I. It’s 1995, and I’m in seventh-grade keyboarding class. The school computer lab has clunky greige Apple computers loaded with Mavis Beacon software. We dutifully practice placing our fingers on the “home row”: the left hand on ASDF, right on JKL;. We practice typing short words, then sentences, aiming for accuracy and speed while keeping those fingers on the home row.
This goes on once a week for three months. The class is easy. I get a decent grade. Then we switch to Health class, which is much more exciting because it talks about s-e-x. Because it’s 1995, health class spends a lot of time teaching about contraceptive foam and the sponge. Neither the sponge nor the home row method will serve me in my adult life.
II. It’s the week that vaccines become available to New Yorkers age 30+, and I’m venting to friends in a group chat that I haven’t been able to book an appointment online yet. “That’s because Katie is probably typing in that she lives in BROKOLYN NWE YROK,” one ex-friend jokes. My bad typing is a running meme among my friends and coworkers who are routinely subjected to my typos over Slack, email, or iMessage. In this article, of course, you see nothing but perfect prose, thanks to the magic of spellcheck and copy editors. But when I’m typing quickly in a fast-moving chat, it’s chaos.
I’m bad at typing. Not so much that I’m slow (although I’m not fast, either), but my accuracy is garbage. I use some mangled half-version of touch typing, sometimes looking at the keys, using *most* of my fingers, but definitely not the home row.
In order to catch a typo, I had to go undercover. I had to become…a typo.
And so I decide I need to embark on a journey to fix the sins of seventh grade. I will teach myself to type. I will learn at the feet of the masters, champions of speed and accuracy. I will figure out why I made so many typos in the first place. Is it my fingers or my brain? My long nails? Am I just a big dummy? Genetically bad at typing? Is it my computer’s fault or my keyboard’s?
In order to catch a typo, I had to go undercover. I had to become…a typo.
III. “QWERTY was invented before touch typing or the home row method was, so people think you’re supposed to type by centering your fingers on the home row, but when you realize it’s basically just based on the first half of the alphabet that doesn’t make any sense. … Additionally, home row does not support the anatomy of the human hand, where the middle three fingers on each hand want to stretch further than the pinkies and the thumbs do. By forcing your longer fingers onto the home row, you’re creating some needless friction that will probably slow you down too.”
—Sean Wrona, 35, of Syracuse, New York. First-ever winner of the Ultimate Typing Championship in 2010, runner-up in 2021.
IV. Let’s be clear about what typos are. Typos are keyboarding mistakes — accidental strokes that would only happen on a computer, not writing mistakes. Misspellings or mixing up “they’re” and “their” is a writing mistake, not a typo. Autocorrect mistakes, especially on phones, aren’t typos either. “Duck you, you ducking duck” isn’t the result of a misfired finger placement.
There are different kinds of typos. One is “fat fingering”: accidentally hitting the key next to the letter you meant to type, like the classic example of “pwn” instead of “own.”
A different version is when you switch letters inside a word, like “teh” for “the.” This isn’t a misspelling — you know how to spell “the.” In this case, your fingers went for the wrong key at the wrong time, and you got tripped up by two hands — the ‘H’ with your right hand and ‘E’ with your left.
I don’t switch the letters inside a word because I don’t know how to spell, or even because I have some form of dyslexia that would make me think those letters should be switched. I would never write “teh” when writing with a pencil and paper. The error isn’t in my cognitive understanding of how the word should look; it’s a slip-up of my brain telling my left finger to move faster than the right.
Perhaps my problem then is an issue of coordination between left and right. Based on my utter inability to follow dance instructions that tell me when to move my left foot, this seems a likely culprit. Could the root of all my typos be some sort of malfunction in my brain sending the signals to my hands?
