Ergonomics for Writerly Folk

PhotobucketTruth: Writers sit. A lot. We sit and type. We sit and edit. We sit and read. We sit and dream. We sit while sifting through Twitter and Facebook posts, and while digesting blogs. And then we sit and type some more.

It probably goes without saying that it’s important to have a decent setup in our writing spot—that our work area, chair and desk all jive together, and complement the proportions of our bodies. It goes without saying and we think we’ve done all we need to do, but sometimes things aren’t feeling quite right. We have a stiff neck at the end of the day, or aching wrists, or our chair makes us uncomfortable and we can’t figure out why.

Here are a few pointers I hope can help.

On the Desk

  • Place your keyboard and monitor front and center on your desk–never to the side of your work area–to prevent you from making awkward and potentially harmful body contortions in order to reach them.
  • Make sure your computer monitor is at eye level, to reduce both eye and neck strain.
  • Position your keyboard so that it’s accessible to you when your arm is bent 90 degrees at the elbow. The line of your forearm—from elbow to knuckles—should be parallel to the floor when you’re typing. Explains ergonomics expert Jonathan Bailin, Ph.D., “If you make a fist, the knuckles, top of the wrist, and forearm should form a straight line. When it is not extended or flexed, this is a neutral wrist posture.”
  • Be sure your mouse is on the same plane as your keyboard. Placing your mouse on a higher plane can put excessive strain on your wrists, shoulders and spine, which can lead to a repetitive strain injury.

Wondering how all of these computer rules translate to use with your laptop? Says Dr. Bailin, “Good upper body posture requires separation of monitor and mouse/keys. A laptop, unless you separate the keys from the monitor, may be okay for head angle or arm angle, but not both.” Bottom line: Try not to use your laptop for long work sessions.

In the Chair

  • If you can’t find a chair with armrests that will support your elbows at a 90-degree angle from your keyboard, you may want to forgo armrests altogether. Instead, look for an adjustable chair, and set it so that your arms can be held at proper angles.
  • While in your chair, the soles of your feet should rest comfortably on the floor so that your thighs and spine are well supported. Use a footstool if you need to. (I’d make a crack about using your willing dog, who’s often under your desk anyway, but they’re unreliable during thunder storms.)
  • Be sure your weight is properly distributed while you’re sitting, too. “Even distribution on the upper thighs to buttocks is best,” says Dr. Bailin.
  • Don’t forget to factor in wiggle room. Your ideal chair should give you ample space to squirm and change your position, which you should do every 15 minutes or so. The last thing you need is to feel imprisoned in your seat; this gig is hard enough as it is.

It’s worth nothing that most office equipment is made for the male body. Ladies, you may have to search a little harder to find the right desk-and-chair combo for you.

To Be Continued…In the Newsletter

What I learned while researching for this article: This is a bigger topic than I can handle in a single post, if I want to be thorough—and I do! So I’m going to take on niche desk-health topics–like eye health, carpal tunnel syndrome, standing work stations, the importance of timed breaks and more–in the new Writer Unboxed newsletter. Our first letter, with stretching tips for writers, just went out a few days ago, but you can still sign up to receive it. Learn more about the letter HERE, or just trust that it’s awesome and SIGN UP.

Have an issue you’re curious about? Let me know in comments and I’ll try to work it into an upcoming newsletter column.

Big thanks to Jonathan Bailin, Ph.D., at ErgonomicsDr.com for his time in preparation for this article.

Write on, everyone–in the right seat.

Photo courtesy Flickr’s lapideo

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About Therese Walsh

Therese Walsh co-founded Writer Unboxed in 2006. Her second novel, The Moon Sisters, was named a Best Book of 2014 by Library Journal and BookRiot. Her debut, The Last Will of Moira Leahy, sold to Random House in a two-book deal in 2008, was named one of January Magazine’s Best Books, and was a Target Breakout Book. She's never been published with a lit magazine, but LOST's Carlton Cuse liked her Twitter haiku best and that made her pretty happy.

