How important is it to be able to type quickly? Jeff Atwood has said numerous times that programmer must be a good typist. For example, a few weeks ago he said
I can’t take slow typists seriously as programmers. When was the last time you saw a hunt-and-peck pianist?
But programming is not like playing piano. Programming is more like composing music than performing music. Most composers can play piano well, but some cannot.
What if you write prose rather than programs? In his book On Writing, Stephen King recommends writing 1000 words per day. If writing were only a matter of typing, how long would that take? Half an hour at a modest rate of 30 words per minute. Say you have to type 2000 words to keep 1000 due to corrections. Now we’re up to an hour. People who write for a living do not literally spend most of their time writing. They spend most of their time thinking.
Clearly it’s good to be able to type quickly. As I’ve argued here, the primary benefit of quick data entry is not the time saved in data entry per se, it’s the increased chance that your hands can keep up with your brain.
However, a slow typist can still be productive. Consider physicist Stephen Hawking. He is only able to communicate to the world via a computer, ALS having destroyed nearly all of his motor control. For years he controlled his computer via a switch he could toggle with his hand; he now uses a camera that detects blinks. He says he can type 15 words per minute. Still, he has managed to write a few things, 194 publications from 1965 to 2008. You may have seen some of his books.
Learning to type well is a good investment for those who are physically able to do so, but it’s not that important. Once you reach moderate proficiency, improving your speed will not improve your productivity much. If a novelist writing 1000 words per day were able to type infinitely fast, he or she could save maybe an hour per day.
You may not be able to increase your typing speed too much no matter how hard you try. According to Guinness Book of World Records, Barbara Blackburn was the world’s fastest English language typist. She could sustain 150 words per minute. That means she was only 10x faster than Stephen Hawking. Most of us are somewhere between Stephen Hawking and Barbara Blackburn. In other words, nearly everyone types at the same speed, within an order of magnitude.