Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Now, tell the truth: Can you type?

Since Shock and Awe is now available in many Barnes and Noble bookstores, some of the students in a novel-writing class at a local college (a class I once attended, I might add) organized a signing. It was great fun; the Q&A went on for a good hour, no doubt throwing the class quite off schedule.

At one point someone asked how fast I write, and I replied that my average was a page per minute. But, then, I added, my typing skills are limited to four digits (left index, right index, right middle, and the left thumb for the space bar).

The professor then surprised us by announcing that he was limited to two index fingers ("Like a chimp with a typewriter.") He has knocked out roughly forty books this way since the 1970s, and he claims he averages 65 word a minute--"Too fast to be able to afford to learn to do it right."

I was thinking about this because a while back Alis Hawkins had a post on her blog that mentioned:

I know that lots of longhand first drafters say that when they type up what they’ve written and see the words appearing as print onscreen, they immediately see what needs to be changed, rewritten etc. The change from scrawl to ‘clean text’ seems to be part of the editing process.

That, coupled with the fact that my handwriting looks ridiculous, is one of the reasons I compose onscreen--the need to transcribe it would be incredibly painful. Putting words down out of my head isn't so bad, but I find transcription, even of my own words, to be tedious and headache-inducing. (Apparently JRR Tolkein wrote all of his manuscripts in long-hand, and then, after massive rewrites and revisions, typed them up himself. He claims that the books were long in coming because he couldn't afford to pay for "typing by the ten-fingered.")

The how-do-you-compose is probably the question writers get asked most frequently. (In moveis, of course, they compose on actual typewriters, because the hammering is so much more cinematic.) But the question that is left often asked is, can you, in fact, really type? With all ten fingers? (I've met several now who can't.)

Well, can you?


E. Crandall said...

I always tell people that the most useful class I ever had in high school was my typing class. I took it because it seemed easy (and was) but it has absolutely benefited my writing. For me, the fluid typing helps to get my thoughts out more succinctly, and obviously, more orderly. My horrendous penmanship is mainly to blame. It is terribly distracting--even to me.

In my experience, the transcribing process becomes the editing process, just as Alis Hawkins summarized. The easy viewing of typed text makes the needed changes more apparent. I don't see that as anything negative. Just an inevitable recourse.

Poetry is the one area of writing where I still prefer to write longhand. Most of the time I have no idea what the hell I am writing about. I have things to say but no particular form to say it. That is, the form of poetry is dictated by the circumstances to which I find myself. Writing on a napkin, or the back of a receipt, literally forces my hand. I think that allows creativity to come naturally, as opposed to sitting down at a computer to begin typing a sonnet.

Some writers like to do a first draft in longhand. Some writers like to do a first draft on screen.

And then there is Jack Kerouac who wrote On the Road on a giant scroll, single-spaced without margins or paragraphs.

Aliya Whiteley said...

I can type! About 80 words a minute. All the fingers. No looking at the keyboard. That's why I can't do a first draft straight on to the computer. I'm in efficient typist mode when I sit in front of the screen and it comes out all bullet pointy style. An entire novel concept can be dealt with in 15,000 words that way. I need pen and paper to remember to add in some description every now and again.

Tim Stretton said...

I can type ten-fingered when I don't think about it.

But once I start to think about how I type I can't do it at all...

Rob in Denver said...

I got through journalism school and am now a working writer going Woodward/Bernstein style: two or three fingers... head down only occasionally to find the keys I'm starting with. I get about 50 words a minute and it works for me.

I agree that typing class is helpful for anyone. I took one my junior year of high school, but I separated my shoulder and couldn't complete the class. After that, I didn't have the space for such a class, so I never learned to go 10-fingers.

RDJ said...

I use only my index fingers and my right thumb. I certainly don't average 65 words per minute this way, closer to 50. But, if I'm testing my speed, I'm capable of 65 wpm in short bursts.

Matt Curran said...

Since my hand recovered a few weeks ago, I'm able to type 1,000 words in 30-40 mins. My handwriting is utterly crap and I can hardly read what I write long-hand, so it's type-type-type all the way for me.

And if you think handwriting is a tricky way to do it, try dictating it. Now that's quite a bonkers way of writing a novel, I can tell you...

Frances Garrood said...

I can type, using all the right fingers, but I'm terribly inaccurate and suffer from a kind of typing dyslexia, ie I produce all the right letters but in the wrong order. I'm very fast, but make so many mistakes that the time I save on the typing is lost again sorting out the spelling. Does anyone have (a) a similar problem and (b) a cure?

Creative A said...

I usually stick to my thumb, ring finger, and index, but when pressed I can easily use all my fingers beside me pinkies. I thought this was a fluke until I got fingerprinted for a medical job, and the officer struggled to get my pinkie on the paper. Apparently, I have long fingers but short pinkies. Thus I can't stretch my pinkies out to hit the keys, and can't type with them very well.

Interesting note about transcription. I hate it, as well.

David Isaak said...

Hi, Eric--

You know, I've heard a number of writers over the years say that they composed fiction at a keyboard, but wrote all of their poetry longhand. Some say that there is a certain caressing of the words that needs to happen.

