A few days ago Javier emailed me asking how to get started learning Colemak. I wrote quite a long reply (uncharacteristically long for me who likes short emails) and i thought it might be worth turning it into a blog post.
Let me assume that you’ve already made the decision to switch to Colemak. If you need convincing, may i refer you to my previous post: Colemak is easy to learn.
This is roughly how it worked for me. Feel free to try it out, let me know how it goes for you, tell me if i need to tweak anything.
Step 1: print out the keyboard layout. No really. Do this! You’ll thank me when your computer locks and you can’t figure out how to type your password!
If you’re on an Apple or TypeMatrix keyboard, you can use one of these that i made:
You can also find some generic layout diagrams on colemak.com
You’ll be tempted to put stickers on your keyboard, or pop the keys off and remap them. Most people discourage this, as do i. The reason is, you’ll be tempted to look at your keyboard, which is counterproductive. You’re trying to train your fingers. So look at the diagram until your fingers know their way. Also, if you move keys around they won’t fit quite right, and the useful bumps for your index fingers will be moved.
Unless you have a TypeMatrix or another hardware keymapper, you’ll need to change some software settings. On Linux and OSX Lion this is easy as the layout comes built-in. On Windows and OSX Snow Leopard you need to install something. Follow instructions from the colemak.com download page
Find a typing tutor that knows Colemak. On Linux i recommend ktouch, and on OSX i like aTypeTrainer4Mac. Other suggestions are on the colemak.com learn page.
This is aTypeTrainer4Mac. It’s puke green and Comic Sans, but it’s really clever at how it progresses you through the levels at a sensible pace. It also provides nice reports and charts showing your progress.
You’ll need to practise little and often for the next several weeks. Grab five minutes here and there, every chance you get. Consider screencasting yourself, as a way of recording your progress. If you know someone else who is learning, it can be good fun to practise together, taking turns. Don’t do too much at once: when you get tired and feel your mistakes increasing, it’s time for a rest.
The nice thing about Colemak is that after the first day of training you should already know the home row, which can be up to 70% of what you’ll type! So get your print-out diagram, and have a go, whenever you need to type an email, or tweet, or whatever. Go very slowly! Focus on using the correct fingers. Try not to hunt and peck. If you make a mistake, delete the whole word and try again.
This will soon become unbearably frustrating, at which point, switch back to your familiar keyboard layout. When you feel ready for another try, take a deep breath, and get your brain into that hyper concentrated mode where you focus really carefully, thinking about every letter before you type it.
For some reason, i found it helped if somebody dictated an email to me, and i typed it. Perhaps because then all i had to think about was typing.
This will keep you going for the next few weeks, along with your training which you should still be doing every moment you get.
As you enter your second week you’ll probably be gaining a little bit of confidence. It’s a good time to measure your progress. Sign up for an account at TypeRacer and either practise by yourself or even better, get some other people to race against. A good way is to select “Race your friends” and put the URL on twitter, inviting people to join in. I always like a couple of races, if i have time! :)
The more you type real text, you’ll start to feel new pathways forming in your brain and in your finger movements. It’s an amazing feeling; i’ve never felt neurons moving so tangibly as when i’m learning a new keyboard layout. Common letter patterns like “and”, “the”, “you”, and “ing” become familiar and you start to think of them as a single unit rather than individual letters. It’s as if you give your fingers the “ing” command and they do it!
At some point, maybe in your third, fourth or fifth week, you’ll be typing Colemak more and more, and feeling less of a need to revert back to your old keyboard layout. In fact, you’ll probably feel yourself forgetting it altogether. This is the pivot point. There’s no going back now. So this is the moment to switch full time over to Colemak.
You’ll still be slow, or at least you’ll think you are slow. In fact, by now you’ll probably be around 40 words per minute, which is about the average speed for someone who never makes a conscious effort to learn how to type well. Remind yourself that you’re getting better all the time.
If you happen to use Vim, you may want to print out a Colemak Vim cheatsheet. I’ve done a standard layout and a TypeMatrix version:
Keep up the practise with your typing tutor for as long as you feel the need. Now that you’re full-time Colemak, you’re getting a lot of real-world experience of course, but the tutor can help you to build up the speed.
By now, your fingers and your brain should be really comfortable in Colemak. You’ll be able to type without really thinking hard about it. From now on, and for the rest of your life, it’s all about minimising mistakes and increasing accuracy and speed.
For typing, i really embrace the sentiment “Take your time and go fast”. TypeRacer tells you your accuracy as well as words per minute. I’ve found that every mistake costs me about 5 words per minute. Don’t rush, don’t try to go faster than you’re able. You will trip up. If you want to increase your words per minute, focus on minimising your mistakes per minute.
If you find yourself forming bad habits, correct them. For years i had a dreadful habit of only ever using the left shift key, no matter which letter i was typing. That habit gave me bad RSI in my left hand. The same thing goes for the Cmd+C / Cmd+V pattern on a mac. I frequently see people making painful contortions with their left hand. You have another Cmd key on the right! Use it!
Unfortunately, the mac keyboard doesn’t give you a Ctrl key on the right. TypeMatrix does, but it has no right Cmd key. Swings and roundabouts, hey!
While you’re learning, you’ll probably want to put Colemak on your other devices, for additional practice. I believe iPhone and iPad have Colemak available since iOS 5 … can anyone confirm? It’s easy to get Colemak for Android, using AnySoftKeyboard or my preferred one: MultiLing Keyboard.