The ergonomics of writing

Writing is a freelancing business. Like all other freelancers and most hourly positions, you can’t get paid for new work if you’re too sick or injured to produce more. (And, as a massage therapist friend learned when she broke her arm, hospital bills tend to pile up when the money’s not coming in.) Therefore, it’s a good idea to not only prevent the work-related injuries to hands, wrists, neck, back, eyes, and arms, but to also keep the rest of your body and your immune system in as good a shape as you can.

The first way to stay in healthy & uninjured is to avoid doing things that’ll get you injured. So, let’s discuss your writing setup. While curling up  on the couch with a laptop occasionally is fine, if you’re going to be spending much time on the computer (and all the internet, email, and gaming time counts, too), you should have an ergonomic setup.

This is a link to a good PDF with the proper angles for seated positions at a desk: note that unless you’ve put conscious thought into it, your monitors are probably too low, and contributing to neck and back strain.

The next step up is to make a standing or walking desk; this allows you to get out of the chair, and give your body a break from sitting. Walking desks range from homemade setups on garage-sale treadmills to expensive custom jobs. If you’re using the standard home treadmill as part of your setup, expect it to die sooner than you expected; treadmill motors made for short bursts of running don’t do well with long periods of slow walking. (high speed low torque motors vs. low speed high torque motors) Do pick up some treadmill lube appropriate for your machine; a well-lubricated belt and regularly-vacuumed motor makes for a much longer-lived treadmill desk. (Youtube has lots of treadmill maintenance videos, to make it easy.)

Peter has a dual-monitor / dual-keyboard / dual mouse setup run between a standing desk on a shelf next to his main computer at his sitting desk (with an anti-fatigue mat to stand on.) This way he can literally switch between sitting and standing by just getting up and walking two steps over.

I use a treadmill desk, because I get more than enough sitting at Day Job. I have a laptop with the monitor set at a compromise point between Peter’s eye height and mine, and a second shelf with a USB keyboard and mouse at best ergonomic arm height. We’re running dropbox, so if Peter wants to use the treadmill desk, he just pulls up the file on my laptop and sets his walking speed – no computer movement required.

(He sometimes carries his laptop and mouse over anyway, because he doesn’t like my trackball. No shared setup is perfect!)

When I do sit, I have a yoga ball to sit on at the ancient media laptop’s desk, which keeps facebook isolated and unable to suck my time away until I sit down there. It also lets me work on core strength and stability, even though I’m sitting.

The second way to stay healthy & uninjured is to take breaks and stretch regularly. You can search for “computer & desk stretches” or “office stretches” and come up with hundreds of variations; pick the set that work for you, and try to work them in regularly.

However, if you’re working from home, don’t feel limited to chair stretches: you can get up and do plenty of other things to loosen up. Whether it’s getting up and doing five minutes on a chore (putting a few more dishes in the dishwasher, sweeping a room, folding a couple clothes or moving a load over to the dryer), or getting out of the house and walking up and down the block while muttering over plot points, you can incorporate giving your eyes and body a break in many different ways. (If you’re in a coffee shop, you might stick to chair stretches, so you don’t lose your seat. But try to look away from the screen and spend a little while people-watching, to give your eyes a variety of focal lengths.)

If you haven’t heard of it yet, check out the pomodoro method. It’s basically breaking your time into 25-minute chunks of writing, followed by 5-minute breaks, and then every 4th break, taking a 15-20 minute break instead. Some writers use it as a way to increase productivity, because mini-sprints that are timed help. Others use it as a productivity increase because “I can only write, not skim social media or check news, for the next 25 minutes.” For ergonomic health if you use this method, please spend some of your breaks getting up from your computer, stretching, or letting you eyes rest by focusing elsewhere – not just switching from Word to MyTwitFace.

