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John Jenkins Oct 11


The October column from the former editor of Writers' Forum

John JenkinsAs a publisher and editor I have been answering queries from writers for something like 20 years and as a result I have recently published a book FAQs and the Answers for Ambitious Writers.


Is Qwerty a word or a disease?

by John Jenkins

I was sitting at my computer the other day trying to re-write the perfect ending for a short story when my mind began to wander -- as it does when faced with a problem which is proving difficult to solve.

After all, Hemingway, when asked why he re-wrote the ending to Across the River and into the Trees 57 times replied: "To get it right." So why should I fume at half a dozen futile attempts. But I digress because I glanced down at the second line on the keyboard. In fact the first six letters on that keyboard:

Q W E R T Y, known to us all as Qwerty. Nice word, even if it does sound like a disease you could have brought back from a trip to India or Pakistan. As in, I’ve had a nasty attack of the Qwertys.

But is it a word? My family is a collection of Scrabble nuts. Half of them want to accept Qwerty as a valid choice because it is not an acronym and the others claims that because it begins with a capital letter it should be banned.

Did you know – as you sit at your state-of-the-art computer – that Qwerty has been going virtually unchanged for around 140 years? Not many such useful inventions last that long without some idiot trying to change them.

It’s a classic case of -- it works don’t fix it. These letters are now fixed into the brains of millions of users and operate on millions of computers across the world.

I go back to the days when people – mostly girls – were taught to touch type. I discovered that to become a journalist one of the things an editor would demand would be the ability to type and write shorthand.

That was long before he wanted any evidence of the ability to write clearly and simply, whether or not you knew anything about the British constitution or law courts and whether you would be willing to work 16 hours a day.

As my school did not deign to consider typing and shorthand as fit subjects for the sons of gentlemen, at the age of 15 I signed up for evening classes. There, at old fashioned sit-up-and-beg typewriters – with no letters to show you which keys were which - we learned to touch type.

As I remember it, there were 14 girls and two boys. Learning to type then was not the only incentive towards 100 per cent attendance.

We tapped away either to music or even a metronome. Thousands and thousands of times we typed The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog and Now is the time for all good men to come to the aid of the party.

I bought an old banger of a Royal typewriter and practised every day. I made up other sentences using all letters of the alphabet and even typed out the alphabet, forwards and backwards to increase my speed.

In a matter of weeks I passed every typing exam with ease.

By the time I got into a newspaper I could type nearly as fast as most of the other reporters could write shorthand. Only one man could beat me – a grizzled old French-Canadian News Editor called Sam Street who used only two fingers on each hand and could rattle away faster than an AK47 could empty a magazine.

I also discovered that the typewriter I was given had a dodgy e and all the os and ps filled in. It also needed a new ribbon which never arrived.

Then came electric typewriters. Then golf ball typewriters. Then electronic ones. Then computers and their keyboards. Technology marched on but still the good old QWERTY was with us.

The inventor of the Qwerty keyboard was an American, Christopher Sholes, who, among spells as a senator and inventor, was a newspaper editor. His early attempts, in which the keys were arranged in alphabetical order found all the old fashioned mechanical bars clashing and sticking.

But Sholes was not a man to give up. He worked out the frequency and combination of letters and moved them around until he settled on the current pattern. He found that by putting the letters T and H on opposite sides of the keyboard he reduced clashing by 30 percent and moved on from there.

Then the marketing men went into action. Competitions were organised to see who could type the fastest and on which machine. Remington, famous for its rifles and sewing machines moved into the typewriter market, established a Rolls Royce reputation and the Qwerty board became standard for all English users and most European languages.

Various people have had a try at altering the keyboard but it’s still going strong.

For some time computers have had voice recognition software which is supposed to do away with a keyboard. But it doesn’t. Then the mouse, which worked well with a keyboard, seems to be giving way to a touch pad.

Bill Gates and Steve Job have turned their vast resources towards making Qwerty redundant and no doubt one day they or their successors will succeed.

But it could be some way off. Work carried out by the Digital Research Centre at the West of England University shows that people actually like to think and type, not think and speak. "When people are given the option to speak they have a much harder time organising their thoughts," says Dan Dixon of the research centre.

According to Which, keyboards in their offices were so dirty that a microbiologist ordered that four of the 33 machines should be removed, quarantined and cleaned.

Dr Peter Wilson claimed that the keyboards reflected what was in your nose and your gut. He added that sharing keyboards was a sure way to pass on colds or even gastro-enteritis.

I have news for the good doctor. My vinegary old typing teacher used to insist on us cleaning our machines at the end of every lesson. And put the cover back on. To this day I keep a tin of lighter fuel by my desk which I use to clean the keys and woe betide anybody who puts glass of orange juice or a coffee within spilling distance.

As somebody who could never master shorthand – I tried them all – Pitmans, Greggs, Duttons and Speedwords – and whose writing is such a disgrace that there are times when I cannot read it, I bless the day I learned to type.

You must excuse me now. I have to get back to the ending of that short story. That keyboard has never let me down yet.

Not even when I have been stuck for something to write a column about.

If you have a question you would like John to answer please email it to:

The latest book from John Jenkins is FAQs and the Answers for Ambitious Writers

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