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Typing Exercises

As result of writing my ideas for Typing Master Class, people have written me to express their dismay that the software didn't exist, and to ask for help in becoming better typists. What follows are some suggestions along those lines.

1. Get some practice material that's similar to what you usually type (it can be something that you actually did type). Then, practice typing it, but for each word, type it many times in a row, until you can feel the motion of your fingers through the word, and until you feel you're ready for all the letters of the word ahead of time, and can imagine where they all are, and where your fingers' path through them is. Then, move on to the next word. In this practice, don't worry about mistakes (don't try to correct them); just do the word over and over until it's easy. This is a good time to correct problems in position and strain that would lead to carpal tunnel later: make sure you're relaxed, and that you're using the minimum effort to make the letters come out. If you have any trouble getting to a letter, figure out how to move your hand (not stretch your finger) to be able to get to it, and then return to the home row.

2. Same thing as 1 (on the same material), but start reducing the number of times you repeat each word. This should happen automatically if you follow the "repeat until it's easy" part, since you will get familiar with the material.

3. Same thing as 1, but do the repeat on pairs of words; for example, if the text is This is some sample text you would type This is This is This is ... is some is some is some is some ... some sample ... and so on. How you think about the words you're typing (during this practice -- it will become automatic eventually) is important: think in groups of letters. Typically, three-letter groups, but whatever makes sense to you, whatever makes it easy to type them all as one thought. If you'd like to read about this (which is called "chunking"), here's an important paper on it.

Learning to type fast is a very complex skill, and while there are lots of things one can do to push one's speed above "normal" limits, it takes all of them working in tandem to really reach one's personal maximum. Also, many techniques are really hard to teach without adequate software, software which can analyze one's habits, and figure out what needs work -- sort of like an athletic coach, but timing the intervals between keystrokes instead of timing laps around the track. So the best I can give you are a few suggestions off the top of my head, things which will pay off in the short run.

1. Do you know any really fast typists? If you do, watch them. See how they hold their hands, how they move their fingers. There are so many things that a 100 wpm typist does differently from a 50 wpm typist, that I don't know where to begin, so I think it's better for you to learn by looking. For example, some typing experts say that the less motion, the better, but I don't believe that's true; for many beginners, they're using way too much motion, but past a certain point, you're doing motions that are too small to do reliably, and you make mistakes. To say how much motion is right is difficult, so it's better if you just watch and figure it out for yourself. A change in hand position and approach to the keyboard can often add 10 wpm.

2. Often, the pressure of trying to type fast makes people stop relaxing their hands -- it's like they're playing a video game, with all the tension of the game focused on their grip on the joystick. A good exercise is to type something really easy (like this this this this this this), with the idea of relaxing all the fingers every time the space bar goes down.

3. Here's a good system for practicing for complex pattern speed (this applies to lots of things, not just typing). Start by repeating a target word or pattern until you're completely comfortable with it: this this this this this this this this this this this... Once you are doing it pretty much as fast as seems possible (consistent with it being comfortable and relaxed, and given how well you type generally), you've established your target speed. Then add an occasional flak word into the mix: this this this this huh this this this this huh this this this this huh ... repeating the target word each time as many times as necessary to get back up to your target speed. As the number of reps necessary to get back to the target speed decreases, put in fewer reps, until you get to: this huh this huh this huh this huh ... and then go on to: huh huh this huh huh this huh huh this ... Then increase the mix to three words, four, five... The principle here is that learning to type fast requires, to a great extent, learning to type lots and lots actual words (and parts of words) faster, not just learning where the letters are and typing one letter at a time very fast. Practicing typing in which every word appears only once is like doing obstacle course training, and while it's very important, you can't develop sprinting techniques by only doing obstacle courses.

4. Prefix/suffix calisthenics. Find a list of the 1000 most common English words, and find the common beginning and endings. Then, do exercises with them. pre-, th-, dr-, -ing, -tion, -ed, -es, -ation, etc. should all be "mental macros," patterns that happen without thinking. So, you can do something as laborious as: aing bing cing ding eing fing ging ... tha thb thc thd the thf thg thh thi thj ... or something more imaginative (e.g. better to practice real words than meaningless patterns).

5. Parsing. This is the technique of taking a word apart mentally into pieces you've practiced before. When a person starts typing, it's one letter at a time, and the only pattern is the "double" pattern (bookkeeper, door, etc.). Then, certain things become automatic: -ing, etc. What you want to do is get really fast at seeing a word, and thinking of the two or three little pieces (usually syllables, but not always) that make it up, so that you're typing pieces rather than letters. For ex-am-ple, in a sen-ten-ce like this, my men-tal way of di-vi-d-ing words is some-thing like this. Fast typing is not a smooth flow of letters, but a smooth flow of bursts of letters. As you get better, the bursts get longer, and you know more of them; for me, 70 to 90 percent of the words I type in normal letter writing are single bursts; so when I make a typo, an entirely different word than the one I'm intending comes out (usually just starting with the same letter as the desired word), rather than wrong letters (which occur only in obscure words).

The problem with all these techniques is that the most effective way to do them is a computer program (which nobody has built yet, though I'm hoping my web page on the subject will be inspirational), and the second best way is to understand the principles, and make up exercises yourself as you go. Trying to impose exercises on someone else who doesn't understand the principles is difficult. So, I'd say that you need to figure out a good way to teach your students to teach themselves. Oh, one last exercise, one which is pretty easy to teach. When you're typing from text (as opposed to out of your head), practice by typing each word repeatedly until you feel you're getting near your target speed, then move on to the next word. Do a paragraph this way, then repeat it (should be shorter), then repeat it again (should be shorter still). Then go on to the next paragraph. Cycle back to the original paragraph after ten minutes, to reinforce what you've learned. Etc. Let me know how this works out. For where you are, there are two things to focus on:

(1) Figure out which keys are slowing you down, and speed them up. For example, if you're slow with 'w', then do lots of words with 'w' in them, until you feel like 'w' is no problem.

(2) Learning how to type in groups. For example, 'th' is a very common group. So practice doing 'th' words: these, those, them, this, that, the other. Good luck. Stephen It sounds like you've gotten to a plateau at which you're able to do a certain kind of careful typing, but unable to learn new skills. This is only natural; once you're get to the point where your level of typing occupies you mentally, you don't have much attention left over for learning new things, and learning is essential to improving your speed. My suggestion would be to stop doing exercises which force you to type one word after another and instead work on learning how to type common short words and groups of letters fast, by doing things more consciously and with enough repetition to allow you to learn something. Here's how to do this: Take some sample material. For each word, look at it, think about how you're going to type it, about where all the letters are on the keyboard and how you're going to move your fingers to them. Then type it. If you feel like it was a faster-than-average word, type it again a few more times, and move on. If it's slower-than-average, or if it took too much work or too much effort to type (or if it was in any way awkward or uncomfortable), break it into small enough chunks that you can type the chunks easily, and practice the chunks separately until they're fast, then practice them in combination. When you're done with a paragraph, don't go on to the next paragraph, but instead repeat it three or four times (spending less time on word-by-word practice each time). With this kind of practice, you'll be learning how to parse words into chunks you recognize. The important thing here is to break the words into chunks that are common between words, and which make sense to you. For example, for me, the word practice is pr ac tice. As you practice, your "repertoire" of fast-type-able chunks will grow, and the chunks will get longer (for example, "longer" for me is one chunk, but chunk is still ch u nk).