Matt Gemmell

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40% Keyboard Layout for Writing

writing & tech 3 min read

I recently wrote about using a 40% ortholinear keyboard. Today I’d like to talk about how this size of keyboard can be adapted to suit writers like myself.

The majority of the writing I do is of fiction, and I write in the plain text Markdown syntax. I also edit entirely with the keyboard, and indeed I don’t have a pointing device on my desk — though I do have a mouse-keys layer on my keyboard, and I can always reach up to touch the iPad’s screen if I need to.

This all means I have some basic but strongly preferred needs for my keyboard, and I’m coming from a lifetime of QWERTY usage without any current desire to learn an entirely new alphanumeric layout. Here’s what I’ve settled on at time of writing.

Layout schematic for base layer of a Planck keyboard

There are a few things to note. Firstly, the blue sub-legends indicate tap-hold functions, triggered when a key is held for more than 200 milliseconds. I find that my fingers expect keys to be in a certain position relative to the keyboard’s edges most of all, rather than caring excessively about how many rows there are. My muscle memory readily accepted the Planck keyboard’s four rows instead of the usual five, but still expects to find numbers at the top, hyphen and equals to the left of backspace, and so on. Thus my layout is an exercise in origami; folding the physically non-existent parts of the keyboard inwards onto the keys that I have.

Having the numbers on the Raise layer of the Q to P keys is a primary example. I’ve also found it completely intuitive to add hyphen and equals onto O and P respectively when held, and my fingers have no trouble finding them. The change from a tap to a brief hold is apparently much easier for me to assimilate than a different physical location.

I also seem to be very, very dependent on an inverted-T arrow keys cluster, so I rearranged the keys in the lower right to give me that setup back. This meant moving the forward-slash (and question-mark, shifted) key, though, and I found that impossible to tolerate. I write a lot of dialogue, and I need my question-mark to hand for my right pinky. The solution again was to return the question-mark to its usual place but as a hold function on what’s now the up-arrow key. This has proved to need hardly any adaption at all, so much so that I almost feel that the dedicated forward-slash key is wasted on the base layer, and could better be used for something else instead.

I have per-word navigation on the left and right arrows when held, and of course my Return key is also a right Shift when held, because it’s in the correct position for both of those functions, relative to the top-right and the bottom-right of the keyboard respectively. I’ve found it enormously helpful for quick acclimatisation to choose functions which mimic the relative geometry of larger keyboards, including the overlap caused by the loss of rows or columns.

One possible enhancement would be to add any commonly-needed shifted characters from the usual 1 to 7 keys as hold actions on the corresponding Q to U physical keys. I personally can’t think of any that I need so frequently, and I’d especially discourage making the exclamation-mark any easier to reach if it’s prose you’re writing. (And I have access to it via Lower+Q, Raise+Shift+Q, and also Raise+Q held.)

The positions of comma, full stop, semicolon and quotation mark are all non-negotiable for me at the moment, I think, but I have enabled the general case of the tap-hold functionality (part of Tap Dance in the QMK firmware) in the form of the very useful Auto Shift. By holding down any key with a shifted variant available, I get the shifted version without using a modifier key at all. Thus I also have the very useful (for a writer, at least) double quotes and colon available with a single keypress too.

As ever, it’s worth checking both your operating system’s text-editing keyboard shortcuts and conveniences to see if they’ll help further. On iPadOS, for example, successive hyphens can be automatically converted to an en-dash or em-dash for you, straight quotes can be educated, Option+Backspace will remove a whole word to the left of the cursor, and vim-style editing shortcuts are also available. Command+Control+Space will also provide an entirely keyboard-navigable emoji search and insertion palette. It pays to familiarise yourself with all the tools at your disposal, even the ones which don’t live on your keyboard.

As ever, you can let me know your thoughts or suggestions, if you like: I’m matt at this domain for email, and I’m @mattgemmell on Twitter.

Thanks for reading.