V. A 68-year-old woman had an ongoing eye twitch and other facial muscle spasms. She had been receiving Botox injections to help, but that had become less effective over time. Doctors performed bilateral pallidal deep brain stimulation, a kind of neurosurgery used to treat uncontrollable movements or tremors that come with Parkinson’s disease. Small electrodes are inserted into an area of the brain that controls motor function, then a separate device is implanted in the chest that sends electrical impulses into the brain to regulate the movements.
Her procedure was successful, but it left a strange side effect: She completely forgot how to touch type. A former administrative office worker who did lots of typing, she was reduced to hunt and peck, struggling to type even a single word in a minute.
Although not an official diagnosis, doctors and researchers refer to this phenomenon as “dystypia” — a disruption of the ability to type on a keyboard. A similarly modern phenomenon is “dystextia,” where someone has trouble typing on a phone. Both dystexia and dystypia are usually observed by doctors treating patients who have suffered a stroke.
Dr. Joshua Wong, a neurologist at the University of Florida, observed the woman and published a paper about her unusual case. According to Wong, it’s impossible to pinpoint one part of the brain that might be responsible for typing or dystypia.
“The physical act of typing requires communication among different regions of the cerebral cortex: one for visual input, one for physical motor strength, one for motor coordination, one for planning, etc…” he told BuzzFeed News. “These regions communicate with each other via the circuits — called ‘white matter tracts.’ It is currently thought that dystypia is caused by disruption of one tract called the superior longitudinal fasciculus.”
In another case, a Japanese man in his sixties had a stroke affecting his left frontal lobe. He had no other problem writing by hand or reading, but his typing was impaired. Researchers thought the disruption to two parts of the left frontal lobe could be to blame.
“Perhaps it is surprising there aren’t more mistakes.”
“I like to think of it as: If you are trying to watch TV but there is something wrong with the cable cord, you might end up with a distorted image, laggy audio, or even lose signal completely for a bit,” Dr. Wong said.
The act of typing — either fluid touch typing or making mistakes — is a miracle of our brains.
Dr. Tom Stafford, a cognitive scientist at the University of Sheffield in the UK, has studied typing, most recently in typing tests as a possible way to detect Parkinson’s disease.
“You have to think that typing, although something we do every day, is an incredibly complex skill,” Stafford told BuzzFeed News. “You have to coordinate what you want to say, find the words to say it, and move your fingers to the right keys. Fast typists are hitting multiple keys per second.”
“Perhaps it is surprising there aren’t more mistakes,” said Stafford.
VI. No place on the internet sees more typos than the search box of Google. Pandu Nayak, vice president of Search at Google, has seen it all in his 16 years (people enter over 10,000 variations of the word “YouTube”). According to Nayak, about 1 in 10 searches on Google has some sort of error.
One of the earliest features added to the search engine in 2001 was “Did you mean,” which solves the biggest typo problems.
“There’s a number of reasons why people do this,” Nayak told BuzzFeed News. “Maybe they interchange letters or drop a letter because they didn’t hit the key hard enough. Or they hit the wrong key. The keyboard layout means you mean to hit the ‘J’ but hit ‘K’ instead. People who touch type, sometimes they are in the wrong position and every letter is one key shifted to the left.”
These are all a form of typos, slips of the fingers. But Google also has to take into account misspellings, like “resteraunts near me” or phonetic spellings like “fewsha” for fuchsia.
“Neural networks have helped really give better results because it adds much more context,” he said. “Let’s say you search ‘average home coast.’ If you searched ‘home coast,’ that might not be a typo. But since you searched ‘average home coast,’ it’s more obvious that it’s probably average home COST.”
According to Nayak, the neural network technology that powers Search and the “Did you mean” feature doesn’t take into account whether something is a typo versus a misspelling or homonym. No one at Google has programmed in a code that tells if that “A is next to S on the keyboard, so take that into account for typos.” The technology is much more advanced, where deep learning and neural networks are able to use context to parse human folly.
