Writer’s Tools and the Forgotten Keyboard

by | Jul 9, 2018

Anyone like me, whose career as a designer, typesetter, author, and book publisher has spanned all the years of the digital revolution, have used a succession of tools to do our writing and editing.

Since the advent of personal computers, we’ve moved from the typewriters that writers used in the twentieth century to the ubiquitous computer keyboards of today.

One thing about the tools we use has always puzzled me. Since letting go of our typewriters, each of which had a very distinctive feel to their operation, we’ve pretty much ignored the interface between our thoughts and our writing: the keyboard.

While there are frequent roundups of “writer’s tools” appearing all the time, they invariably focus on software tools and coffee mugs, and I don’t think I’ve ever seen one that mentions the writer’s primary physical tool—the keyboard.

Hands flashing along the rows of keys, authors convert their imagined worlds, heroes and villains, monsters and majestic landscapes into documents via these physical-to-digital coding devices.

Yet, if I asked you to describe the keyboard that’s sitting in front of you right now, would you be able to?

Did you actually choose this keyboard because it particularly suited you?

I’m betting the answer to both questions would be “No” for most people.

Painters take great care in picking their brushes, musicians can be fanatical about their instruments. The list goes on and on.

So don’t you think it’s a bit odd writers pay so little attention to what they are typing on?

I’m betting ninety-nine percent of the time, the answer is “whatever keyboard came with the last computer I bought!”

Paying attention to the part of the computer that we actually touch might yield benefits to you as a writer.

Searching for the Ideal Writing “Tool”

Having written about my memories of typing on mechanical keyboards of the past, and the IBMs in particular, I still remembered how good it can feel. Apple’s keyboards, which I’ve been using for years, are marvels of design and minimalism, but I started to wonder—especially when my fingers would get tired and strained after a day’s work banging away in my prehistoric way—if these keyboard were truly progress.

Using the links in my old post, I obtained the updated version of the IBM Model M keyboard, one made from the original designs and molds, now updated for use on today’s computers. In fact, you can buy one set up for the Mac OS.

Here’s what I wrote in that earlier article about this keyboard:

“The Model M would become one of the most popular and widely-used pieces of business equipment in the history of the world. I spent many hours banging on these keyboards, and they are not like what you know today. They are mechanical with actual springs under each key that give a very crisp “click” when they break into action. The solid feel of the keyboard, the excellent materials, and the audible feedback combine in this keyboard to create a classic of the art. These keyboards are so revered, you can even buy one today, retrofitted for today’s USB connectors.”—The Keyboards of Our Lives

The Unicomp keyboard is a pretty faithful replica of the keyboards I typed on in the 1980s and 1990s. However, it’s also really large, heavy, and not 100% compatible with today’s operating systems and hardware, although it’s still a delight to type on.

Keyboards that come with today’s PCs are usually low cost “membrane” keyboards: “A membrane keyboard is a computer keyboard whose “keys” are not separate, moving parts, as with the majority of other keyboards, but rather are pressure pads that have only outlines and symbols printed on a flat, flexible surface.”

Others use a “dome” technology in which, “in some cases the keys themselves are integral to the backing membrane and deform when pressed to complete an electrical contact, while in other cases the keys have individual low-travel scissor switches.”

Using either of these kinds of keyboards can feel very unsatisfying. Typos can be more frequent because users are not always positive the key has been depressed sufficiently to register.

But they are cheap, which is why computer manufacturers love them. An Amazon Basics keyboard today sells for $12.81, and that’s the retail price.

Mechancial Keyboards

On the other hand, mechanical keyboards like the IBM Model M of years gone by, have individual switches with springs and mechanisms for each key. They give more “tactile feedback” while you are typing, and also produce more noise.

But mechanical keyboards have significant advantages:

  • You’ll make fewer typos due to the positive feedback from the keys.
  • You’ll type faster because the key action of a good mechanical keyboard is very crisp, constantly communicating with you as you type. This becomes apparent the faster you type.
  • You’ll find typing more satisfying due to the feedback you get from the keys as you type.
  • You’ll never wear out a keyboard again, since mechanical keyboards are far more robust.

For all these reasons, the biggest markets for high quality mechanical keyboards are coders, who type millions of characters at high speed, and gamers, who stress their keyboards’ ability to handle rapid keystrokes for hours at a time.

But I’ve written over 1,000,000 words on this blog in the past few years, and I’m betting quite a few of you hammer away at draft after draft of your books. And that doesn’t even take into account November’s NaNoWriMo, when millions of writers are pounding out 50,000 words in 4 short weeks.

