Writing a novel on a bad keyboard is like running a marathon in size three kitten heels. And yet, many of us don’t even know we’re hobbling ourselves…
This article represents a bit of a segue for this website, which formerly consisted of very random technical articles interrupting two year stretches of nothing. Now it’s going to focus more on the writing world, in theory, but I might still sneak some technology articles under the radar. To mark this metamorphosis, I’m producing this article about writing and keyboards. Spoiler alert: I’m using a keyboard to write it!
Actually, over the course of writing this, I’ve used four keyboards. Two of them are mediocre; one is awkward but pragmatic; one is gaudy but terrific. More on that later.
At age 21, I was clocked in the range of 95-105 words per minute (WPM) on a late-90s office keyboard. But I noticed over the last decade or so, my WPM dropped hard. I always assumed it was just that my fingers were getting worn out. And they were–but not by my old age. Hell, I’m only 39, that’s still young enough to break into the NHL…
Over the last few years, a sad fate has befallen the most common computer keyboards used by writers. The average keyboard has fallen from mediocrity to abject terriblicity [sic]. What might surprise you is that the terrible keyboards in use today were already known to be terrible way back in the 1980s. Back then, however, it was due to pioneering engineering–or perhaps, patent lawsuit avoidance-based engineering–that happened to lead down seemingly dead ends. If only those ends had truly been dead!
Behold a true monstrosity: the IBM PC Jr., a well-intentioned computer which sucked harder than a black hole. Released to great fanfare and excitement, it proved so disappointing that it nearly killed the entire personal computing industry.
One of my brothers had an IBM PC Jr. and we both found it quite adequate for Infocom text adventures like Zork. Unbeknownst to me, however, as an eight-year-old and the scion of an IBM employee, it was actually trash even by the standards of the day. The keyboard was ahead of its time in using wireless technology, but imagine using those horrid, blocky, distantly separated keys. Internally they relied on a membrane of rubber domes instead of mechanical springs; the domes snap back into place after being pushed. Think of a remote control and you’ll get the idea. In fact, the PC Jr. was programmed to emit a click noise from the speaker to simulate the key sounds of normal, spring-based keyboards. The keys were also unlabeled, with the identifiers printed on a plastic overlay around them; I see that as a mixed blessing since it may have helped me learn to touch-type, but it’s generally considered another mistake. The PC Jr’s keyboard is the single most cited feature in the colossal disappointment it turned out to be. Typing on the PC Jr. was nightmarish.
That year, 1984, IBM also released their Model M keyboard. Anyone who knows anything about anything will tell you that the Model M is the greatest keyboard ever made. Loud. Heavy. Springy. Clicky. But more on that later.
The reason I bring up the PC Jr. is that most laptop keyboards nowadays represent no improvement over the PC Jr. whatsoever. Those PC Jr keys, colloquially labeled by their resemblance to Chiclets, are actually better than the even flatter ones you see everywhere now, those squat little mongrel keys that define the modern laptop. The underlying culprit is the public’s desire for more and more portability. Writers and travelers mostly stick to laptops, and in order to keep the form factor slim and fit, we’re stuck with the chiclets instead of nice, springy, beveled half-inch trapezoids.
But Chiclets make touch-typing more difficult; they provide little springiness or tactile feedback; they wear out faster; they’re unforgiving to the fingertips; and, at least by one anecdote, may promote repetitive stress injuries.
(Oh, and to make writing on the laptop even worse, most suffer from that reprehensible touchpad, the merest graze of which will select half your text and replace it with the key you were about to press, usually something stupid like V, which has its uses, I guess, but is an absolute nightmare to deal with in Scrabble.)
Worserer still, I have giant hands, which aggravates all of these problems fifty-fold. I first noticed the hellish comeback of chiclets six or seven years ago, on a beautiful, metallic blue Sony Vaio which was about half a centimeter thick, and, to my hockey stick fingers, totally unusable.
If the revenge of the PC Jr. wasn’t bad enough, there’s now also this psychopathic idea that keyboards can be eliminated entirely in favor of flat, on-screen software. Now you’re stuck banging your fingertips into an unresponsive sheet of glass. This rivals the previous Worst Keyboard Ever Made, which for me was the one on the Atari 400 (Exhibit C). The Atari 400 had shallow, gummy depressions instead of any sort of physical buttons. We had one of these at my elementary school mixed in with some better computers, and even at age seven I was perplexed by the numbing stupidity of Atari’s engineering department.