Over the last two decades of Google search, the way we search has changed, but oddly one statistic has stayed constant: About 10% of all searches have some error or typo. This rate has remained the same even as the number of searches is now in the billions per day. In the last few years, searches are more frequently in natural language with longer strings of text (“how long is the Nile River” instead of just “Nile”), so you’d expect typos to rise. But this is mitigated by a feature that stops misspelled and typo’d searches before they ever happen: the autosuggest box.
If you start typing in “Arnold S,” you’re shown the correct spelling of the Governator in a drop-down menu, which you can hit before ever making an erroneous search for “Arnold Shwzareaneger.” Nayak pointed out that plenty of people actually use both of these as a type of spellcheck, something I’ve certainly done — I often will google the name of a website (“buzzfed”) into the browser tab and click through the search result instead of entering the actual URL, which requires precise typing.
The beauty of Google’s advances in language processing and machine learning is that it saves me the hassle of having to have paid attention in seventh-grade keyboarding class. It doesn’t matter that I make typos in Google, Google will help me out. Unlike my friends, it won’t mock me; it accepts me as I am. I bring my whole self to the Google search box.
There are a few other big innovations from the last 15 years we take for granted. Autocomplete on our phones saves us from the complications of big fingers on tiny phones. Spellcheck, once a distinct program you ran at the very end of typing on Microsoft Word, is now baked into not just word processing but our browsers. In 1995 — the same year I took my seventh-grade keyboarding class — Microsoft Word debuted that wavy red “squiggle” under a misspelled word, which means we tend to fix all our typos as soon as they happen.
In many ways, there’s no need to be a fast or even good typist anymore. Technology has solved typing for us. Sure, there are a few jobs where speedy and accurate typing is a core function of the job, but most schlubs like me can muddle through just fine with spellcheck and autocomplete.
Only one woman, Kathy Chiang, was in the 10 finalists of the 2020 Ultimate Typing Championship. This is most likely due to the nature of the self-selecting cohort that enters an online typing competition rather than the innate abilities of men versus women. In the previous century, speed typing was the domain of women, who made up most of the secretary and typist jobs.
In 1985, David Letterman had the world’s fastest typist, Barbara Blackburn, as a guest on his show, where she performed a race against the fastest typist on staff at his show, a production assistant also named Barbara, who is appearing on camera for the first time ever. Blackburn was a grandmother who worked in an insurance office and typed as fast as 180 words per minute, making it into The Guinness Book of World Records. During Letterman’s head-to-head, there’s an upset: Blackburn’s typewriter has a malfunction, and the production assistant wins.
Perhaps speed typing, like cooking or clothing design, is seen as the domain of women until men decide to do it at elite levels. It’s quite possible that overall, young men are outpacing young women in typing speeds in large part to practice from video games. But there are still subtle gendered parts of fast typing: Think about who in your office is asked to take notes during a meeting because they’re the fastest typist.
VII. “I recall some of my classmates complimenting my typing speed in classes throughout elementary school, but I never really took any of that to heart. Even if I were the fastest in the room, I knew that didn't necessarily mean I was fast elsewhere. It wasn't until my freshman year of college that a friend noticed how quickly I typed and convinced me to take an online typing test. When I noticed my percentile and how I was showing up on leaderboards, I finally believed that my speed was actually pretty impressive.”
—Kathy Chiang, 28, of California. Fourth-place runner-up in 2020 Ultimate Typing Championship.
XIII. “It used to be hard to type with long nails, but now if I have short nails, it’s too hard lol. It feels like I lost my fingers. All my clients tell me the same thing.”
—Britney Tokyo, LA-based nail artist who has done nails for the Kardashians, Rita Ora, Katy Perry, and Miley Cyrus
IX. When all else fails, I like to blame the equipment. Different keyboards can indeed affect the way you type. Apple’s butterfly keyboards were so maligned that it finally did away with them.