Looking for the Modern Mechanical Keyboard

While I enjoyed the Unicomp keyboard and the memories it brought back, it is larger than I’d like, and a bit clunky. Since I have 2 computers on my desk, I began to wonder what advances there had been in mechanical keyboards since the Model M was developed 30 years ago.

After some research and watching dozens of videos on Youtube.com, I decided to buy a modern mechanical keyboard from WASD Keyboards.

WASD keyboards come in 3 sizes, and I picked the 87-key “tenkeyless” version, which was the perfect blend of size and functionality for the kind of work I do. (“Tenkeyless” refers to the lack of a dedicated number pad on the right side of the keyboard.)

keyboard

Three sizes of keyboards

Here’s what WASD says about choosing a mechanical keyboard:

“The main benefit of a mechanical keyboard is the way it feels. If you have never typed on a mechanical keyboard, you will be in for surprise. Almost all people that switch from a rubber dome to a mechanical keyboard would never switch back. With rubber dome style keyboards, you have to “bottom out” a key, meaning you have to fully depress the key, for it register. With mechanical switches, the actuation point is much higher in the key stroke allowing you to quickly change keys without pressing the key down all the way. This allows for less finger fatigue and faster transitions to the next letter. Of course, this is not something that is developed overnight. Like a high end musical instrument, it will take some practice before you appreciate its finer qualities.”—WASD mechanical keyboard guide

These are beautifully made and highly customizable keyboards backed by a great guarantee and excellent customer service. WASD allows you to choose the exact kind of switches you’d like from the popular line of Cherry MX switches.

These color-coded switches allow you to pick the exact characteristics you’d like when you hit those keys: clicky or very clicky, smooth key travel or ones with a “break point” in their action, and the amount of resistance the keys provide.

If you get really obsessive, you can even order from WASD a set of 6 switches so you can play with them at home before you decide. These switches are guaranteed for 50 million keystrokes, by the way.

keyboard

Cherry mechanical switches

Another unique feature of WASD keyboards is the ability to customize how your keyboard looks. You can change the colors of the keycaps individually, and on their site you’ll see some pretty amazing-looking keyboards.

Since I’m more interested in output of my typing than the keyboard itself, I also liked the fact that the sturdy WASD keyboards themselves have no branding on them at all.

However, since designers like me live to “tweak” the way the world looks, I took the opportunity to customize my keyboard. Here’s the layout as it appears on WASD’s site:

keyboard

Custom keyboard layout

And here’s the actual keyboard once I had it set up on my desk, and where I’m typing this article:

keyboard

Custom WASD 87-key “Tenkeyless” keyboard on my desk

The Sound of Success

If you’ve never typed on a mechanical keyboard, it might take a bit of getting used to. I’ve been using my WASD keyboard for a couple of weeks now, and I’ve completely reacclimated to the way the mechanical switches work.

Where I used to get fatigued by typing a 1,000 word article, I actually look forward to an opportunity to really whale away on my sturdy WASD keyboard. Maybe that’s because I learned to type on manual typewriters, but for me typing is a visceral activity in which a lot of emotion comes out in the way I attack the keys.

This simply doesn’t work with “chiclet” style keyboards.

However, one thing you might not suspect is that mechanical keyboards are quite a bit noisier than membrane or dome keyboards.

How noisy?

Well, let’s say that they might not work if your workstation is in close proximity to lots of other people.

WASD will also install sound dampening O-rings for a small fee, and those might be a good idea.

Personally, I love the clicky sound of the keys and would not go back to Apple keyboards for serious typing work.

To give you an idea of the difference, here are 2 short recordings I made. In the first you’ll hear the desk-level sound of typing on an Apple keyboard. The second is typing on my sound-dampened WASD keyboard with its Cherry Brown switches. Keep in mind I have a wooden desk and the recordings were made with my phone sitting right next to the keyboards:

I hope I’ve given some of you fast typists and volume writers a reason to go check out mechanical keyboards.

I can’t tell you what a difference it has made for me in comfort, speed, and enjoyment spent at my computer. While they won’t be right for all, as a writer, take your interface with the digital world seriously, and don’t just settle for “whatever came in the box.”

Resources

tbd advanced publishing starter kit

20 Comments

  1. khalifah

    please do buy a new keyboard. my eyes burning seeing that … scrap. oh do some excorcism first. i got a feeling it contains a powerful succubus inside >.<

    Reply
  2. brother customer service

    There are several types of keyboard for the computers like the 104-key compact, 87-key compact, and 61- key compact but for all the cases there is the same number of functions. But the number of keys are different. You may also use a virtual keyboard on your system. There are several keyboard tools available over the Internet. Just download and install it on your system.

