Of Mice and Keyboard Shortcuts

I never use the mouse. Well, that’s not entirely true; I do occasionally use the mouse, it is just the exception, not the rule. If you saw me at work with my ergonomic keyboard and wrist braces, you might think that I was some sort of freak typist, not a typical computer professional. After all, some of us may touch-type, but how many of us are truly comfortable with keyboard shortcuts?

Keyboard Shortcuts, Why Use Them?

Many of us learned computer basics and skills without learning touch-typing. For me, it was the reverse. My mother encouraged me to learn touch-typing from seventh grade. Touch-typing is typing from memory and feel rather than the “hunt and peck” method that so many people use even today. Like the mother who pushes piano lessons on her child, I’m very glad that she did. Later in graduate school, when the first word processors and Apple computers were distributed (remember those?), the transition to computer literacy and keyboard shortcuts was a logical and brief one. I should add to all this by stating that my first computer courses were in DOS (more nostalgia) where the keyboard was king.

But I’m getting along just fine with my mouse, you say, why should I consider learning keyboard shortcuts? I have two points to make – first, it is not uncommon for frequent, repetitive computer users and professionals to develop tendonitis or worse, carpal tunnel syndrome. I don’t mean to scare anyone, but good work ergonomics simply makes sense. Increasing your overall keyboard proficiency is a significant part of this.

If you’re still not convinced, let me talk dollars and cents. Keyboard mastery makes you a faster and more efficient writer – something to consider when clients expect you to churn out next week’s manual, yesterday! This is not an all or nothing option. You can learn as many shortcuts as you feel comfortable with.

The rest of this article is concerned with the basic keyboard shortcuts and how to use them. You don’t need to know touch-typing to master such shortcuts, but it certainly helps. For those of you who never learned touch-typing, I’ll merely refer you to the many on-line touch-typing courses on the Web. I don’t know which is best. You’ll have to find that out, but touch-typing is definitely a skill worth mastering.

For a free sample touch-typing tutor see http://www.powertyping.com/qwerty/lessonsq.html

The Basics

Two things turn off many potential users from utilizing shortcuts – first, there are so many of them to learn, and second, the same shortcut can vary from application to application. For example, Ctrl + M in Outlook will download your mail, while in RoboHelp it compiles the given project. However, don’t get discouraged. Many shortcuts are common throughout more than one application and may only vary among vendors and platforms. Thus, MS Office has its set of common shortcuts, while Adobe employs different ones. Furthermore, there are shortcuts, which are common to Windows and most of its applications. Learning the common denominators need not be a daunting task.

All standard PC keyboards (QWERTY) contain the following types of keys.


(Photo courtesy of Wikipedia Commons: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Image:Qwerty.svg)

  • Typewriter – are the standard keys as on an old-fashioned typewriter.
  • System – for example, the Windows Start key, common to the platform.
  • Application – also called the context key, this is the equivalent of right-click on the mouse.
  • Function – these keys perform various different functions common to many Windows applications.
  • Numeric – this keypad is activated with the Num Lock key and functions like a calculator.
  • Cursor Control – also called arrow keys, navigate within Windows or an application.
  • Enter – triple functions as a return key in typing, the Open command in Windows Explorer, and the confirmation key, (i.e. the equivalent of clicking OK/Yes with the mouse).
  • Other – the most significant of these is the Esc key, which is the equivalent of clicking Cancel/No with the mouse.

Let Your Fingers Do the Navigating

The most basic key combinations do not require a great memory. Let’s start with the most familiar keys. Type Start (System) + E to open the Windows Explorer. Now don’t touch that mouse! You can alternate between the Address bar and the panes by typing Tab. Do you want to open and close items in the left pane’s tree? Scroll up and down using the arrow cursor keys and use the right and left keys to open and close sub-folders.

Suppose you want to manipulate files in Windows Explorer:

  1. Type Tab to move to the right pane.
  2. Type Shift + Up/Down to highlight the desired files.
  3. Type Ctrl + C (copy).
  4. Navigate to another folder with Tab and the arrows.
  5. Type Ctrl + V (paste) to paste the files in the new folder.

Here’s another trick. Type Alt plus the underlined letter in the Windows main menu. This opens all the menu options of that particular menu. For example, Alt + F opens the File menu, Alt + V the View menu etc. (usually, but not always, the first letter of the menu). Many of these shortcuts can be used with slight variations within applications, but we will discuss the details in a latter article.

The table below summarizes the primary shortcuts in Windows.

If this list seems overwhelming to you, remember that these key combinations are transferable to many other applications. In the meantime, I urge you to learn as many of the above shortcuts as possible.

Next time: MS Word without the mouse