Comments

  1. says

    Such practical, useful and important issues. Great subject. I have a new friend from Tai Chi class who is all bent over…permanently. He attributes it to pushing his late wife for years in her wheel chair. It sadly highlights an ultimate price for ergonomic inattention. In hindsight, he should have raised the handles to accomodate his 6′ 4″ height. Lesson: don’t take extended poor ergonomics lightly. Can you say ‘carpel tunnel’?

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  2. says

    Alex, that’s too bad about your friend. What I read about eye health is similarly surprising in terms of what long-term “postures” can do to us. You have to look up from your screen toward a far-away object every 15-20 minutes, or your eyes can become accustomed to “near focus” and strain with distances. Our actions really do train our bodies, for better and worse.

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    • says

      You know, Therese, I wonder if the eye thing isn’t one of the reasons for which I prefer working in cafes (aside from my preference for some background noise). True, the ergonomics are not great, but at least my eyes get frequent breaks from the screen: I glance over at the folks at another table whose conversation intrigues me, or someone comes in with a funky outfit, etc. And when I do look away from my screen, something in me reminds me to change position and sit up straight. My screen, however, is nowhere near eye level. The problem with laptops.

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      • says

        I can definitely see that, Anjali (no pun intended!). My eyes would be all over the place in a cafe, but it would be hard for me to concentrate on my work.

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  3. says

    Great topic choice, Therese. I’ve struggled with all sorts of ergonomically-effected issues for at least 20 years, including stenosis in my neck, which causes intense pain around my right shoulder bone much of the time. Sitting at a computer, staring at the screen and using the mouse while tense has probably caused it and certainly made it worse.

    While there’s no panacea, for the past 4 years I’ve been using a Varier kneeling chair (http://www.thehumansolution.com/varier-thatsit-balans-ergonomic-chair.html). It’s super ugly and takes some getting used to, but it really helps. And the bonus is that it keeps all pressure off my lower back.

    I also have my laptop and desktop networked so I can switch from one to the other and go work standing up, or even just slouching in the sofa from time to time. Slouching may not be recommended, but it’s a nice treat and overall changing positions is good, too!

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    • says

      I used a kneeling chair at a retreat once. I can see how it would take some long-term getting used to, but if it helps with lower back strain it’s probably worth it! Thanks for pointing to that website, Sharon; I’ve been in the market for a new chair and I see some interesting possibilities here…

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    • Jeanne Kisacky says

      I liked the kneeling chairs, but I LOVE sitting on a big exercise ball (the 3′ diameter kind). I can bounce, wiggle, and fidget while ‘sitting.’ It also helps with core strength, balance, and proper posture. There is, of course, one major problem–if you get sleepy, the danger of falling off is very high. But if I’m that snoozy, I’m probably not getting work done anyway . . .

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  4. says

    Great post and much needed, thank you so much!

    I would like to add that, once I got a laptop, my constant use of the touchpad left me with a serious case of repetitive strain injury. It left me crippled for several months! These days, I make sure I always use a mouse with my laptop.

    Thanks a lot again!

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  5. says

    Thanks, Therese and Dr. Baillin. These are useful tips. I’m reminded of what my piano teacher told me about posture when playing: back straight, feet flat on the floor and your wrist should be so flat you can balance a quarter on it without the coin falling off while you are playing. Great post on an overlooked topic.

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  6. says

    Great post. It’s something I’ve been trying to pay closer attention to. I have terrible posture, and I’m trying to correct it.

    I also got an ergonomic keyboard for christmas, and I’m already noticing my wrists don’t stiffen up after long writing sessions anymore. They can be tough to get used to depending on how you learned to type, but they’re worth looking into for the ergonomically concerned writer.

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    • says

      Thanks for your comment, J.W. One of the things I learned while researching this is that wrist pads that claim to help with wrist support (for mouse and keyboard) can be a detriment to our wrists if we use them while typing (or mousing). They can actually *cause* a strain injury by wrongly aligning our wrists.

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  7. says

    One of the things that pushed my career split of writing/carpentry over to a much heavier emphasis on writing was a repetitive motion shoulder injury in ’08 called radial palsy. I had a terrible set up at the time, and invested in a good chair and a swiveling/adjustable ‘table’ for my keyboard that swings out from under my desk. I know your source is absolutely correct about keeping the wrist in line with the forearm, as anything else caused me quite a bit of pain for years. Four years on and I still sit with my keyboard virtually in my lap, and still use my left for my mouse.

