Writing advice tends to focus on ways to improve wordplay through seductive syntax, elegant editing, and creative applications of your personal brand of writerly insanity. The sentence sages of the internet kingdom give (and have given) solid suggestions for how to augment ideas and the words, and should be thanked and showered with gifts for their contribution to improving the stories of the writing collective. But even among such varied and abundant advice, I rarely see anyone transcend the theoretical, to advise to writers beyond the writing, to perhaps talk about some of the more practical aspects of being a prolific letter bender.
There’s one niche topic that seems all but wholly ignored, probably because it falls very low on the priority list of most writers who are investing free time to refine their craft. One niche topic that plays a role in everything you write, eventually. One niche topic that I, as a technical writer, hold very near to my heart:
I know, I know, all that build up for keyboards? But belay your disappointment for a moment and think about the importance of that chained click-and-clack: even if you draft stories on paper, one day, sooner than later, you’ll have to transcribe that onto your computer to get it published. Your keyboard is your gateway to the written world, your concept manifester, your irreplaceable partner in the literary dance of life. The sooner you embrace your relationship with your keyboard, the sooner you’ll be a happier (and potentially healthier!) writer.
I upgraded my keyboard after fighting daily with a dying Logitech for a few months, and suddenly realized how much I’d been involuntarily handicapping myself by using a keyboard that didn’t work well, and didn’t fit my typing style. Since I starting smithing on my new board, not only can I write more quickly and accurately, but actually find I enjoy typing, to the point that I want to sit down and write simply for the satisfaction of feeling my fingers on the new keys. Like a new pair of running shoes, a new keyboard offers more comfort, fits your body better, and rejuvenates your mind for the tedious task at hand.
But before you just jump on Amazon and buy the prettiest little QWERTY out there, remember that not all keyboards are created equal, and just like shoes, you have to find the right fit. Fortunately, I’m about to condense 6 months of keyboard research into a single blog post, which should hopefully take some of the guess work out of choosing the right board.
To start, there are two types of keyboards: mechanical and membrane. Mechanical keyboards echo the earliest generation of computers; large, heavy, noisy slabs with that either very satisfying or very annoying plastic clatter. Membrane keyboards, the more modern of the two, are much more common, and nearly every laptop has this style hidden underneath its alphabetical layout. There are advantages and disadvantages to both, but the decisions really comes down to preference and comfort.
Partly due to their popularity with gamers, mechanical keyboards have seen a contemporary resurgence. They tend to be very easy to type quickly on, and include fancy, technical features like full N-Key rollover (a jargony way of saying that it will recognize all key presses even if multiple keys are hit at once; an advantage if you’re a very fast typist). These boards have an individual switch under each key that translates your keystroke to the computer as soon as the key is pressed. Most modern mechanical keyboards use “Cherry MX” switches, which come in a variety of colors.
These “colors” translate to different tactile feelings when you type; some are linear and need to be pressed all the way down, while others, like the “blue” switch includes a “bump” when you press the key, so you know when the keyboard has registered the letter. They also vary in terms of the force needed to push the key all the way down; a keyboard with “black” switches needs a surprising amount of downward pressure for each stroke, which may turn off writers with a lighter touch, who don’t (like me) attack their keyboards with much vigor.
The good news: there are many types of switches, offering varying levels of speed and comfort depending on your preferences. I won’t bore you too much with tje technical details of each switch, but if you’re curious, more information can be found here: Overview of Cherry MX Switches. If you’re curious about how the keys actually feel when pressed, visit a computer supply store that displays keyboards (read: not Best Buy). You can also buy a tester kit online.
Now for the practical stuff: as a writer, I found the linear black and clear switches too heavy/stiff for daily typing, and the blue too noisy. I found the red switches too flighty (leading to more mistakes the faster I wrote) and was thus torn between green and brown. I preferred the brown overall, for the tactile response and significantly reduced noise. I also find I have less tension in my hands and arms when typing on this keyboard. YMMV.
My new keyboard is mechanical, and I’m coming from a membrane style. I find that my writing is smoother, with fewer mistakes, and that I really enjoy typing on this thing. Several companies sell mechanical keyboards: mine is from WASD, but Das Keyboard, Razer, Logitech, and Corsair (plus a few others) also make variations.
