Introduction

After suffering from a minor repetitive-stress injury near the end of the school year, I resolved to learn stenography with Plover during my summer internship. I had heard about Plover on Hacker News, and read through the first few lessons of Learn Plover, but never started doing it seriously. This post chronicles my journey into learning stenography with Plover.

Most of my practice comes from trying to type on chat and email. Occasionally I would try to type out a passage, such as part of a news article, or a Facebook post. Some of it is with dedicated drilling tools, such as TypeRacer in the later weeks. I would say that I’ve been spending somewhere around 1.5 to 2 hours in a typical workday, just by typing in chat, email, or my text editor.

The journal entries are only at week-level granularity, so the earlier paragraphs may be referring to the earlier days in the week, and the later paragraphs to the later days in the week. The majority of the content is unedited, so read at your own risk.

Week 1: 0 wpm

I’ve been trying to memorize where all the keys are. I taped some strips of paper to my keyboard as a reference. Then I discovered that one often needs to press a column of two keys at once for many sounds. I am using an Apple keyboard which spaces the keys fairly far from each other, so I have to meticulously revise my strips of paper to hold two keys together in order to aid me in pressing them both.

I attached a sticky note to my monitor to remind me of all the vowel chords (such as AEU = long a).

Work is okay, too, I guess.

Week 2

I’ve mostly memorized where each of the letters are, but still have to look down somewhat frequently. I’m getting decent at some of the strokes, but I have trouble remembering the combinations to form different letters (e.g. TPH is the ‘N’ sound).

Later in the week, I swapped out my Apple keyboard for a more standard one. The keys are too far apart, and the Apple keyboard fails to arpeggiate well. There are apparently no NKRO keyboards available at the company, even through the Ergonomics team, so I would have to get manager approval in order to be reimbursed for one; but I don’t think it would be approved for just an internship. I hope to have gained sufficient proficiency with stenography that I can get an NKRO keyboard at the beginning of my full-time employment.

Week 3

I’ve made significant progress and can type full sentences out now! But my wit is significantly impaired over online chat because I am not quick enough to respond to statements in a timely manner. I learned some of the basic punctuation, specifically periods, commas, question marks, exclamation marks, and hyphens. Getting used to some of the common affixes such as ex-, -ly, -ory, and so on. Have not yet measured my typing speed because it would take too long to write out the paragraph in the typing test.

Shipped four commits to production this week. The productivity is not related to my steno skill.

Week 4: 15 wpm

I did a typing test and discovered that my typing speed is 6 wpm. If this rate of progress keeps up, I could hope to be typing a blazing 18 wpm by the end of the internship! I find that I’ve pretty much memorized the vowel combinations, but I think I’m missing many of the clusters (such as ‘-tion’).

I tried another typing test later this week and got up to 7 wpm. I find that I’m pressing adjacent keys more so than arpeggiating (such as typing AO and EU together). I also just found out that ‘arpeggiate’ wasn’t in the default Plover dictionary.

Up to 15 wpm by Friday. The test claims that 36 wpm is the speed of the average non-touch typist, so it seems to be going pretty well, but I miss my 120 wpm Dvorak typing speed. I might also just be getting used to the specific typing test I’m using.

Week 5: 20 wpm

My typing speed has plateaued somewhat, but the strokes are coming a little more naturally now. I suppose that it’s just a long trek up to my previous typing speed from here. I have learned to type some specific words more quickly, such as “typing” and “speed”. (I used to mistype “speed” as “steed” a good amount.) It will probably be a good while before I’ve regained the ability to type conversationally.

Later this week: I’ve noticed a marked increase in my ability to type with Plover, to about 20 wpm. It seems to have come from almost nowhere. Although I’m still a long way from being comfortable, especially with long words, it’s a nice change of pace to be able to actually converse with someone in real-time, however stunted my speed may be.

Steno is especially convenient when talking to friends online, as my choice of words is far more conservative than in other forms of communication (such as, say, a journal entry), favoring many short words and pronouns over long, domain-specific nouns. I should really invest in an N-key rollover keyboard…

Week 6

I seem to have fully plateaued at this point. I’m not sure whether the best thing for it is to do targeted exercises, or simply to do a lot more general typing. I remain optimistic about my progress; it is said that it takes a proper student 6 months to get to 120 wpm (which is my old typing speed), so I don’t think I’m necessarily off course yet. (It would probably help if I were getting formal lessons, though, with a real steno machine, or at least a keyboard with NKRO.)

