For lawyers and anyone else who makes a living from words, the ability to type fast is an essential — not optional — skill. Unlike notetaking, which is better done by hand, one of the keys to writing well is eliminating any bottlenecks between your brain and the page. Until computers can read our thoughts, the best way to do this is touch typing.

Transcription Fluency

Quality matters to lawyers. … So lawyers must learn to type fast.

The term transcription fluency describes the process of getting ideas out of your head and onto the page. With a pen or pencil, your transcription fluency is low. That is exactly why taking notes by hand works better than typing, but it is just the opposite when it comes to writing.

If you’re struggling to hunt-and-peck your way through writing an essay, you’re losing too much mental effort to the task of merely forming words.

That comes from tech journalist Clive Thomson, interpreting a 2007 research paper. In another study, Boston College grad student Michael Russell even proved that fast typing improves the quality of elementary-school students’ writing. While his results suggest that the faster the better, he guesses that being able to type about 20–24 words per minute is where the big leap in writing quality comes.

In other words, if quality matters, you need to be able to type, and the faster the better. Quality matters to lawyers. Or it ought to, at least. So lawyers must learn to type fast.

Learning to Type Fast

In order to type fast, you need to be able to use all your fingers and type without looking at the screen. This is pretty easy to learn. Use a typing tutor to get started, and then practice. In very little time, muscle memory will take over and your fingers will start punching out your thoughts without you having to think about the keys you are pressing.

The best way to practice is just to write a lot, which should not post many problems for most lawyers. If you want extra practice, find more reasons to write. Spend some time arguing on the Internet, or start a blog about something you love.

Dictation and Speech Recognition Software

If transcription fluency is the key to better writing, then dictation or speech recognition software should do the trick, too. But I don’t think traditional dictation using a tape recorder is a very good idea.

With speech recognition software, … you don’t have to employ a transcriptionist.

First, if you have to pay someone to transcribe your dictation, that is pretty inefficient, for you and for your clients, to the extent your overhead may be related to your fees.

Second, because dictating to a voice recorder requires you to “write” linearly. You basically have to start at the beginning and dictate through to the end. You can probably go section by section, but you cannot jump around much.

But writing is not naturally a linear process. There is a reason we talk about constructing an argument — because we do a little here, a little there, then back to the beginning, then look up some research, and so on. We take apart a sentence and put it back together. We take apart our logic and distribute it to different parts of the document.

As a result, a brief dictated to a voice recorder and transcribed is usually pretty easy to spot. They have a different quality than a brief that was actually written.

Speech recognition software is entirely different. Siri and Dragon NaturallySpeaking (or Dragon Dictate for Mac users) and Windows Speech Recognition are all good and getting better. With speech recognition software, you can still move around your document and write non-linearly. And you don’t have to employ a transcriptionist.

A couple of years ago, I broke my hand and could only hunt and peck with one finger on my left hand. Windows Speech Recognition and the Dragon iPad app got me through it. I prefer typing, but I could deal with speech recognition software if typing weren’t an option for me.

Touch Typing Works on Tablets, Too

I don’t know why, but very few people seem to have experimented with touch typing on their tablets. Here’s the thing: even though there are no physical keys, you can absolutely touch type. If you practice a bit, your fingers will quickly memorize where they need to go.

The iPad has the advantage, here, by the way. Its touchscreen is more responsive than Android and Windows tablets, which makes it easier to touch type. You still can touch type on an Android or Windows tablet, but the slower screen will slow you down a bit, and you might make more mistakes.

Learning to type fast and getting comfortable with speech recognition software are complementary skills on any device. If you want to do your best work, you need to improve your transcription fluency, and fast typing is the best way to do it, with speech recognition software as a good alternative.

Originally published 2009-11-23. Last updated 2014-06-24.

Featured image: “Macro image of human hand with forefinger going to press key on keyboard” from Shutterstock.

  1. 88 wpm for me, although I am pretty sure I can type even faster when I am full of caffeine and ideas and in the zone.