    Another thing I do is keep a full water glass next to me. Not to large, as I like getting up to refill it often. Keeps me moving periodically, and hydrated. Important stuff! Thanks T!

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    • says

      That injury sounds painful, Vaughn, I’m sorry. You are right on about the water — very important to keep the body hydrated to help prevent injury.

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  8. says

    Great reminders, especially as I lie here on my back typing with my bad leg in the stupid PT machine and my laptop propped on my good leg.

    I never thought about office furniture as an item designed for the male body, but now that you say it, it makes sense. My quest is to find something that helps upper back/neck pain.

    Any suggestions more than welcome.

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    • says

      “This is a man’s world…” It’s so true!

      I’ll see what I can find specifically for necks and upper backs. In the meanwhile, take care of yourself.

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  9. says

    “It’s worth nothing that most office equipment is made for the male body. Ladies, you may have to search a little harder to find the right desk-and-chair combo for you.”

    Veeery interesting. That helps explain why the SAME setup can cause strain in my back/neck/wrists but not my boyfriend’s.

    Great tips, and very in line with all the ergo research I’ve done myself. The one personal oddity I’ve found is that my wrists actually do better when the keyboard is higher than a 90º angle. (Lower than 90º is torture, though.) However, I have to consciously drop my shoulders, because when the keyboard sits higher they are inclined to hunch.

    Wrist exercises are a big help too. And I like facing a window when I work, not only for the natural light or the view (which are great) but also for the ability to look at things far away for a bit, resting/exercising my eyes.

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    • says

      The importance of listening to your shoulders came up too. It sounds like you’re doing all the right things, listening to your body and tweaking so that it’s right for you! And awesome that you’re taking eye breaks and varying your perspective.

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  10. says

    Years ago, I bought an ergonomic keyboard because I was having carpal tunnel syndrome. It “cured” me and I haven’t had any wrist/hand problems since. Unfortunately, they don’t make ergonomic keyboards for laptops!

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  11. says

    Thank you, Therese! I had been think about writing a blog post about this because I have never seen one. I kept thinking, “I can’t be the only writer suffering from too much sitting.”

    After writing for about ten years I began to suffer serious issues with my shoulders, neck and SI joints. I had a complete ergonomic make-over to adjust every little thing until it was just right. But I had months of massage therapy and a regular yoga practice before I felt recovered. Even with regular breaks, I know I need regular exercise and yoga. Our bodies were not designed for sitting for long periods, and in middle age, I find these issues become more and more important.

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    • says

      Our bodies were not designed for sitting for long periods, and in middle age, I find these issues become more and more important.

      I totally agree, Mary.

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  12. says

    PS.
    I forgot to mention my most serious injury which I have not recovered from despite cortisone shots. I call it “mouse thumb” and I don’t know what I’ll do if I get it in my left thumb. Like Vaughn, I have have had to switch. It probably wouldn’t have gotten so bad, if I had realized the mouse was the cause. My right thumb had been hurting for a couple years and I just never connected it with the mouse. But I do believe it had started years before from pinching diaper pins to open and close them when I had two kids in diapers. It healed when the diaper days ended, but came back later due to the mouse.

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  13. says

    Since I started being serious about being a writer, my neck and shoulders are in a constant state of painful knots and my eyesight is shot! Thanks for the great post. Timely for me (she says as she rubs a kink in her neck).

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    • says

      Your best friend might be a timer, Robin. Set it to go off every 15-20 minutes, then make yourself get up and stretch. That should help a lot with your tension issues. I hope!

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  14. Robin Yaklin says

    I’m a short lady so even exercise balls and such must come in petite sizes or they don’t work for me. I tried a ball, but to get it so everything lined up–wrist at proper height and all–my feet didn’t touch the ground. See the problem? That was a disaster. I would try to sit on the ball, but couldn’t get quite properly on top and the dang thing would shoot out. I’d stumble around, appearing to be a well-boozed writer.
    In all seriousness and frustration, I’m open to suggestions and resources.