The third way to stay healthy & uninjured is to exercise. The stronger you are, and the more you work at improving balance and coordination, the less likely you are to fall, and the less injury you’re likely to take when you do fall. I’m not going to specifically advocate one size to fit all writers: do your own research and pick what works best for you. Mark Rippetoe has many very persuasive arguments about the value of strength training at all ages and states of health – and given that a good chunk of physical therapy is indistinguishable from very heavily monitored weight training, I can’t argue too much with him. Cardio, if possible, is also very good for your heart and lungs. Yoga is good for stretching tendons, coordination, balance, and many of the moderately advanced positions are basically bodyweight exercises. Pick something, set a routine, and work at getting better at it.

My day job has started doing 5-minute breaks for stretching that include full-out aerobic exercise… so you don’t have to do either/or, you can combine this stuff.

The fourth way to stay healthy and uninjured is to eat healthy food, in moderation. Diet is a very sticky topic and wanders well away from ergonomics; find out what works best for you. Personally, I’ve found that I feel best if I’m on a high-fat, low-carb, moderate-protein diet (ketogenic is the extreme end of this; I rarely actually achieve it, but the recipes are handy for aiming at that target.) However, again, one size does not fit all (other than to note that sitting all day and eating chips and soda has not proven healthy for anyone yet.)  So do your own research, and take care of yourself.

Writers are in a luckier position than massage therapists; with the stories you already have written out on the market, you can get sales and income even when you’re not up to producing new work. (A massage therapist with a broken arm or tendonitis can’t get money coming in from past work like we can.) On the other hand, masseurs tend to get paid immediately upon receipt of services, where writers can be stuck in the awkward position of knowing the sales this month were great, but not able to meet the mortgage because the money won’t hit their bank account for several months.

Either way, it pays to put the time in now to avoid getting into that jam in the future. Because trust me (says the person whose physical therapist made approving noises as she caught me wheezing through the post-discharge exercises yesterday), physical therapy sucks. You really want to avoid ending up like me if you can!

If you want some good stories to read, this last week was a bumper crop of releases.

Sarah Hoyt’s latest: Darkship Revenge

J. L. Curtis’s latest: Rimworld: Into the Green

Cedar Sanderson’s latest: Tanager’s Fledglings

Full disclosure: I wrote the blurbs for Jim Curtis & Cedar. I’m not getting anything for mentioning them; I just happen to like the books!

26 thoughts on “The ergonomics of writing

  1. I can’t *do* a standing desk or treadmill desk. And don’t have space for them. Not an option for some of us. Also, the ‘ergonomic’ seating pose where a significant portion of your weight is still going down through your legs and into the floor doesn’t work for me. Luckily, i am tall so chair s designed to put an average person in that position can be adjusted so that as little as possible of my weight rests on my knees and lower legs.

    However, the foam strip on the front of my keyboard tray is disintegrating and needs replacement…

  2. I have been writing in spurts mostly. Having a toddler running rampant tends to lend to that. My laptop seems to work for me and I dread the day I am going to need to replace it. Definitely need more exercise. Diet is fairly consistent. Might have to look at other things to keep me healthier.

  3. Between a National Novel Writing Month and a decreasing amount of exercise, my back started giving me problems a couple years ago. My running routing had dwindled horribly due to day job stressors. For NaNo, I sat on the comfy couch with my legs up aiming for 2100 words a day. That’s when the pain started. Walking helped, but only temporarily. What really fixed me was the weight room, even though it began with me saying, “Seriously? You want me to do a dead lift? I’m here because I have back problems.” I can now do that and (knock wood) thing are drastically improved over a year later. Also, a fitbit lets you know you aren’t walking nearly as much as you think you are.

    As for diet, although I can’t imagine giving up my morning oatmeal with 16 chocolate chips and one spoonful of sour cream, a lot of the Whole30 recipes are really filling and very low carb.

    1. Ah, yes, the dreaded deadlift for core strength and stabilization! They don’t let me do those yet; right now I’m doing pushups off the bar on the weight rack, and then doing my core strength on the yoga ball with candy-coloured dumbells. Blech. Stay strong! Don’t join me in PT!