Touchscreens rival the Atari 400 in their godawfulness for typing. The difference is that most people aren’t long-form content creators, and just clicking on things is 99% of user activity, so it doesn’t really matter. But I’m writing about, and/or for, writers.
Here’s a bit of semi-paranoid prophecy:
- In the near future, touchscreens completely replace keyboards, making long-form writing nearly impossible without extensive finger damage.
- Reduction of long-form writing causes a decline in production of science and original thought, since supplying actual evidence in essays requires too much touchscreen-typing for any fingers to withstand.
- With all literary production reduced to tiny snippets (e.g. Tweets), society loses the ability to ascertain the quality or authority of any writing.
- The people come to believe idiotic things.
Trends are pointing that way. Touchscreens shred the fabric of civilization! Get a big, mechanical spring keyboard. Write! RAGE AGAINST THE DYING OF THE SPRING!
I’ve done my part. A few months ago I went down to Micro Center to address my keyboard woes. I’d previously acquired a generic wireless keyboard, which is an improvement if, and only if, you can find one with all the keys in the right places: no weirdly located backslash, a normal-sized ENTER key, no Sleep/Power buttons in places you’ll accidentally press, etc. It helped, but fundamentally the generic still sucked. The keys still had that sad feeling endemic to most modern keyboards of the non-chiclet variety. Pushing on them is like mushing your fingers into melted chocolate.
A keyboard really is like a running shoe. Reading the specs can only tell you so much. You have to try it out in the store. So I spent about three hours in Micro Center’s keyboard section tearing open every box and subjecting each spring to rigorous testing. I was like the egg guy from Clerks.
I came home with the $80 EpicGear DeFiant keyboard (and yes, that’s the official capitalization). The DeFiant has a stupid-looking sci-fi font on each key cap and little LEDs underneath. The latter allows it a very pointless “breathing” mode where the LEDs can pulse so you can pretend your keyboard is a friend. But in time, it will be.
It looks like it was built for a 10-year-old’s sweded version of Space 1999, but after years of typing on AMC Pacers it feels like a freakin’ Ferrari. It’s available with several mechanical spring options, all of them replaceable on individual keys. Each type of spring, denoted by color, has slightly different tactile feedback and noisiness. I eat my steak raw and I like the springiest, clickiest, loudest keyboard I can buy (“EG Purple”). Rig this up and suddenly you’ve got a snazzy-looking rival to the IBM Model M. (Plus it has a volume spinner.)
As soon as I started using this, I got my WPM back. There are dozens of other gaming keyboards out there, and you can find them at the usual brick-and-mortar suspects like Best Buy, as long as you don’t get turned off by the “gaming” moniker. If you do, you can still order quality Model M clones from Unicomp.
Whatever you choose to buy, as soon as you’ve freed yourself from the chiclet, touchpad, or whatever other shackle society’s slung over your wrists, you can return to the important literary task of rescuing civilization from its descent into ignorance and barbarity.
As a final aside, earlier I mentioned four keyboards. One was the above-average-but-still-hellish chiclet keyboard on my Lenovo Helix 2; another was the generic wireless; the third was the DeFiant. But the fourth? The fourth is my Motorola Droid 4. It is 2017 and I use a $45 smartphone that debuted in 2012 because it was the last decent Android model made with a sliding keyboard. Believe it or not, active development among Android hackers has got the latest version of Android running on there years after Motorola stopped providing updates. Lineage OS 14.1 works smoothly, in fact, and the keys are bulbous enough for my giant fingertips to press them without too many mistakes. You could write a novel on this thing, and it’s better than doing so on an iPhone, but I still don’t recommend it.
As an even finaller aside, my fifth keyboard is a 1934 Royal Portable, seen in the header image. I like knowing that when civilization crumbles (despite our best efforts as writers), and there’s no power anywhere, I’ll still be able to distribute seditious leaflets and doggerel before I’m devoured by cannibals. The Royal’s not just good for writing; it’s also good for strength training. You have to positively slam these keys to squeeze any ink off the roll. Spend a week typing on this and your fingers will have their own biceps. After writing a novel with it, you’d be more powerful than I can possibly imagine.
In summary: Let your fingers dance on loud and clicky springs. Do not go gentle into that good night.