We all know that writing can be painful. The intense frustration when an idea that was pure genius in our heads translates to vapid merde when we try to put it into words on the screen. The struggle to impose form and structure on a plotline that insists on fracturing into a thousand shards, all of them purest zirconium. The realization that you abruptly suck at this endeavor that is central to your self-regard, that you’ve lost it forever, that all your friends will now know what a dismal fraud you are.
I can’t help you with that part. Cocaine, alcohol, and perverse sex are the prescribed remedies.
However, there is some hope for the physical pains that you’re experiencing. If you write much, your hands hurt fairly constantly now, don’t they? Probably your forearms, too, and your shoulders ache.
Let’s trip back to the halcyon days of yestertyping, when only women were taught how to use a keyboard. Real computers cost five to ten thousand dollars. A mouse was a rodent that you carried around in your shirt pocket, because you were weird.
There was no GUI. There was only one screen color on a black background. There was the command line, and you wrote your novels in WordStar, which was the coolest program on the planet.
Back then, the keyboards were not made for a dollar a day by starving Filipino orphans. They were often designed by obsessive engineers who realized that keyboards were the contact point between their expensive wares and the person who bought them, so they damn well better be good.
Then came Windows (and the Macintosh, but we don’t talk about Macs in polite society).
The paradigm shifted tectonically. Now most people click away their lives rather than typing everything. And computers cost a tenth of what they once did, so keyboards are thrown into the bundle like Happy Meal toys.
And they’re awful. They hurt you badly in the long run if you type a lot.
I’d like to introduce you to the IBM Model M keyboard. If you’re a writer, it’s your new best friend.
Modern keyboards are made of light plastic and have cheap membrane switches.Two electrical contacts are pressed together when you hit a key. That’s it, that’s all. They have absolutely no tactile feel, so that you don’t really know when you’ve successfully entered a character, until it shows up on the monitor. So you hit hard, every time. The sounds they make are also very loosely related to the process. They have absolutely no ‘touch’.
The Model M has a much more expensive and precise mechanical buckling spring keyswitch. It is tactile and loudly clicky and utterly consistent. You both feel and hear exactly when you’ve typed a character, and when you’ve properly released the key. Fewer missed strokes and fewer inadvertent strokes. The keyboard weighs nearly 5 pounds, so it doesn’t slide around under you, and contains a heavy curved steel plate that makes it absolutely rigid; no bouncing like with cheap plastic boards. They’re virtually indestructible — boards that were made 20 years ago still work as well as the day they came out of the box. You can brain a zombie with one and go right back to typing a minute later with no worries.
As a matter of fact, I’m typing this post on a Model M manufactured on October 26, 1989.
If you’re nothing but a web-surfing sheep, this is all irrelevant to you. If you type a lot, these differences mean the world. If you’ve never used anything but a membrane keyboard you may not believe me about how significant the difference is — it’s like trying to tell somebody about Lamborghinis when all they’ve ever known is their Subaru.
When you switch to a Model M, your subconscious will be reprogrammed. Instead of hitting the keys as hard as possible, you’ll find yourself typing much more delicately, much more accurately, and, usually, noticeably faster.
You’ll hurt less because you’ll be applying less force and doing so more precisely. You will no longer bottom out the keystroke. Less repetitive stress injury, less impact injury.
I own five Model M’s. I find it difficult to type on membrane keyboards now, though my job demands it. It’s like typing into mud.When I get back to my own work machine, which I’ve fitted with a Model M, it’s like dancing.
IBM made many thousands of these boards, for more than a decade. They can be had via Ebay or various vendors for around $50 including shipping. There are a few subtypes with different part numbers. The 1391401 is considered to be the purest version, though even I have some difficulty feeling a difference between it and the other Model M’s.
I know that I may sound a little hyperbolic about this board. But — If you’re a professional writer, or someone who still does lots of keyboarding, this piece of gear can change you life. You’ll hurt less and you’ll enjoy the act of typing more.
Physically, that is. The mental and emotional anguish will still remain.
Incidentally, the image at the top of my post takes you to the SteamPunk Workshop, where a Model M has been modded to become a functioning work of art. I badly want one of these.
The current patent-holder and manufacturer of Model M clones and other buckling-spring boards is Unicomp.The Customizer 101 is their Model M clone. Their line is supposed to be good, and here is where you can get a board with a USB connection, rather than the PS/2 that the originals all have. Also, this is where to get a cool black one, as all of the originals are in beige.
There’s an active forum for people who are even more obsessed about clicky and tactile keyboards at GeekHack. There are many other variations on this technology, including boards with Alps and Cherry keyswitches in several flavors. If you’re not as highly evolved as me, you may actually prefer boards with those different touches. Truthfully, I own an old NorthGate OmniKey Ultra, which has Alps switches. Its touch is divine, though lighter than the Model M.