      1. In addition to really helping the back, the weightlifting also brought a bonus knee cure that I wasn’t expecting. Apparently, the first thing they tell a person with a bad knee to do is strengthen the quads. I was used to the knee pain and just dealt with it, so when I realized it was sometimes gone, often gone, and then always gone, I was pretty happy.

  4. One of my many goals for the rest of this year is to find a little platform I can use to elevate my writing laptop so I don’t look down as much. I use a separate keyboard and track-ball, but if I lower my chair enough for proper head position, my hands are too low to type properly and my carpel tunnel starts to act up.

    Moving around is really important. Really, really important. And hydration! I don’t know about others, but when I really get in a writing groove, I don’t drink as much as I should. My personal minimum is around eighty (yes, 80) ounces per day, ideally 120 ounces of water, black tea and diet soda, most of that water. Whatever your basic water needs are, keep them in mind when you are working. Plus proper hydration forces you to take breaks. 😉

    1. My cat-resistant writing platform standby has been reams of copy paper, or hardcover books I’m not going to re-read soon. (Peter informed me in a scandalized tone, soon after we met, that using the catechism of the holy roman catholic church to prop up one’s monitor is Just Not On. But the physics textbook is fair game.)

      Work has fancy platforms, but right now I have a milk crate and a ream of paper for the media computer. (The treadmill desk, I just set the shelf at the height needed.)

      As for hydration – yes! Peter will line up three water bottles by his desk. This gives him a target for how much to drink in a day, over and above the tea, tea, diet soda, and tea.

    2. I echo the ‘proper hydration forces you to take breaks’ thing. My in-laws got me an awesome 1.2 liter teapot from T2Tea, which I can make fruit-infused water, or a delightfully huge pot of fruity green tea with. I went with the 1.2 because it fits great on my desk, provides about 5 and a half cups of tea that still tastes awesome when cold, and still leaves me with room for the coke I like to drink at lunch and/or dinner. The tea I like is the Lipton green tea that they describe as ‘delicate’ – it’s not bitter, which is the thing I did not like about most green teas.

      I had serious issues with my back while drawing / writing until I got a nice drafting chair. My problem? I’m so freaking short that my feet don’t touch the ground on chairs sized for the average Aussie. Drafting chair has somewhere for me to put my feet.

  5. I wanted to comment when I first saw this, but I had to clean my desk off first. I recently moved my desk, from a corner desk to a table in my bedroom. Which has the advantage of a door I can close to keep out and the disadvantage of less flat space. Which is an issue because right not I’ve been making dragons, I need to paint (Mother’s Day gift) and format a book for print. Sighs. My life is cluttered! Maybe someday I’ll have a whole studio with spaces for each media I work in.

    1. Clutter happens; congrats on pushing it back for now! I have a desk-cluttering device called a maine coon kitten. Not that anything goes away, it just has a habit of getting knocked to the floor if he spots a fly, and is swarming up the furniture to get at it… and then I might as well put it away when I’m picking it up.

  6. Okay. A rummage through the lumber scrap bin has produced three, umm, artistically mismatched odds and ends that raises my monitor a bit. Now I just needs to get up and walk around a bit more often . . .

      1. I hate Pomodoro. 25 minutes is way too short and even when I set it longer I hate the $%^& timer going off when I’m in the middle of something. Worse that a toddler!

    1. Hey, if it works, it works, no matter what you’re using! The media computer is at eye height due to a slightly cracked milk crate and a ream of copy paper. So, eh, yours might be less… industrial-chic than my setup there? 🙂

  7. Two other key points, one is a GOOD chair! As you know, I have back issues and I got a Herman Miller Aeron chair two years ago, and I use an ergonometric keyboard. Those two items made a great improvement in my ability to concentrate and write without ‘additional’ pain.

    Thanks for the bump on the book, and your alpha read was truly helpful!!!

    1. Absolutely! Peter has a good chair; with his back problems, it was worth every bit of the expense. I even have a pretty decent chair at work, though I avoid chairs at home. And we have ergonomic keyboards (In fact, we have a spare one ready to go in case one dies.) The trackball I use is better for my wrists than a mouse; Peter likes his mouse better (May be a hand size/strength/position issue.)