Luckily for the world, it's been decades since I felt the urge to perpetrate a poem.

As to the editing, I find that printing out the pages gives me a whole new perspective--as does changing the formatting to something more like a book. Every change in format seems to make new things leap off the page for me.

David Isaak said...

Hi, Aliya--

Wow, typing sort of makes you abridge your own novels. Not too useful in the world of books, but it will damn handy if you ever write a "treatment" for a movie.

Maybe you should add screenwriting to your prose career?

David Isaak said...

Hi, Tim--

Oops. Sorry. Ignore that question.

David Isaak said...

Hi, Rob--

Frankly, I think 50 wpm is plenty. Most of us are inclined to use too many of them anyway.

Though I can see that high rates of fire might be handy for a journalist.

I have a friend who is a court stenographer and types on one of those weird court reporting machines. Now that really gives people some serious wpm.

David Isaak said...

Hi, RDJ--

Your RIGHT thumb. Interesting. My space-bar needs are filled by my left. Perhaps I'm a closet lefty.

Do you use that thumbe for purposes other than the space bar?

David Isaak said...

Hi, Matt-

So, Dragon-speak didn't become your favored means of composition? Interesting, as you've taken that (albeit unwilling) experiment further than anyone I know.

A thousand words in 30-40 minutes is faster than I can think, so you're doing great by my standards. Sorry about the loss of your career as The Great Dictater, though.

David Isaak said...

Hey, Frances--

I certainly don't have a cure. In fact, there are any number of words where I constantly transpose letters typing, even though I do it in my clunky four-fingered way. I'm fond of "prodcuts" for "products," and "becasue" for "because."

I also sometimes type "form" for "from" and "fro" instead of "for." Those last two are partcularly vicious, as spell-checkers know that "form" and "fro" are perfectly good words. (Though, really--how often do you ever use the word "fro" in your writing?)

It certainly isn't dyslexia, as it doesn't happen with handwriting. It's more a problem of one hand getting a fraction of a second ahead of the other.

If I used all ten fingers, I'd probably really create a mess--like the centipede who made the mistake of thinking about how he walked with all those legs.

David Isaak said...

Hi, Creative--

Does your pinkie finger sort of stick out to the side, away from the other three fingers, too? That's supposed to be a sign of innovation and creativity, at least to the palm readers.

Apparently it isn't a sign of a professional typist, however.

Alis said...

The simple answer is 'Yes'. I can touch type. I'm not fantastically accurate as i'm self-taught and so didn't ever have a tutor to make me go over and over until I was perfect. So I'd describe myself as a 'good enough' touch typist, but i do use all my fingers on the appropriate keys, plus my right thumb for the space bar and I don't look at the keys as I type, only at the screen. In fact, if I look at my hands while I'm typing I freeze up and can't do it.

I wanted to learn to type at school but was told that the vocational courses were reserved for non-academic students. I begged but was told to stop and go and do statistics instead. Bah! If they'd let me do it when I was 16, I'd be good rather than good enough.

Still, it's probably the sinlge most useful skill I possess. I hate the slowness of longhand writing and I've been writing straight on to a screen for so long now that that's become the way I think.

But notes... they go on index cards in pencil!!

David Isaak said...

Hi, Alis--

My significant other deliberately avoided learning to type well on the grounds that a woman who knows how is likely to find herself doing it as a career.

Index cards? Ah. I know a couple of writers who do that, but usually when I see someone with index cards, I think "Look, a screenwriter." Very common practice among screenwriters is to set down details of scenes on index cards and then shoft them around in orger to get the best-looking sequence of scenes. Our neighborhood coffee shops are filled with wannabe screenwriters shifting rainbow-hued, pretending to work.

In reality, they are hoping that someone attractive will stroll up and ask what they are doing and be impressed.

(Old Hollywood joke: Did you hear about the aspiring actress who was so dumb that, to boost her career, she slept with the screenwriter?)

S. Boyd Taylor said...

I can type up to 80 wpm (not much, I know), but actually COMPOSING something (writing something new, out of my head), I drop below 50 wpm. At least the last time I measured. And that's at the fastest. Typically I compose between 20 and 40.

David Isaak said...

Hey, SBT--

I hear you. The speed of getting the words onto the page has never been the limiting factor for me, either.

I could probably stamp out cuneiform symbols on wet clay tablets just as fast as I can compose.

(The only downside is that carrying around a manuscript-worth of clay tablets would weigh a lot. And you can e-mail clay.)

Jake Jesson said...


I never really paid attention to this before, but I actually can't type ten-fingered. Rather, I type primarily with four fingers - the index, middle and thumb (spacebar) finger of my left hand, and the index finger of my right hand. I occasionally use the ring finger of my left hand - for left shift key - and the middle, ring, and pinky fingers of my right hand for the right shift key plus question marks or less than / greater than signs.

Oh, and the thumb / middle finger of my right hand for the laptop's trackpad (mouse analogue)...

The weirdest part is probably that my right hand almost never gets used besides my index finger - which probably does about fifty percent of total typing.

This is probably a pretty inefficient way to type. And I took a typing class in high school, too. Guess it didn't stick.

P.S: Also, as an attendee of that class, I still want a book signin'. ;)