    Reply
  3. Stephanie Danielson

    I am one of the few that actually tries out the keyboard first; it must have that proper ‘feel’ to my fingers (which are small, but with long fingernails) I have to be careful of them catching! (which has happened) I love the keyboard on my laptop, we’ve tapped out many a book and course together. :) I do miss the older styles, but dislike not having a home row or even a sound when I type. I love that sound! Great post :)

    Reply
    • Joel Friedlander

      Stephanie, it sounds like you’ve been very productive with your current setup. I’ve written most of the articles here on Apple keyboards of one kind or another, but I’m really enjoying the feel of my new keyboard, the little “pips” on the F and J keys to orient to the home row, and the clicky sound, which is truly music to my ears. Thanks for reading.

      Reply
  4. Bryan Fagan

    I’m one of those 99%-ers. Up until reading this I doubt I gave my keyboard a double look. I write my novels the old fashion way – pen to paper – I type everything up when the chapters are complete. It’s a drag to say the least.

    Now I’m wondering if it would be less of a drag if I had a better keyboard.

    Thanks for writing this. Now you’ve got me thinking.

    Reply
    • Joel Friedlander

      Bryan if there’s a Best Buy or other computer store nearby, check to see if they have “gaming” keyboards, since those are the most likely to be available. It will give you a feel for how a mechanical keyboard feels (and sounds).

      Reply
  5. Alec Peche

    Based on this article I bought a mechanical keyboard from Amazon for about $40. I don’t understand what the different color lights are for, but since they’re colors of the rainbow they mostly make me smile. I love the keyboard. I’ve been typing faster since I got it since I can hear how slow or fast I type. It’s ramped up my production of words per day!!!! Thanks for the great article.

    Reply
    • Joel Friedlander

      Alan, congrats! It does make an amazing difference, glad you took the plunge.

      Reply
  6. michael n. marcus

    I have sought and bought several specific keyboards.

    (1) Since I never-ever use the numerical keys on the right end of a standard keyboard, I saved desk space with IBM clicky keyboards that did away with them.

    (2) I now use keyboards with yellow keys and huge black letters and numbers, to lessen errors. I still often type “i nthe” instead of “in the.” Errors increase with age. https://www.amazon.com/gp/product/B0039O9LCM/

    I remove the caps-lock keys from all of my keyboards (laptops, too) so I don’t accidentally tap them.

    I’d love to be able to make better use of the F keys. I wish one could generate an em-dash, without my having to type Alt-0151 when I want — to appear online.

    Here’s a little personal typing history (from my memoir):

    For the other five months of the school year, all eighth-graders had typing class, to prepare for a career in an office or beauty salon or maybe the military.

    It was confusing. I had started sort-of typing around age ten, on a very old Remington with sticky keys that my father had brought home from his office. Like most beginners, I began with the basic index-finger hunt-and-peck method, and had advanced to pretty quick two-fingered typing when I was given my very own Royal portable at age 13.

    By the time we started “Business Exploratory” (a.k.a. typing), I was a very fast six-fingered typist. I didn’t always use the same fingers for the same keys, and had no idea where the “home position” was or why it existed, but I typed well, and seldom peeked at the keys.

    My teacher (a nice lady whose name is lost to history) was faced with a major dilemma.

    Even though I did everything the wrong way, on the first day of class I was already typing faster and more accurately than my class was expected to type after five months of instruction. To make it worse, the teacher knew that if she tried to force me to type correctly, I would inevitably type more slowly, make more errors and maybe sprain a wrist. Maybe even two wrists.

    Since she recognized that I was heading for college, not a career in business or hairdressing, and would probably never need to touch a keyboard after eighth grade (HAH!), my enlightened teacher gave me an easy “A,” and let me sit and read a book propped up on the typewriter until the course ended.

    Marcus, Michael N.. Stories I’d Tell My Children (But Maybe Not Until They’re Adults) (Kindle Locations 1060-1066). Silver Sands Books. Kindle Edition.

    Reply
    • Joel Friedlander

      Michael,

      Love that “large print” keyboard, great idea for anyone with sight impairment. And I bet there are “macro” programs or other ways to map functions to keys that would allow you more use of those keys. However, since I emigrated from the Windows world years ago, I can’t point to one for you.

      We probably learned to type on the same kinds of typewriters. That training is somehow still embedded in me (and my typing style).

