Saturday 19 June 2021

Are the best writers two-fingered typists?

The question arises because I saw a video of Enid Blyton - at her peak, probably the most prolific fiction writer (up to 10,000 published words per day at her peak, apparently) - typing with two fingers (and with the typewriter in her lap).  

This seems to be normal - I mean that most of the best writers who type, are not 'touch typists' - but instead type with two (or a few*) fingers while looking at the keyboard. 

The only outstanding writer I know of who was a proper typist was Philip K Dick - who learned touch typing at school, and could work as a professional copy typist/ secretary. He was also a very fast fiction writer at his peak - and most of his best novels were done in his most rapid-publishing era of the early and middle 1960s. 

Readers may be able to provide other counter-examples from among the very best writers since the invention of typewriters. 

But what is surprising is how many writers, including most of the most productive, do not touch type. 

I think the reason is that not many people can think faster than two-fingered typing speed - most are indeed much slower; and when one is composing then it does not matter if one looks at the fingers from time to time. 

So typing speed is seldom a constraint on speed of writing. 

*I am mostly a three-fingered typist - index and middle fingers of the right hand and index of the left. All of my family are, however, touch typists who do not need to look at the keyboard - and my daughter is very rapid indeed. They have often 'gone on' at me, saying I ought to learn to type properly because it would help with my writing. Yet I am the published writer and they are not; so I have carried on ignoring their advice... It is probably because I use that third finger, instead of sticking to two, that I am not a better writer.


Hrothgar said...

This makes sense, considering that the maximum word output maintained by the most prolific writers at their peaks tends to be in the region of ten thousand words per day and is seldom sustained much higher for long periods. I've seen similar figures quoted for Blyton herself, and several others notable for their productivity. This works out at a modest 20 words or so per minute over a reasonable 8-hour workday with breaks factored in - hardly a furious typing speed nor one that requires the use of all ten fingers, especially if the writer is producing publication-ready first drafts that only require minimal editing, and so is only having to type everything once.

I was wondering whether the incredibly prolific John Creasey might have been one of the few capable of exceeding Blyton's peak daily output, and therefore a potential touch-typist. I think he may be the one who once claimed to have written an entire novel in a weekend and still had time for a game of cricket, but can't now find a reference. I did find this information in an article on him, however: Reportedly Creasey wrote between 7,000 and 10,000 words a day with a special typewriter, which was equipped with three extra keys. It took him only six to nine days to finish a book.

Possibly some kind of touch-typist, depending on how much re-drafting he did, and what those extra keys were actually used for! (I find it hard to imagine.) But overall, a similar rate of actual word production to Blyton and other super-prolific writers, so the above claim may have been a matter of boasting/flippancy, if it was indeed by him.

Wm Jas Tychonievich said...

I mostly just use my left index, middle, and ring fingers, and my right middle finger. I use either thumb for the space bar, but usually the left. I use my right ring finger for shift and the arrow keys and my right index finger only for ampersands, asterisks, and parentheses.

So my left hand does most of the work -- which is strange, since I'm right-handed and not ambidextrous at all.

Bruce Charlton said...

@H - It would be best to restrict the sample to really good writers - which I don't think John Creasy is claimed to be.

Epimetheus said...

I sometimes wonder if typewriters intrinsically produce better writing than computers.

TonguelessYoungMan said...

@Epimetheus - The obvious counter-point would be that writers were just better before computers became ubiquitous.

Bruce Charlton said...

Comment from 'Pilgrim' - "Great post - I touch type for notes at work, but my most careful and thoughtful writing is actually when I use longhand. I still like to write letters and keep a paper joirnal. Maybe it is the years of practice of writing vs typing, but I think it ties into the cognitive speed theory you outline, An interesting point – the speech to text programs I was so hopeful about at first…. However, I have not found them to be too helpful when writing, and a neuroscientist at google Wrote an article revealing that they have come to the same conclusion, and stated that the reason is that the part of your brain responsible for generating speech interferes with the ability to put into words the concepts involved in good writing."