  8. This is very good advice, Dorothy.

    My own situation, I have a bad knee so standing and treadmills don’t work. The physio-ball does work, and I use one regularly.

    One thing I must say though, it is not a bad idea to stop writing for a period of time and do something else. Paint the living room, dig the garden, roll under the truck and do the brakes, make pizza, whatever. It sharpens up the brain cells and it makes you use muscles that have been slacking.

    My summer projects are to build a shed and fix my old busted Dodge. I don’t -need- a shed, but building one will put some muscle mass on me. The truck, well, why have it if it doesn’t work?

    Despite being a physical therapist (I’m sorry!) I detest exercise. Therefore, I have to find another way.

    1. Hey, I don’t hate physical terror… therapists! They put me back together again! (And again, and again…) That said, I’m firmly with you on the not-loving-gym-time. So when I get out of physical therapy, I’m going to find other ways to keep the muscle mass up. Or at least checking what the professional athletes / bodybuilders are doing for maximum gain with minimum gym time. (HIIT with cardio between weightlifting sets was the last things I saw for “How to get your gym routine down to 20 minutes a day with maximum benefit.” I just wasn’t dedicated enough to try. Pain is a great motivator, though…)

    2. Good idea on the Dodge (my favorite vehicle, by the way – before family, I had a V8 350, full size bed, camper shell, sigh… That was a long time ago.)

      Shed? Um, when you build a shed that you do not need, you start finding uses for it. Then, one day, you go out there – and realize you need a shed. Another one.

      When we moved into this house, so many years ago, I should have made the garage into my shop right away. Instead, it became a “garage” like so many Americans have – a shed that just happens to be attached to the house. Two sheds later – and I’m contemplating where yet another one can be put… (although this time, I just might manage to get the long-planned raised vegetable beds put into the last available space before anyone starts really agitating for me to head for the lumberyard).

  9. Ah, the advantages of a Tucson climate. I get up and hike back and forth on the back porch (well, except for about three hours in summer mornings that the sun has it too hot. Yes, complete with muttering…

    Thank you, Dorothy, for the plugs at the end – I am scatterbrained, and had forgotten until then that DR was on the list (as well as the new Darcy), and both of Cedar’s (I never did start that series, so I now have some binging to look forward to!)

  10. I used an IBM PC/XT keyboard for almost twenty years. Buckling-spring mechanical switches derived from their old DisplayWriter and typewriter technology. IBM designed their keyboards for serious data entry work.

    After using an IBM keyboard, rubber-dome or foam pad keyboards feel like poking a puppy in the eye. And laptop keyboards are simply evil.

    Ten years ago I finally replaced the keyboard with a PC/AT keyboard. Too much modern software wanted right-side control and alt keys and BIOSes wanted F11 and F12 keys.

    I’ve hated that keyboard for ten years. I tried others, but it was still the best of a bad lot. It has three problems. First, the rows of keys are offset differently from the XT keyboard. Second, the cursor pad is shifted waaaay to the right, with some moronic “inverted-T” keys jammed in, which are useless for what I do. And third, the keyboard is *deeply* dished; far more than any other keyboard I’ve ever used. IBM apparently expected the keyboard to sit in a “typing return” desk just over your thighs. Your fingers would naturally follow the dish. Alas, I keep the keyboard up on the desk, pushed back at arms’ length against the monitors, because I need the space between the keyboard and edge for the trackball, papers, etc. A proper keyboard would curve the other way, as my fingers naturally rest. Same problem with the trackball; the buttons are on the top, requiring my to lift my hand at the wrist, rather than in the front, where all I’d have to do is slide a finger over. Lots of bad design, now locked in as “the way things are done.”

    Back before the DIN decided you should rear back and pray up to the Monitor God, some IBM mainframe workstations had the monitors sunk down into the desk in your natural line of sight so you didn’t get a crick in your neck.

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