      Reply
  7. Michael W. Perry

    A great suggestion. I’m quite happy with my tactile/mechanical Das Keyboard. Full retail, it’s not cheap—almost $170. But I came on it at a discount store at about half-price. It has the Cherry switches the article mentions. I find the volume knob, sleep and mute buttons quite handy. There’s a less expensive version without the specialized keys and one for Windows. They’re about $120.

    https://www.amazon.com/Das-Keyboard-Professional-Mechanical-DASK4MACSFT/dp/B00TU7UA86

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KIRah9Niuss

    Reply
    • Joel Friedlander

      Michael,

      The Das Keyboard looks like a great piece of equipment, and is very popular from what I can see. I ended up paying full retail at $170, but considering how much time I spend using it, I think it was a good investment.

      Reply
  8. David Vandagriff

    Joel – Excellent article and thanks for the tip on the tactile keyboards.

    I, too, did a lot of pre-computer writing on IBM Selectric typewriters and came to love those keyboards. Being forced into a high school typing class by my mother introduced me to the productivity joys of touch-typing which has paid more dividends than any other high school, college or law school class I have taken.

    Later, during the years when WordPerfect was running strong, I loved the tactile feel of Northgate keyboards with the function keys on the left. Between the feel of the keyboard and WordPerfect’s function key combinations my left hand knew from memory plus a great many WP key-combination macros, that amalgamation of hardware and software was very efficient with almost no need to move a hand from the keyboard to a mouse while working on documents.

    When the Windows way took over and Wordperfect sank into the deep muck of mediocre programming, I tried some Northgate keyboards with MS Word because of the tactile qualities of Northgate, but the magic was gone.

    I ended up moving to Microsoft ergonomic keyboards. I use them with the bottom of the keyboard elevated higher than the top of the keyboard to get maximum benefit from the wrist rest and they feel pretty good.

    However, the MS ergo keyboards lack the tactical touch, so I’m going to give one of the WASD keyboards a try. Thanks for the article and the suggestions.

    Reply
    • Joel Friedlander

      David,

      I’ve never used one of those Microsoft keyboards outside of trying them in a store display, but I’ve been lucky to have never had any repetitive strain injuries from typing.

      Haven’t thought about WordPerfect and its extensive use of the function keys in years. I used to teach a course for corporate workers on “Power WordPerfect” that was almost entirely built around the 40 commands attached to function keys.

      And I also remember the war that raged in those years between the GUI clan and the text-based clan. Being a member of the latter group, I never wanted to lift my hands from the keyboard to do all the work we do now with mice and trackpads.

      Thanks for the memories.

      Reply
  9. Paula Cappa

    Is there a store or place where people can try out the WSAD keyboard? I’m interested for sure.

    Reply
    • Joel Friedlander

      Paula, I don’t know of any retail outlets, but you could inquire with WASD. I did go down to our local Best Buy and tried the mechanical keyboards they had there, mostly for gamers, and that was helpful. For $15 WASD will sell you a set of 6 keys with all the different Cherry switches so you can see how each works.

      Reply
  10. Ernie Zelinski

    In grade 10 in high school in Grassland, Alberta, we students were required to take typing. I still recall wondering, “Why in the heck am I doing this?” Fast forward to many years later and I was happy to take the typing class. Yeah, it was on the old QWERTY Key Board. I am pretty good at it, however. Being able to type proficiently on QWERTY has helped me create several books (mostly self-published) that have now sold over 997,000 copies worldwide and have earned me a little over $3 million Canadian in pretax profits over the years.

    As an aside, what is the longest word that one can create from using only letters from the top row of the QWERTY keyboard (QWERTYUIOP)?

    Apparently, it’s “TYPEWRITER.”

    That’s good enough for me.

    One more note: Even though I recently purchased a MAC with a retina display for around $2,200 and the latest Think Pad for around $2,300, I am still using a 9-year-old Dell with Windows XP. People laugh at me —but I am the person making the big bucks. In short, I would rather be nerdy and rich than cool and broke.

    Reply
    • Joel Friedlander

      Ernie, love that, “better nerdy and rich than cool and broke,” that’s priceless. I share your affection for staying with equipment that still works. Why not? Consider all the time you’ve saved by not having to set up, do data transfer, and learn your way around a new computer every couple of years.

      It also appears that you will soon be crossing the “million-selling-author” line, so kudos to you!

      Reply
    • Joel Friedlander

      Evan, I’ve been looking at those Dvorak keyboards for years, but I’ve been typing on QWERTY for over 50 years and have never tried one. Do you use it?

      Reply

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