that a luxury was possible too.

Switching layouts on the fly!

Now let us write a small bash script to toggle layout. It will change to Dvorak if existing layout is us and vice versa.

For checking existing layout, we already used setxkbmap -query,
we’ll be using that to check the existing layout. I used wildcards to
check for the substring Dvorak in the output of setxkbmap query`

#!/usr/bin/env bash
if [[ $(setxkbmap -query) = *"dvorak"*  ]]
    setxkbmap us
    setxkbmap Dvorak

This is the script I wrote.

I saved it as dvorak_toggle.sh. Now after making it executable, I can do ./dvorak_toggle.sh

I was happy with this for a minute, but quickly I realized that more luxury is possible 😛 So, next what I did was to map this script to a shortcut.
In Fedora, it’s pretty simple. Go to settings -> keyboard and just create a new shortcut.

In the command field, add the path to the script. (Since there is a shebang already, we don’t need bash path/to/script as a command)
I mapped the script to Alt + Enter. And voila in a second now I can switch from one layout to another!

Also, I found it helpful to keep an image of Dvorak layout saved offline. So that I can refer to it using GUI if I forget which key is which.

An FAQ and some suggestions

You don’t need to unlearn qwerty! I can type Dvorak and qwerty both above 40wpm easily. In fact, if you’ve prior touch-typing experience, it’d only help you!

Is it really fast?

It is definitely fast. Within 2 weeks approx, I could type with decent accuracy and about 30 wpm speed (I know that at qwerty many folks would have been faster within that interval of time, but it took me around a month to get my fingers at place correctly on qwerty 🙂 I’m a slow learner. YMMV). And some words I could type faster than qwerty even though it had been only two weeks.

Does it change the position of only the alphabet keys?

Nopes. It changes punctuation marks and some symbols as well. And more used punctuation marks like , and . are placed on the top row in place of q and w of qwerty. Some symbols like / and + are also shifted to the top row in place of [ and ]. Similarly a few other changes.

Why was qwerty designed like this?

Alphabetical typewriters had a problem in earlier times that while typing fast the rods attached to the keys would stick to each other. Qwerty dealt with this problem by spreading the keys so that clash was less often.
But this was in 1873!  And now we don’t use typewriters that would have clashing rods, rather these spaced out keys only strain our hands, Dvorak tries to deal with this.

Would my speeds at qwerty become slow?

Short answer, yes (If you stop qwerty absolutely) and no (If you do it even once in a week too).

Switching between the layouts isn’t physically difficult. Like if you practiced for 15 min on Dvorak you can get your original qwerty speed back on qwerty in no time. It’s what I realized because I used to do 1-2 lessons of Dvorak in a day and then after finishing them I’d immediately test my performance on qwerty. On some days I even dropped to a 20 wpm on qwerty after practicing Dvorak for long. But, on some days I could type qwerty as fast as I used to.

According to me, once you reach a speed of 50+wpm, speed is more of a mental construct. It is just how much you can focus. How clear your mind can get. Like I said after Dvorak, on qwerty I’d get 20wpm to 60wpm. At times the 20 wpm was followed by the 60! The reason is that initially, I’d think before typing. But when I stopped thinking how to type and just let my fingers roll over the keyboard, they would end up making the words I’d intend them to. I think that Dvorak was on my mind whereas qwerty on my muscles.

But would qwerty practicing slow my Dvorak typing speeds?

Yes, If you don’t practice it daily, as it’s new for your muscles, it’d take some time. When I started with Dvorak I had so slow speeds that I couldn’t keep it ON the whole day. Also, due to qwerty being my primary layout, most of the mistakes I did in gtypist were of typing qwerty keys in Dvorak layout (and a few days later, of typing Dvorak keys in qwerty XD). Since I could type well in qwerty, I used to switch to it usually. But when my speed was around 30 on gtypist, I started taking Dvorak out for a spin. Even at typing races with some fellows!
All you need for the starters is to get the layout habitual to your muscles.

If you’ve never touch typed and are learning Dvorak as your first keyboard you’d get it more easily. But your fingers might be a little hesitant for a few days.

Don’t type letters. Type words.

While practicing touch typing we often get in the habit of keeping a letter in our mind and then thinking where it is and finally pressing it without seeing it. Typing the letters is another thing that would make you slow despite knowing all the key positions. Instead, practice typing a word in such a manner that you don’t focus on individual letters anymore.