Up until 2012, I used a mechanical keyboard for work — a classic black clickity-clack keyboard with a big number pad and lots of crumbs from my desk lunches that fell out when I shook it upside down, and sometimes a key might pop off. Truly a thing of beauty: a big, disgusting, loud keyboard. Bellissimo! Years later, typing on a mechanical keyboard is Proust’s madeleine for me. It reminds me of my old office job, entering data on the number pad into spreadsheets. It reminds me of the HP Gateway desktop in the cow print box I had in college, which then reminds me of the one time the “dude, you’re getting a Dell” actor asked me for a light for his cigarette standing outside one of our college buildings (we attended at the same time), my favorite anecdote of a brush with a minor celebrity.
The subreddit r/MechanicalKeyboards has close to a million members, sharing photos of their custom keyboards and trading tips. People aren’t just fans of old ones — they buy special colored keys with unique click sounds and tap pressures.
My brother-in-law happens to be one of these nerds. I asked him to borrow one of his mechanical keyboards recently, figuring he might have an extra one laying around. Instead, he opened a cupboard in his office, revealing over a dozen customized mechanical keyboards in varying colors he had made for himself. (I don’t want to judge anyone’s hobby but...I don’t get it.) He warned me, “You’re going to think this will make you type faster, but instead it’s going to make you think you need to see a doctor.”
It did feel very different: Each key pressed down much farther, which combined with the loud clacking sounds made me feel like my fingers were tripping over each other while running down a dark basement hallway in a horror movie.
When I tested it out on TypingTest.com, I actually did worse: 47 words per minute instead of 53 with my regular keyboard. New equipment wasn’t going to help me.
X. Daniel Guermeur came to the US to study computer science at Stanford University as a grad student in the late 1980s. One part of the culture shock he didn’t anticipate was that all his classmates were much better and faster at typing than he was. Back in France, he never took typing in school like American kids did, and a lot of his friends typed by hunt and peck.
“American people type well; they touch type,” he told BuzzFeed News. “Also people from Israel, the UK, Italy. Now, there’s still no typing classes in France or Germany. I look at my family and friends typing on a keyboard and see they use their two index fingers.”
Now, when he has interns from France, he makes sure they take the time to learn to touch type.
Guermeur knows a lot about typing; he is the founder of Das Keyboard, a mechanical keyboard manufacturer. There are about 12 models of Das Keyboard, ranging in price from about $120 to $200 for one that has glowing light-up keys that you can program to alert you about things like calendar notifications or emails. Guermeur said that Das Keyboards are “like the BMWs of keyboards.” (According to my hobbyist brother-in-law, keyboards can get a lot more expensive than that. Steve Jobs’ famously snide remake about certain Porsche models being what dentists drive comes to mind.)
XI. It’s 2010, and Das Keyboard has sponsored the first Ultimate Typing Championship at South by Southwest in Austin. Sean Wrona, from upstate New York, has been flown out after winning a semifinal round by trouncing his rivals on TyprX.com. On the convention center floor, Wrona obliterates his rival in front of a crowd of lanyard-wearing onlookers. In a post-match interview, he admits he was frustrated because in the second round he only got 124 words per minute, a slow speed for himself.
Wrona holds up a giant novelty check for $2,000, smiling and shaking hands in his black Das Keyboard shirt.
XII. It may not totally shock you to learn that people who choose to enter speed typing competitions are a bit on the, erm, nerdy side. Wrona holds degrees in applied statistics and economics from Cornell. One of his friends in the typing world is Jelani Nelson, an engineering and applied sciences professor at UC Berkeley, who at one point could top 170 words per minute (Nelson told me he tried to enter the 2020 Ultimate Typing Championship but didn’t place well).
Wrona isn’t just a fast typist — he thinks a lot about the nature of typing. In an email to me about his typing technique, he mentioned theories of typing from a 1936 book about typing psychology. He does not do traditional touch typing; he has his own method. “I did not learn to type from anyone in a class and I think that is in part why I am faster because the way people are taught to type in typing classes is wrong,” he told me over email.
