What’s it like to type 200 words per minute
In the hands of Hunter Shaffer, the sentence you’re reading now would take seven or eight seconds to type. This entire article would be written in just over seven minutes, and a recent print section of The New York Times’ Sunday Styles would take around 86 minutes.
In a recent online contest, Mr Shaffer and eight other competitive typists watched the numbers on the screen count down and gave way to the word “Go”. A leaderboard showed competitors’ progress, accuracy, and words typed per minute.
It was over in about 60 seconds, but Mr. Shaffer’s performance ate at him. Normally he would have maneuvered for first place, but nerve issues in his left hand forced him to tap one-handed for a while.
For several hours, Mr. Shaffer repeatedly finished just behind a teenager in the Philippines and a friend from Virginia, despite typing at 189 words per minute.
Competitive typing, which peaked in popularity in the first half of the 20th century before fading away, has found a new home online. A dedicated community has grown around the hobby, which has become increasingly popular with teenagers and 20-somethings.
There are many typing websites out there, each with a slightly different flavor. Casual typing enthusiasts often land at 10FastFingers. Monkeytype allows users to customize the words or passages they type, such as lists of more difficult words or words the user has previously mistyped. One of the most popular, TypeRacer, displays cars on a track for every racing typist. Keymash is preferred by many top typists for its focus on competition.
Although it has a low-key profile today, competitive typing once had more cachet.
“I didn’t realize typing championships were so important in the first half of the 20th century, considering how important they were when I was growing up,” said Sean Wrona.
Mr. Wrona, 37, of North Syracuse, NY, cut his teeth on primitive typing computer games in the 1990s but has largely forgotten about typing. In 2008, when he was a graduate student in applied statistics at Cornell University, a friend introduced him to a typing game on Facebook. Mr. Wrona was surprised to be one of the fastest people and soon received friend requests from all over the world.
Mr. Wrona won the Ultimate Typing Championship in 2010, a global competition sponsored by a keyboard manufacturer. He is widely regarded in the typing community as the greatest typist of the modern era. Although he had largely moved away from competitive typing, Mr. Wrona decided to write a book on the subject and was surprised to learn that typing competitions appeared as early as the late 1880s and became popular In the 1920’s.
Typewriter manufacturers, eager to test and market their products, held well-funded and highly publicized typing contests in venues such as Madison Square Garden. The events were usually linked to business conventions and attracted thousands of spectators; some champions became celebrities and traveled the country.
“It was a pretty massive thing that was almost entirely forgotten,” Mr. Wrona said.
Competitive typing came online in the late 1990s. Noah Horn, a music teacher at Williams College in Massachusetts, had no idea he was entering this world when, as a high school student, he joins a popular AOL game called Scrambler. The game featured scrambled words that users had to guess, type, and send to a chat room as quickly as possible.
A few typing apps appeared in the late 2000s, but Horn said it wasn’t until 2008, when TypeRacer started, that the typing scene really took shape. Suddenly, users could compete against each other in real time. Mr. Horn set an early TypeRacer record of 212 words per minute that stood for over a year.
Eccentric? More like QWERTY
Mr. Shaffer, 24, from Parish, NY, was home-schooled with his two brothers and stumbled across an early-typing website ten years ago. He found he was faster than his siblings and signed up on other typing sites.
Born with a brittle bone disorder that has caused hundreds of broken bones and an addiction to opiates to manage the pain, Mr Shaffer found that even when one arm was in a cast he could still clap one hand quite fast to beat average typists. When he was able to use both hands, he excelled. His 10FastFingers All-Time 60-Second Test Ranking score – 227 words per minute – is still in the top 10.
Mr. Shaffer said his speed came, in part, from his excellent memory. Most typing websites briefly display the words to type before the stroke begins. By memorizing them, Mr. Shaffer said he could type faster.
“I think it also has to do with the curvature of my arms,” he said. “It helped me type in the beginning and still does.”
Mr. Shaffer types from a wheelchair and on a laptop. His arms are bent due to repeated fractures. In 2014, his left forearm was surgically straightened. His left hand hasn’t moved as quickly since, and he said he didn’t have his right arm repaired, fearing the surgery could cause nerve damage.
Emre Aydin, 21, from Leicester, England, is a computer science student at the University of Warwick. He said that, like many others, he was drawn to typing because of its competitive nature.
“Because of the way online typing websites are structured, if you have a competitive spirit, you want to keep winning,” he said. “Two hours can go by very quickly if you’re that kind of person.”
When he was around 9 years old, his teachers noticed that he was a fast typist despite not having had any lessons. Mr. Aydin wondered if he could get even faster and searched for typing websites to help him. During his teenage years, he practiced typing during lunch and after school.
Mr. Aydin slowly improved to over 200 words per minute. In a World Typing Championship in 2020, he hoped to finish in the top 10 but surprised himself by finishing third. His interest in typing waned and, except for occasional tournaments, he mostly turned to other hobbies such as gaming and skateboarding.
“It’s a bit like a sport”
Many of the fastest typists discovered early on that they were naturally quick on a keyboard, but whether competitive typing requires skill or just lots of practice remains a question.
“Natural talent is a hotly debated topic in the typing community,” Ardian Peach said.
Mr. Peach, 19, of Dumfries, Va., thinks anyone can get fast with enough practice. After all, Mr. Peach, who hadn’t learned to type properly, was in a college computer class when he took a typing test and found himself at 100 words per minute (40 wpm is the average for non-competitive typists).
At 15, Mr. Peach found TypeRacer, learned to type using all of his fingers, and increased his speed to 150 words per minute. But he eventually plateaued and, assuming he had reached his limit, started practicing less.
A few years later, he read a book espousing the benefits of deliberate practice and decided he hadn’t practiced effectively. He eventually reached a speed of over 200 words per minute.
Competitive typing may have become more popular in recent years, in part due to the online messaging platform Discord, which offers users an easy and convenient way to communicate with other typists. But it remains a niche hobby with a tight-knit community.
Kathy Chiang, 29, who lives in Los Angeles, understood the uniqueness of the typing community almost immediately, in part because of her gaming career.
“It’s really interesting to come across a community like this that I was not aware of at all,” she said.
An avid gamer since childhood, Ms. Chiang was studying computer game science at the University of California, Irvine when a colleague noticed how fast she was typing and encouraged her to test herself on a typing website. Ms. Chiang became addicted.
As well as being one of the fastest typists, she found she was one of the few women in the community, but said she was generally welcomed.
Although she eventually retired from competitive typing due to wrist injuries, Ms Chiang said she found the typing community to be a friendlier and less serious environment than the gaming community. Part of this could be due to the relatively low range of competitive typing.
“So it’s kind of like a sport or an esport or a video game in the very early stages where everyone feels like they’re part of this grassroots movement,” she said. “It feels like that special thing that some people want to keep secret and special and tight-knit.”