Writing speeds

Oct 2, 2014

I like to write a lot. I usually write for about 2-4 hours per day. For something I do so much of, there are incredible time savings to be had. Of course, writing fast is only a very small part of being a good writer. Nevertheless, these small gains add up. The less time I spend writing, the more time I can spend thinking.

A very brief history of my writing

The first 20 years of my life were pretty normal. In my final year of university, I started keeping a diary. I fell in love with it. I couldn't stop myself from writing. I learned to touch type with the Dvorak keyboard layout. In the last four years, I have typed literally over a million words in my diary alone. Naturally, all that practice has caused me to become a pretty good typist.

For my last four blog posts, I have started a new habit. Instead of just starting to type, I've been planning out my posts on paper first. I think that having a clear plan before you start is incredibly helpful. Although planning could be done with a keyboard, I find that writing on paper helps to reduce the stress on my fingers. I'm also enjoying the ability to use different colours and draw ad-hoc diagrams.

My current speeds

I wanted to gather some data on my actual writing speeds in different formats. For my first experiment, I typed out the entire text of my first ever blog post.

  • Typing: 3m 54s (72 wpm)
  • SwiftKey: 7m 40s (37 wpm)
  • Handwriting (messy): 11m 00s (26 wpm)
  • Handwriting (neat): 14m 50s (19 wpm)

Obviously, typing in Dvorak and Vim blows everything else out of the water. With SwiftKey for Android, I use the Dvorak layout with two thumbs and it's pretty quick. I was surprised at the difference between my "messy handwriting" and "neat handwriting". The first was mostly cursive with no care taken for readability. The second was printed very neatly (i.e. not joined up).

I wanted to know why the two handwriting speeds were so different. It could have been a difference between cursive and printed or simply due to the amount of care I was taking. I did another test, writing at a fast pace (but not rushed) with both styles. This time I used the first four paragraphs of my growth mindset post.

  • Typing: 2m 56s (72 wpm)
  • SwiftKey: 5m 19s (40 wpm)
  • Handwriting (printed): 8m 40s (24 wpm)
  • Handwriting (cursive): 8m 56s (24 wpm)

It's hardly scientific but I'm now convinced that cursive isn't really much faster than printed. My current style is sort of a mix between the two. I mostly print the letters but sometimes join them up when it feels natural. I used to write in pure cursive until about two years ago. I switched because I thought it made my writing much more readable.

My own personal results can be summed up with the ratio 1:2:3 for typing to SwiftKey to handwriting.

How to improve at typing

Typing with Dvorak is pretty good. In the tests above, I was typing at a "comfortable pace". At my fastest, I can consistently score above 90 wpm in this two minute typing test.

Honestly, I don't think I can get much faster with Dvorak alone. I am interested in using Vim scripts and abbreviations to increase my speed. For examples, see my previous posts on Vim auto-capitalisation and better Vim abbreviations.

I've also been interested in an open source steno program called Plover. It's a completely different system for typing. Instead of pressing individual letters, you press combinations of keys which correspond to syllables or whole words. From the information on their site, I think I could be typing at 240 wpm in six months with a lot of practice.

However, it's not without its downsides. For one, it requires an n-key rollover keyboard. I do already have this excellent mechanical keyboard but it won't work with my laptop keyboard. That's kind of a problem.

How to improve at handwriting

Writing on paper will always be slower than typing. That's fine. I find writing on paper more relaxing than typing. When I sit down to write something on paper, I generally end up spending much more time thinking than writing anyway.

I think the biggest area for handwriting improvement is skipping out the unnecessary bits. I try to write the fewest number of words that get the message across. Abbreviations can also help.

There are also many advanced shorthand systems. If I had to pick just one to learn then it would probably be Gregg shorthand. Instead of writing out the individual letters, you draw simple curved lines which correspond to the syllables in the word. It would be completely unreadable to most people but that wouldn't be a problem.

Next steps

I love the idea of Plover and Gregg but neither of them is a priority for me right now. I may eventually try them or they might remain a fantasy forever. I also have to remember that writing fast isn't everything. Writing better content is more important to me than writing worse content faster. Maybe I should just accept my current speeds and focus on more important things.

In the immediate future, I plan to continue exploring different Vim plugins. The EasyMotion plugin looks interesting. If it saves me one second per jump and I use it 50 times per day then it will end up saving me one whole day of time over the next five years (according to this xkcd comic).

xkcd: Is It Worth the Time?