“I was gifted in mental arithmetic, and I do believe there is some kind of connection between typing skills, math skills, music skills, and computer skills, but that might simply be because the fastest typists also use computers a lot,” Wrona told me. “However, Albert Tangora, one of the most famous typing champions from the '20s and '30s was also known for mental arithmetic and that was during the mechanical typewriter era.”
In fact, most of the other top typists don’t use the home row, either. Emre Aydin from the UK didn’t have typing classes in his school and described his self-taught technique:
“My left hand doesn’t move as much but the fingers do a lot of work (with my left thumb on the space bar as a ‘stabiliser’ of sorts), while my right hand does move around quite a fair amount. I use all my fingers except my right thumb and unlike home row which encourages typing certain keys with the same fingers, the fingers I end up using are often optimized to the nearest comfortable finger where my hand is positioned at the time.”
Brandon Vielle, who tied for fifth in 2020, also has his own technique: “I had to work at a deficit — having formerly only used 1–2 fingers on my right hand, and adapted a much more momentum-focused ‘clawgrip’ style of typing, that I slowly refined by adding more of a ‘combo’-touch. Which is why, like some other typists, my index would move quite a bit.”
Vielle’s description of overcoming hunt and peck is slightly selling himself short. He was also a sort of typing wunderkind, clocking in over 70 wpm in elementary school.
XIII. For as much as my friends make fun of me for being bad at typing, I’m not that bad. On an online typing test, I clocked in at a respectable 47 words per minute. That’s not fast, but it’s not slow, and several of my colleagues at BuzzFeed were around the same speed (the fastest typist in the newsroom is a gamer who has one of those gamer chairs that look like Lightning McQueen).
I attempted to relearn touch typing. I signed up for online typing lessons at TypingClub.com, which promised to reteach me to use the home row. Its exercises started out with just “FJFJFJF” (the positions for the two index fingers) over and over, then the next set of keys for the middle fingers, then ring finger, and pinky, then finally trying to mix them up.
Trying to type unfamiliar strings of “asdfjkl;” hurt my brain.
I thought this would be fun, but I found it extremely unpleasant and arduous. Trying to type unfamiliar strings of “asdfjkl;” hurt my brain in a strange way; seeing the red marks where I made mistakes made me angry. I felt a feeling similar to one of my least favorite sensations of trying to play Super Mario for the first time as a kid and continually not being able to hit the correct buttons to make him jump at the right time. I hated it.
Somehow, this was more demoralizing than the constant ridicule of my friends.
I’m ashamed to say after a few days of TypingClub, I gave up. My speed hadn’t improved at all.
XIV. Maybe the new frontier of typing isn’t typing at all. Not everyone has fingers, not everyone has the ability to move their fingers easily. Accessibility for people with decreased mobility or sensation or prosthetics is already underway.
Facebook recently announced that it’s working on a wrist device that can sense the brain’s signals to your fingers to tell what keys you want to type — essentially letting you type without a keyboard (a Facebook executive insisted to me that this is not Facebook “reading your thoughts,” which is fine because Facebook already knows enough about you that it definitely doesn’t need to read your thoughts).
This opens the possibility of typing without typos — if you’re typing straight from your mind, there’s no chance of accidentally hitting the wrong key. We’re just a few years away from human error in typing being a pesky relic of the past, our thoughts beamed from our minds to our smart glasses to our wrists.
I may have failed at my quest to become a better typist, but maybe it doesn’t matter. For now, I have spellcheck, I have autocorrect, I’m physically capable of typing, and I have a job where someone else is in charge of copyediting this (thanks, Sarah). And maybe soon, where we’re going, there are no typos. ●
Correction: Jelani Nelson is currently a professor at UC Berkeley. The university was misstated in a previous version of this post.
Correction: Sean Wrona holds degrees in applied statistics and economics. The former subject was misstated in a previous version of the post.