My Journey with Touch Typing and Vim

Given the title, the publication date of this article is probably really confusing. This was deliberate.

Three weeks ago I made a conscious decision to improve my typing habits. You see, I had a dirty habit. Despite spending literally decades typing on a daily basis, I’ve been a weak typist. It wasn’t exactly finger pecking, nor did it require looking down at the keyboard as I typed, but rather a six-finger dance I developed organically over the years. My technique was optimized towards Emacs’ frequent use of CTRL and ALT combinations, avoiding most of the hand scrunching. It was fast enough to keep up with my thinking most of the time, but was ultimately limiting due to its poor accuracy. I was hitting the wrong keys far too often.

My prime motivation was to learn Vim — or, more specifically, to learn modal editing. Lots of people swear by it, including people whose opinions I hold in high regard. The modal editing community is without a doubt larger than the Emacs community, especially since, thanks to Viper and Evil, a subset of the Emacs community is also part of the modal editing community. There’s obviously something significantly valuable about it, and I wanted to understand what that was.

But I was a lousy typist who couldn’t hit the right keys often enough to make effective use of modal editing. I would need to learn touch typing first.

Touch typing

How would I learn? Well, the first search result for “online touch typing course” was Typing Club, so that’s what I went with. By the way, here’s my official review: “Good enough not to bother checking out the competition.” For a website it’s pretty much the ultimate compliment, but it’s not exactly the sort of thing you’d want to hear from your long-term partner.

My hard rule was that I would immediately abandon my old habits cold turkey. Poor typing is a bad habit just like smoking, minus the cancer and weakened sense of smell. It was vital that I unlearn all that old muscle memory. That included not just my six-finger dance, but also my NetHack muscle memory. NetHack uses “hjkl” for navigation just like Vim. The problem was that I’d spent a couple hundred hours in NetHack over the past decade with my index finger on “h”, not the proper home row location. It was disorienting to navigate around Vim initally, like riding a bicycle with inverted controls.

Based on reading other people’s accounts, I determined I’d need several days of introductory practice where I’d be utterly unproductive. I took a three-day weekend, starting my touch typing lessons on a Thursday evening. Boy, they weren’t kidding about it being slow going. It was a rough weekend. When checking in on my practice, my wife literally said she pitied me. Ouch.

By Monday I was at a level resembling a very slow touch typist. For the rest of the first week I followed all the lessons up through the number keys, never progressing past an exercise until I had exceeded the target speed with at least 90% accuracy. This was now enough to get me back on my feet for programming at a glacial, frustrating pace. Programming involves a lot more numbers and symbols than other kinds of typing, making that top row so important. For a programmer, it would probably be better for these lessons to be earlier in the series.

For that first week I mostly used Emacs while I was finding my feet (or finding my fingers?). That’s when I experienced first hand what all these non-Emacs people — people who I, until recently, considered to be unenlightened simpletons — had been complaining about all these years: Pressing CTRL and ALT key combinations from the home row is a real pain in in the ass! These complaints were suddenly making sense. I was already seeing the value of modal editing before I even started really learning Vim. It made me look forward to it even more.

During the second week of touch typing I went though Derek Wyatt’s Vim videos and learned my way around the :help system enough to bootstrap my Vim education. I then read through the user manual, practicing along the way. I’ll definitely have to pass through it a few more times to pick up all sorts of things that didn’t stick. This is one way that Emacs and Vim are a lot alike.

Update: Practical Vim: Edit Text at the Speed of Thought was recommended in the comments, and it’s certainly a better place to start than the Vim user manual. Unlike the manual, it’s opinionated and focuses on good habits, which is exactly what a newbie needs.

One of my rules when learning Vim was to resist the urge to remap keys. I’ve done it a lot with Emacs: “Hmm, that’s not very convenient. I’ll change it.” It means my Emacs configuration is fairly non-standard, and using Emacs without my configuration is like using an unfamiliar editor. This is both good and bad. The good is that I’ve truly changed Emacs to be my editor, suited just for me. The bad is that I’m extremely dependent on my configuration. What if there was a text editing emergency?

With Vim as a sort of secondary editor, I want to be able to fire it up unconfigured and continue to be nearly as productive. A pile of remappings would prohibit this. In my mind this is like a form of emergency preparedness. Other people stock up food and supplies. I’m preparing myself to sit at a strange machine without any of my configuration so that I can start the rewrite of the software lost in the disaster, so long as that machine has vi, cc, and make. If I can’t code in C, then what’s the point in surviving anyway?

The other reason is that I’m just learning. A different mapping might seem more appropriate, but what do I know at this point? It’s better to follow the beaten path at first, lest I form a bunch of bad habits again. Trust in the knowledge of the ancients.

Future directions

I am absolutely sticking with modal editing for the long term. I’m really enjoying it so far. At three weeks of touch typing and two weeks of modal editing, I’m around 80% caught back up with my old productivity speed, but this time I’ve got a lot more potential for improvement.

For now, Vim will continue taking over more and more of my text editing work. My last three articles were written in Vim. It’s really important to keep building proficiency. I still rely on Emacs for email and for syndication feeds, and that’s not changing any time soon. I also really like Magit as a Git interface. Plus I don’t want to abandon years of accumulated knowledge and leave the users of my various Emacs packages out to dry. Ultimately I believe will end up using Evil, to get what seems to be the best of both worlds: modal editing and Emacs’ rich extensibility.

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Chris Wellons