Fast, accurate typing
Heavy, so it doesn’t slide around on your desk
Satisfying key strokes that encourage more writing
Easy(ish) to clean
Very noisy; not very good for writing in a quiet environment
Relatively expensive compared to membrane keyboards
Time investment needed to learn which switches you like best
A large portion of modern keyboards sit on top of a gummy rubberish membrane, which in turn sits on top of a circuit board. When a key is pressed, the membrane contacts the circuit board, sending a signal to the computer that translates it into a letter. Each key is not its own moving part, but instead a pressure pad that is part of the entire membrane. Where the mechanical keyboard provides immediate tactile response, a membrane keyboard provides very little (sometimes none at all). There are two sub-types of membrane keyboards: “flat” like the one on your microwave, and “full-travel” like the one on your laptop.
On that note: membrane keyboards are featured on almost all laptops (as the space and weight of individual switches would be cumbersome for the form factor). They tend to be very gentle on your fingers and hands, very quiet, and preferable for light typists. They’re pretty resilient, too, as the membrane acts like a shock absorber that can withstand a lot of daily use. Many people prefer membrane keyboards because they take next to no effort to type on, and over years of using them by default, they’ve adjusted to the relative lack of physical response.
Nearly every company that makes keyboards makes membrane versions, but some feature media keys (to control music and movies), and other gizmos, gadgets, and assorted colorful knobs. There isn’t much difference between the actual keyboards based on manufacturer (like there is with the mechanical switches), so you’ve got more freedom in terms of design and additional features.
Now that I’ve made the jump, I wouldn’t go back to a membrane keyboard unless I had to (like when using my laptop). That’s solely personal preference; I’m a pretty aggressive writer, and hit the keys hard and fast when I’m in the proverbial zone. I’ve obviously written many, many things on membrane keyboards and found them comfortable for a very long time, so don’t take me as a followable example. You do you.
Easy on fingers and hands
Little tactile response can lead to mistakes in typing
Gets dirty very easily, and can be difficult to clean
Key replacement proves difficult without proper tools
Lightweight means it can slide around your desk
Keyboards also come in variations of form factor. If you experience pain while writing, or never feel comfortable on a flat keyboard, several companies sell ergonomic keyboards that split the keys down the center, supposedly to improve hand placement and typing accuracy while reducing wrist stress. The traditional keyboard has 104 keys (including a number pad), but if space is limited, you can also buy an 88-key version that sacrifices the number bad for a shorter body.
For the adventurous hipster, there are also other key layouts, including DVORAK and COLEMAK, all of which purport to be superior to the traditional QWERTY layout in terms of speed and accuracy (if modern typing lore is to be believed, QWERTY was actually designed to slow a writer down, as to not jam up the then completely mechanical type writers). I’ve only ever played around with DVORAK and abandoned it pretty quickly; it seems like a lot of work to erase QWERTY from my brain all to learn a completely new layout for a relatively minor bump in typing speed. Plus, the majority of the English speaking world uses QWERY, so you’d then have to play mental Twister anytime you needed to use a keyboard that wasn’t yours.
Virtual keyboards on phones and tablets add another layer of complexity to the puzzle; I, as a matter of preference, loathe typing anything on my phone. I even dislike sending texts. I sit there plucking at letters thinking, “this would be so much better and faster on my computer.” They do have the added feature of predictive text, which as we all known, can be a mixed blessing, and always seems on its worst behavior when you’re texting your mom or your boss. I know some people swear by Swype, and actually enjoy writing using the relatively new digital interfaces, so if that’s your jam, go for it!
You have a world of possibilities at your finger tips (ba-dum-ching) when it comes to selecting the right keyboard. I’m not suggesting any one way is the best, but I do implore you to consider the medium through which you forge your wordy worlds. A painter would painstakingly select her brushes and a soccer player tests many types of cleats before he plays in a game, so why would you not do the same for what is arguably, the most important physical tool for a modern writer?
If you’ve got any specific questions, either Tweet me at @OliverJGray, or leave them in the comments below. If you can’t tell, I’ve got keyboard fever.