Note to Pilgrim from BGC, this is a moderated blog - therefore sending the same comment four times does Not speed the process!

Bruce Charlton said...

@Epi and TYM - Most of the best wroks of the 20th century even were written longhand. What surprises me is that typing (whether typewriter or word processor) can produce good works at all! There is something unpleasantly abstracting and materialistic about it; compared with writing.

I write longhand every day, when engaged in a kind of 'meditation' - and it is when I am creative. The blog posts come from this longhand writing. Without the hand-writing I'm not sure if I would be able to think properly.

PatrickH said...

Two-finger typing is closest to the posture, eye focus and undistracted concentration of writing with a pen on paper. Touch typing is really for taking dictation, by which I mean more than just stenography. The first and hardest lesson in touch typing is DO NOT LOOK AT THE KEYBOARD. EYES UP! So touch typing divides the concentration between the actions of the hands and fingers in contact with the medium and demands you look at the copy or listen to the speaker. With two-finger your eyes are focused on what you are creating.

Two-finger typing creates the unity of mind, body and apparatus and output necessary for the act of composition, of creation. Touch typing is transcription of something composed, created by someone else. It is not an ideal means for the creative artist.

Bruce Charlton said...

@Patrick - "touch typing divides the concentration" while "Two-finger typing creates the unity of mind, body and apparatus and output " - That's a plausible analysis. I'll quote it to my family next time they try to make me learn proper typing!

Epimetheus said...

@BC - Are you serious? You write all your posts long-hand first? I too find handwriting more natural than typing, but it takes so much longer to produce the same volume. I've also wondered whether it would be better to try writing fiction by hand than typing. Not sure.

Bruce Charlton said...

Epi - "You write all your posts long-hand first? "

No. But that's where I get the ideas.

Otto said...

A suggestion for your next blog post: Are the best pianists two-fingered pianists?

Pilgrim said...

Apologies - I had trouble logging on to Google - was not intentional and did not realize I did that 😬

No Longer Reading said...

Watching the video, I'm impressed by how efficiently and quickly she types with two fingers.

The idea about writing relating to thinking speed is interesting. Perhaps it's not necessarily speed in an absolute sense, but consonance. Perhaps the most efficient writers are those whose method of writing matches up most closely with their speed and rhythm of thinking, which could be longhand, touch-typing, or two-fingered typing depending on the situation. Then, the process of translating thinking to writing is as smooth as possible.

I think I remember reading that C.S. Lewis composed in longhand. Based on his well-known verbal fluency, Lewis probably just composed as his thoughts came to him. On the other hand, Tolkien's more laborious process of composition suggests that his thinking was something that isn't easily translated into a specific kind of writing.

The computer scientist Donald Knuth ( has said that he likes in longhand because that is the speed at which he thinks.

In an interview, the mathematician (and Putnam fellow)-turned Biblical Scholar Vern Poythress (, expresses himself very succintly and clearly. I think he would also be the kind of person who is a very efficient writer because his thoughts naturally translate directly to writing.

Joel said...

Bruce, could you tell us something about your creative process and habits? I always find concrete descriptions of how creatively productive individuals function useful, as someone who struggles a lot with the "production" side.

As an example, Anthony Trollope's autobiography describes how he avoided writer's block over a writing career spanning decades, and despite the pressures of a postal career: he had a servant wake him up at 5am every morning with a pot of coffee, and then wrote for a few hours as a task, and then stopped. (Perhaps at some cost to his true creativity, which waxed and waned.)

Bruce Charlton said...

@NLR - CS Lewis composed with a dip fountain pen; and said somewhere that the rhythmic process of dipping and writing a few words, dipping again... fitted the way he composed. He had the whole thing worked out in his mind, before putting pen to paper; and (nearly always) his first draft only needed correcting once for spelling etc (he was Not a good speller) before being ready to set in type.

Bruce Charlton said...

