The dvorak keyboard, and the joy of designing your own editing scheme

Posted: 2022 / 04 / 07

1 Dvorak

I finally did it, I switched to dvorak on all my computers full time. It is definitely up there on my list of most psephologically painful things I’ve ever had the displeasure to experience, as a qwerty touch typist.

I’ve been aware of the dvorak keyboard (or, the Simplified Keyboard) for a long time now, at least since the beginning of high school. I’ve always been kinda interested with micro-optimizing my computer interfaces, so I naturally came across it a few times. Each time, I was a little more convinced, a little more amazed by fast dvorak typing videos, but still found it difficult to prove to myself it was worth retraining some 5+ years of muscle memory (I “learned” to touch type qwerty in 6th grade, my middle school had a mandatory typing class).

I seriously began thinking about learning dvorak near the beginning of march, and started practicing soon after.

1.1 My qwerty is kinda bad

Well, sort of. Before switching I could type at around 120wpm on typeracer and burst speeds of up to 140-150 wpm on Still, I felt like I was held back by accuracy, which was regularly below 90% and truly crippled me on typeracer.

The issue is that over the years, qwerty training wore off and was replaced by what I felt was marginally more comfortable or faster. I used to type qwerty with essentially 8 fingers excluding thumbs, since I would never press any keys with my pinkies. I’d instead move my ring or middle finger to hit q or p. Hitting t or y on qwerty usually involved a significant shift of my entire hand. I pressed b with my right pointer. Obviously, these kind of habits have a serious effect on typing accuracy. I believed that dvorak would help remedy this problem because this time I’d force myself to be theoretically correct all the time.

1.2 The learning experience

I primarily learnt dvorak using the neat little cli program dvorak7min, which I now maintain on the AUR because the package didn’t compile.

I think the program is a pretty good way to learn dvorak, if my experience is worth anything. I can’t say anything about its optimality of course, since I can only learn dvorak for the first time once, but I also tried ktouch, whose dvorak lessons actually just use the dvorak7min lessons. I also tried, and while I think it’s a good resource to practice on once you’re ok at typing, it’s not what I’d recommend to people just starting – it’s just too hard.

Dvorak7min is more procedural, emphasizes muscle memory practice, and eases you into typing on dvorak even if the program takes a bit (a lot) longer than 7 minutes to complete.

After finishing all the d7m lessons, I began practicing on and, which I still do today.

1.3 Dvorak is really fun (once you’re good)

About a month later, I type at around 90 wpm on typeracer AND monkeytype, since my accuracy is generally pretty ok (>90-95% on monkeytype). I can burst up to around 110-120 on short sprints and easy words.

The first few times I got on a tear typing dvorak, the experience was fantastic. There’s something about rapidly spitting out characters while minimally moving your fingers, and pretty much touching keys the entire time. It really does feel great, and for that experience alone I’d recommend learning the layout. While many top typists use dvorak, many top typists don’t, so speed isn’t a compelling reason to switch. What is really compelling though, is that it’s really, really fun.

One of the biggest obstacles to dvorak isn’t in the typing, but in keyboard shortcuts and using your computer efficiently. Some keybinds just work in my opinion, like C-c and C-v, which I don’t find too bad. Also like C-t and C-w for opening and closing tabs, which end up both under the right hand’s middle finger.

As an emacs user, some bindings just work as well. Notably, C-a and C-e for beginning and end of line end up on the home row, right next to each other and even in order. C-p and C-n are comfortable, C-n, the more common of the two is on homerow as well. The C-c stem is fine.

Undoubtedly the worst binding I’ve had to deal with is C-x on emacs. I took the suggestion from the emacswiki and swapped C-u and C-x. I barely use C-u anyway, and this places C-x right under the pointer in the home row, which is very comfortable. Common sequences like C-x C-s and C-x C-e become optimal homerow rolls.

Now, the issue of the other modal bindings… while some people cope and settle with the default qwerty binds, I found both vim bindings and meow bindings terrible and utterly unusable. There are just some ergonomic compromises that null the benefit of using dvorak in the first place to me. It’s not comfortable, it’s a lot of movement for common commands, and it’s sure as hell not fun.

I’m aware of programs like aoeui which claim to be vim’s for dvorak keyboards, but I was not convinced by it’s bindings either. I decided that if I was going to lock myself out of other people’s computers anyway, I might as well lock myself out of other people’s editors as well. I set about remapping nearly every key in my editor. I call the resulting modal scheme nyaatouch, reference to meow, the editing framework it uses.

3 Nyaatouch

No guarantees on how up to date this blog post, or the repository is!

3.1 Ideas

3.1.1 Common things on the home and top row

This one is a given. The most common actions should be on the top and home row, since it feels better to stretch your finger up and press down than down. If keys are on the bottom row, the common ones should be closer to the center.

My least favorite keys on the entire keyboard have got to be y and f on dvorak. Only rare commands should go here.

3.1.2 Hand alternation

One of the reasons i think that dvorak has improved my accuracy is that letters that are pressed one after another are on opposite hands. This leads to a characteristic hand alternation motion while typing that is really comfortable and accurate. I want this same idea in my editing scheme.

3.2 Keybinds

3.2.1 Alternation by object and action

I put all my commonly used objects on the left hand home row.

selects a sentence
selects a string
selects a word
the one exception, insert. This is a very common action and it doesn’t fit anywhere else.
selects a matching pair of braces
inner, bounds, beginning and end of things. This is unchanged from stock meow.

Now, actions that work on selections are on the right hand home row:

replace selection with kill contents
kill, unchanged from meow

3.2.2 Previous iteration

Nyaatouch is actually just my personal meow config. The advantage to converting it to a package is that it becomes easier to import just the keybinds onto a new computer and nothing else.

Originally, I used to put all the movement keys on the top row of the keyboard, fgcr. Then, more common commands like insert and change come to ht and you can put other useful commands like open line onto the home row as well.

I used this configuration for several weeks, but eventually decided that up/down on the home row is just too good to pass up. Furthermore, putting insert underneath movement commands actually negatively impacts the hand alternation idea, since after moving around the cursor to the right place, you most often just want to insert. Otherwise, I’d typically use a more efficient movement command, like find or avy. This led me to the current configuration which has insert under the left hand pointer finger.

3.2.3 Meow leader keybinds

Nyaatouch also introduces a set of leader binds that emphasize home row. Commands that open a further prompt are on the left hand, and commands that deal with windows are on the right

execute extended command
C-x b
C-x C-f
Switch window
Close window
Split window
Kill buffer and close window

There are some more of course, but you can look at the nyaatouch repo page or elisp source for them all.

3.2.4 Other changes

  1. The parentheses mode

    My biggest patch to meow was to allow the user to easily define custom modal states in addition to just insert, normal, beacon, etc. I take advantage of this to create the parenthesis state, which offers convenient and shallow bindings for many very useful smartparens commands. The commands that I use the most regularly are probably for transposition, slurping/barfing, raising and absorbing. To be honest, I find smartparen navigation really unintuitive and slow, and I don’t use it that much at all.

  2. Changing the behavior of meow-insert

    Perhaps my biggest gripe with meow-insert is that it always inserts at the beginning of a selection. This is theoretically a neat feature, but I can say that I’ve been annoyed by it more than I’ve been thankful for it. If you’re finding forward, you have to append to insert at your cursor, but if you’re finding backward then you have to insert. This added mental load was a bit too much for me. In nyaatouch, insert just inserts where ever your cursor actually is.

  3. Utility functions

    Nyaatouch also implements some other things I use, like an intelligent capitalization function, number manipulation, and also brings in swiper and avy as dependencies.