I’ve mastered the letters and sounds at this point, and it seems mostly a challenge of recalling the sequences of strokes corresponding to the sequence of sounds. Single-syllable words are a snap; would that all of my communication consist of them! I’m beginning to figure out which syllables are unstressed, so that I can drop them in the brief forms of words. unstressed.

My work is going reasonably well, in spite of the fact that my typing speed is so slow. I don’t program using steno, except for typing the comments. I don’t really expect that I’ll be doing so even when I reach fluency; that’s mostly handled by snippets and autocomplete.

Plover v3 comes with a “stroke suggestion” window, which shows you better ways to type the thing you just typed. I’m finding it to be useful so far. In particular, it shows ways to use prefixes and suffixes to write the word, which has allowed me to learn prefixes like ‘mis’ and ‘auto’.

Week 7: 25 wpm

Little progress lately. I think the key to getting faster is to challenge myself to type as fast as I possibly can; I dimly remember doing something to that extent when working up to 120 wpm with my regular keyboarding. In particular, it is better to be very fast and have to revise my words several times as I attempt to write them than it is to get them correct on it first go. (In the past I had certainly been typing with many mistakes, but not while challenging myself to stroke as fast as possible.)

[Retrospective note: both speed and accuracy are important things to practice separately, not just speed.]

Week 8

I think the time has come that it will be very hard to progress in typing speed without an NKRO keyboard. A lot of my time is spent backspacing trying to fix mistakes arising from the keyboard not recognizing enough keypresses at once. Exercises in typing as fast as possible will be hampered as much by me fighting with the keyboard as by my lack of finesse.

I ordered an ErgoDox EZ keyboard the other day. It was expensive: $325 including shipping. But I talked to my manager and he said I could expense it. Apparently interns get the same ergonomics benefits as full-time employees, which is nice.

It was only when I got the email that I was informed that the lead time was two weeks. If I had known that ahead of time, I would have ordered it a lot earlier. (Although it seems to have been sent out rather earlier than the projected lead time; maybe it’s just a worst-case estimate.)

Week 9

I received my ErgoDox earlier than the initial email would have suggested. There was a Plover keymap, but it wasn’t quite how I wanted it [coming soon: a blog post on setting that up]. I spent a while fixing it up and I’m pretty happy with it now.

The difference between 6KRO and NKRO is night and day. After enabling it on the keyboard’s firmware, I can comfortably type STKPWHRAO*EUFRPBLGDZ in one stroke. Having a key to automatically toggle whether Plover is enabled is also really nice. I was going to expense this to the company but I think I’ll keep the keyboard for my personal use instead.

I would like to practice some drills, but I don’t think I will have time in the near future given the amount of time I spent configuring the keyboard and the amount of work I have yet to do. This journal will have to do for the time being (as it is being typed with steno).

Week 10: 35 wpm

I’ve gotten used to the ErgoDox keyboard. I did another typing test and found that I’m up to 35 wpm, which is a reasonable improvement. I’d have to do a lot more drilling to get my speed back up to my old 120 wpm, but unfortunately I don’t think I’ll have the time.

I joined the online Plover chat room and happened to see the progression of several others mentioned. One of them took about a year to get up to 140 wpm, and another two years to get to 200-something wpm. Both of these people, however, practiced for several hours a day, as it was their profession. I don’t think that I will have that luxury, so I expect that it’ll take me a long time to achieve my goal.

I’ve been practicing more intensely this week, which was not a thing I was expecting to be able to do. I spent a few hours doing steno games; I found qwertysteno and I think it’s a great resource for budding steno practitioners.

Week 11: 40 wpm

Not much to report. My typing speed seems to be about 40 wpm. For some reason TypeRacer disorients me a lot and I have trouble playing it effectively. If I had time to play typing games all day I would become so much better so quickly, but unfortunately I’m not paid to do that. (Maybe I should intern at a stenography firm next…)

Week 12: 50 wpm

I worked on my typing speed during the end of last week and for a couple of hours during the weekend. I’d say my typing speed is now just shy of 50 wpm, with bursts of up to 70 wpm. This is pretty encouraging progress!

Week 13-14: 60-70 wpm

My internship has ended, so I haven’t been keeping that close track of my progress lately. I’ve been practicing on TypeRacer periodically. By week 13 I was regularly about 60 wpm with spikes to 90 wpm, and by week 14 I was regularly about 70 wpm with spikes to 100 wpm.