@ Joel - As someone who was a theoretical biologist/ psychologist (before more recently being a kind of theologian); I needed to find the best way to optimize my own primarily creative thinking. By trial and error I found myself to be a morning person - so I wake and start very early. I practice a kind of note-taking meditation on whatever is the current concern. I suffer frequent and prolonged cyclical migraines - and the period when a migraine responds to treatment is probably my best time for creativity - between migraines is the worst.

Hrothgar said...

@Bruce - I'm not really too familiar with his work, though his considerable commercial success during his lifetime may count for something. It at least points to some kind of Blytonesque capacity for consistently creating stories that pleased his readers - pure storytelling always being likely to trump literary style for those few fiction writers who have ever managed to combine massive productivity with sustained success. When looking at the article on him again, I noticed that Creasey seems to have preferred to make drafts in longhand first, and typed them up later, which is interesting, considering what has come up in this discussion so far.

I think it is in practice going to be hard to find writers of widely acknowledged literary merit who would actually benefit enough from the added speed granted by rapid typing for their overall output to be much affected by it. The skill seems more generally useful to newspaper journalists and their ilk, who utilize only a narrow and stereotyped form of imagination to create their variety of print fiction, and operate under much tighter short-term time constraints than novelists.

I had the impression that Agatha Christie was very productive, for example - and by the standards of major fiction authors she certainly was - but her lifetime output still only works out at an average of just over one novel per year over her lengthy writing career. At that rate, so far as the physical speed of producing text is concerned, she could plausibly have picked out characters one at a time with a pencil, stencilled them, or engraved them in copperplate, and completed her novels at the same rate without much additional trouble.

I suspect that a broad study of fiction writers and their habits would show touch-typing to be a handy enough skill for the professional author to have, but one which has a negligible effect on overall productivity, and that moreover has generally been acquired for unrelated reasons, as in Dick's case.

No Longer Reading said...

This is different than typing speed, but here is another method an author used to increase productivity


"Moving to Nashville in 1907, he began writing for The Taylor-Trotwood magazine. In addition to contributing stories, Stribling worked in the office and sold magazine subscriptions. Despite the literary successes of the magazine, its financial stability was wanting. He left the magazine the following year and began writing short stories for Sunday school magazines and other publications such as American Boy.

Stribling developed an elaborate method to help him produce his short stories. The system involved taking a white sheet of cardboard and dividing it into columns. The columns would consist of various settings, weather, sports, characters, locations, bad habits and good morals. He would shut his eyes and randomly run a wavy line across the columns. This approach insured originality and created some very interesting stories. During this time, he wrote as many as seven short stories a day.

T. S. Stribling described these short stories as moral adventures which showed 'how diligence and virtue were always rewarded and how a boy who never smoked cigarettes would undoubtedly get to be a great banker and would eventually foreclose on the cigarette smoker's farm.' Over the course of the next decade, Stribling estimated he wrote over ten thousand of these short stories. Many of these short stories were published under anonymous names."

Bruce Charlton said...

@NLR - Stribling sounds rather like the author of an appalling book somebody gave me as a kid - Uncle Arthur's Bedtime Stories. Morality tales with all the subtlety of a sledgehammer.

The Mathemagician said...

I grok the two finger typing. While I've written short stories and essays in the past, most of my recent writing has been code. I mostly touch type, except for special symbols.

That said, long before I hit the keyboard, I'm with paper and pencil, or whiteboard and markers, and very recently sometimes with cartridge fountain pen and good paper! I create algorithms and implement them in code, but I have to figure out what I want them to do before committing to code. I'm so lazy that when it comes to expanding the capability of a piece of code, I will spend hours crafting the modifications to the code, again with paper and pencil, to ensure I'm doing everything that's needed and nothing that's not. I'd rather spend half a day writing three lines of code than an hour writing 30 lines that are inefficient and probably buggy. I even create "pretty" code, where certain things align. The aesthetics are a consequence of that code alignment which allows for debugging. If there's a bug in the code, it's usually very easy to see. When I am ready for the keyboard, that typically goes quickly, but it's because the real work is already done.

So yes, the two finger typing makes sense. It discourages reckless speed and encourages thinking.