This is similar to stenographers’ use of steno type keyboard. They write a syllable, word or even a phrase with a single stroke!

This is the reason behind the suggestion of practicing one keyboard everywhere. I.e not only on a typing lesson but also in chats, in browsing, etc. So that you get the habit of typing words rather than letters.

Keeping the keyboard in the correct position

Try to keep keyboard such that your wrists don’t bend while trying to type. Keep your wrists flat and shoulders relaxed. I’ve noticed not only increase in typing comfort but also an increase in typing speed when the keyboard position is right.

Shoulders and hands relaxed

When trying to type fast, I used to tense up my muscles and that would eventually slow me down. If you rest your fingers rather than keeping them tensed you’ll again notice an increase in comfort and typing speed.

Don’t pound on the keys

You might have already read this somewhere. I too have! But even to this day I unintentionally end up pounding the keys. The secret is to press the keys gently (not slowly) enough just to register the touch. This helps you type fast and also keeps your keyboard in good health as compared to playing Whac-a-mole with your keyboard.

But what if I switch to Dvorak and I need to use someone else’s qwerty keyboard?

Well well, this was amongst the two reasons I was apprehensive about switching to Dvorak completely. (Other reason being that I’d lose the speed that I had at qwerty)

Then I realized that I don’t use somebody else’s keyboard that often.
Another major point against it is that, if you can type 60+ on your keyboard, there’s no surety that you would have the same speed on someone else’s keyboard.

Currently, I am a student, so the only other keyboard that I’ve to interact with too often is the lab’s old qwerty. And those keyboards are generally so old and their keys are so uncomfortable that I’ve to pound most of the times. But keeping these extreme aside, even if I type on a friend’s brand new laptop, I can’t get the same speed that my keyboard gives me. But again this is what I experienced and your mileage may vary 🙂

So what layout should I learn?

I strongly feel that Dvorak is amazing and this should be the layout you should learn if you ever want to go at really high speeds or just want a more comfortable experience for your fingers.
But on the other hand, knowing little qwerty help.

Can qwerty be bad for my wrists and fingers?

Short answer: yes!

Here’s a short experience of mine 🙂

A few days back I would have said no. Since at that time I used qwerty only on gtypist. But now I’ve used pure qwerty for some days. Today, to test how good my qwerty remained, I did a typing test. At first, I couldn’t get good speed. I thought it’d improve within 2nd or 3rd trial as it had been, but to my surprise, it took my mind around 25-30 min to get back qwerty. But as soon as I could type 30, I could go 50 easily. After all, it’s my mind that needed to come back. As soon as it did, muscles kicked into action. And once again I retained my speed on both the layouts.

BUT the thing that immediately bugged me about qwerty when I tried my hands on it after some time, was how awkward the keys have been laid. I’ve never thought so my entire life! My wrists started to pain slightly. And I realized that it may be because that in qwerty, many keys in the bottom row are frequently used and so are some at the top row. And that felt so uncomfortable that I knew I’ll be staying at Dvorak now and will do qwerty only once a week.

Are shortcuts awkward with Dvorak?

Nah. On the contrary, I’ve come to find Dvorak great in that domain too! Considering the fact that it takes you away from vim and its shortcuts, it is only better. I’ve even switched my editor to emacs and I’ve been at it for a few weeks now! I can’t bear vim with Dvorak. Though it is amazing for qwerty, emacs is more natural for Dvorak in my opinion.
And for the most common shortcut, Ctrl-c & Ctrl-v, Dvorak is amazing. Both C and V are at comfortable positions of the right hand when you press the Ctrl with your left.

But like everything, you find the thing you are habitual of more comfortable than a new thing. So it might be some time before you find the layout that suits. Though if you spend more time with a personal setup, then Dvorak deserves a try.

Touch type if you type. And go Dvorak if you touch type.


–Touch typed in Dvorak!


3 Comments Add yours

  1. Nicely written. I will surely try Dvorak layout.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Very well written, I have been practicing on qwerty for more than two months now and I can easily get 45+ wpm with 97-98% accuracy, as a result, I do feel a bit of strain on my hands. After reading this time to try the Dvorak layout.

    Liked by 1 person

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