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    • says

      Hello, fellow short person, you are not alone. I purchased a few exercise balls before I found the one right for desk work. I ended up getting a larger ball and taking some of the air out of it. You can also find stabilizing bases for your ball so that it doesn’t shoot out on you–because there’s nothing sadder than appearing to be a well-boozed writer without taking so much as a sip of wine. Here’s to hoping you find a solution that works for you.

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  15. says

    It’s so important to listen to your body. You can change your equipment. You’re stuck with your body for the rest of your life, and if you’re contorting it into uncomfortable positions to accommodate your work, you will start to feel it, no matter your age or general health. (And though sometimes it takes a while to notice the discomfort, that doesn’t mean it’s not straining you just as much!)

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  16. says

    One of the best Christmas presents I received several years ago was a Lumbar Massage Cushion for my office chair that my family gave me, from HoMEDICS. It can either massage or heat, or massage and heat at the same time. Very relaxing. And as I spend a large amount of time at my computer, it has come in very handy. Of course, working with all the tips you’ve given us, Teri, and the need to take breaks, goes a long way in helping to keep the pain away in the first place.

    Loved the comment about office equipment being made for men, that goes with most exercise equipment as well!

    Thanks for sharing,

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    • says

      It’s good to see you here, Carol! And that lumbar massage cushion sounds great–especially that it’s heated. I’d be using that sucker all of the time!

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  17. says

    Aw lawd – of course as I’m reading this, I am scrunched over in the worst vision of non-good-posture there is in the Whole Land of Postures . . . ungh . . . and I know better! Miz former Personal Trainer and “Y’all, let’s get healthy” ‘advocate’ — oh lawd. But when it comes to my writing life, I am sorely lacking in proper postures -dang my hide!

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  18. says

    Just signed up to your newsletter, sounds like some good tips will come from it; this was pretty good information too. I always use a laptop at home, but I’m usually kicked back on my bed and don’t have too much trouble as long as I don’t contort myself too much. Thanks for sharing this information.

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  19. says

    Oy! I’m on the couch, laptop on lap, most definitely NOT in a good position for my back. But it’s near a good light and my coffee is right there . . . *whiny*

    Love this tips, Therese. I’ve been searching for a good chair but it never occurred to me to think that they were all made with men in mind. I might splurge on an Aeron, they are customizable and are designed ergonomically. So expensive! But health is worth it.

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    • Robin Yaklin says

      Hi, Aeron comes in A,B and C sizes for tall to short folks. I love mine! It’s a short people chair! This 60-year-old body doesn’t recover easily from a full day of sitting in a bad position.

      Also have a laptop, but the dang thing is causing all kinds of physical problems. It’s a MacBook. As far as I can tell the Apple design folks are not ergonomical thinkers. Today, hubby (the resident techie) and I decided the laptop could be the CPU and we would purchase an adjustable-height monitor to improve the situation; however, we decided against one of the Apple monitors since those are designed for artist who are working on movies and still pictures. The electronic store gurus said, since the laptop is a MacBook, it should send clear images to most any monitor. We are taking my laptop to the store and hooking it to monitors to check that this is correct. If anyone has experience, please sing out.

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  20. says

    The hubby and I are going to be setting up my writing space this week. I am hoping that I can find a suitable chair, keyboard, and mouse that are all ergo-friendly.

    This post is a great help. :D

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  21. says

    Whew! I was relived to learn that my setup/approach is pretty much right. I’ve been working on keyboards, from the old Selectric typewriter to today’s computer keyboards, for, gasp, 30 years. The only time I’ve ever had a problem was a temp job where the keyboard was very low–I had to reach down and angle my wrists up to type. Argh! Terrific post, Therese.

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  22. says

    I’ve been having such awful neck pain for the past week or so and after reading this article I immediately placed one of my giant hardback books under my monitor. I’m relatively tall and even with my desk chair positioned as low as it can go I was still looking downward at my monitor. I’m hoping the elevated monitor will help. Thanks for the suggestion.

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