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The ergonomics of writing

17 May 2017

From Mad Genius Club:

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.

. . . .

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.

. . . .

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.

Link to the rest at Mad Genius Club

PG would add that a good keyboard is also extremely important. He’s never suffered from repetitive stress injury, but he knows some people who have. RSI can put you out of the typing business in a big hurry and for a long time.

Ergonomic keyboard manufacturers have come and gone in part, because it’s not a huge market. Fortunately, Microsoft started selling its ergonomic keyboard several years ago and appears to be in the business for the long term. PG couldn’t remember the number he has purchased, but Amazon says it has sold him five. He currently uses the 4000 model.

Ever since IBM stopped making laptops, PG has detested the keyboards on portable computers. If you use a laptop as your principal writing tool, there’s nothing to prevent using a separate keyboard, wired or wireless, with it. During a period of time when PG was doing a large amount of business travel, he purchased a compact external keyboard to use with his laptop in hotel rooms.

While he’s at it, PG will also add some commentary on computer mice. Ergonomic design can help there as well and external mice work with desktops or laptops equally well. For a long time, PG was a fan of Logitech and bought several Logitech Performance Wireless mice which worked fine.

About a year ago, he was introduced to the Anker Ergonomic Mouse and has been a huge fan ever since. It looks and feels weird at first, but PG has observed that it’s more comfortable for his wrist after a long day at the keyboard. It’s only $20, which is cheap for an ergonomic anything. He also tosses one into his computer bag when he travels.

One final ergonomic suggestion – put something under your monitor or laptop to raise the monitor from the top of your desk. PG’s current favorite height is nine inches from the top of his desk to the bottom of his monitor screens. He has a couple of cheap plastic monitor stands something like these. His third monitor sits on a stack of books that brings its height up to the same level as the others. (Fiction or nonfiction books will work equally well. Ebooks are a nonstarter for this job.)

PG currently has one large monitor flanked by two smaller monitors. It looks cool to persons under the age of ten, but if PG were to do it again, he would probably opt for two large monitors since he rarely uses the small monitor on his left.

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44 Comments to “The ergonomics of writing”

  1. > monitors

    Terry Pratchett said he was occasionally asked why he had six monitors. He reply was that he didn’t have room for eight.

    > monitor stands

    Early IBM video terminals were sunk down into the desk, so you looked down at them, in natural line of sight. You didn’t have to rear back and pray to them. After I finish building the new house, I’m going to build a new desk…

    > keyboard

    I still use a text-based editor that navigates by arrow keys. After spending a few years trying to adapt to the “enhanced” PC/AT keyboards, I’m moving back to my old 84-key PC/XT board. I finally found a vendor who has an auxiliary keypad that’s Linux and X compatible, programmable for F11, F12, right-ctrl, and right-alt scancodes. And I’ll have to edit xorg.conf to reprogram the arrow pad back to arrows, instead of the “numeric keypad” layout X forces it to. Fortunately I can work all that out in a virtual machine before copying the file to the host. I’m not really looking forward to it; xorg configuration is even more confusingly documented than the old xfree86 configuration was.

    • Create an .xmodmap file?

      That reminds me, I still need to learn how to do that myself…

  2. Felix J. Torres

    Once upon a time, chiclet keyboards were avoided like the plague. Reviewers would brand as unacceptable any laptop with anything but proper mechanical keyboards.

    Then Apple and Sony adopted then to make laptops thin. Now hardly anybody even blinks at keyboards with less travel than a sheet of paper. Not a step forward.

    • I hate the chiclet keyboards. I just bought a new laptop and could not find any reasonable option that wasn’t using one of these monstrosities.

      • Felix J. Torres

        They don’t make them. They’re cheap, light, and nobody gripes.
        One more reason to buy a Windows Tablet. You can get it without a keyboard or flip it into easel mode and use a good bluetooth keyboard instead.

        • For me the only thing worse than the keyboards on laptops/netbooks is those dang reflective screens. Sadly I haven’t seen a matted one in a long time.

          Last time I went shopping for a monitor/TV I took one of those little LED flashlights with 9 LEDs to shine at them. can see all 9 reflecting? it’s a dang mirror and will give you nothing but glare, small blur is better, being barely able to see it is great!

  3. Walking desks have been a big help to my health and general wellbeing (I find they’re more comfortable than sitting or standing desks). I got my treadmill from RebelDesk (https://www.rebeldesk.com/) and have been using it for a few years now without incident. 🙂

    I used to have RSI so extreme I couldn’t lift an empty coffee cup; my hand would just flutter open and drop anything I tried to grasp. When I went into massage school the instructors gathered around me and studied my responses, and thought I might be incapable of finishing the coursework because of my “injury.”

    The sports massage instructor fixed my RSI completely with targeted stretches, ice, and stripping. I had people telling me I needed surgery, and a daily routine of finger and wrist stretches took care of it. Now when people tell me they have (or are starting to have) RSI, I tell them to try that first, before any more extreme alternatives.

    RSI is SRS BSNS. F– Do not recommend.

  4. As a ‘hunt-n-peck’ type typer, those ergonomic keyboards drive my batty (battier), and with my catcher’s mitt paws on mice it’s bigger is better.

    As the netbook has two video outputs, my two 23 inch monitors give me plenty of screen space when I’m writing at my desk, otherwise they show me what a mess I’m making on the desktop system with DAZ (yes, I’m that nutcase 😛 ). A couple of USB3 external storage (backup) drives give each monitor a 6-7 inch lift, their hub parked between them.

    Biggest problem/fun with the setup is grabbing a keyboard and start pounding away — only to realise the screen is for the ‘other’ system! 😉

  5. RSI. Pain pain pain. I didn’t get classic carpal tunnel. I got radial tunnel instead. But now I buy the same keyboard for every computer, and the same mouse (not the ergonomic ones because my hands are too small and ow pain), and I’m working on getting the exact same desk for work and fun computers.Chair too. It’s all about making it so my hands don’t hurt and my back/neck don’t scream for mercy.

  6. As my screen acreage increased, my use of the mouse decreased. Win/Win.

  7. I strongly recommend a vertical keyboard. This cured my wrist pain. It also works very well when you’re standing up.

    The vertical keyboard basically splits the keyboard in half and puts the two sides upright . The only disadvantage is that you absolutely must be a touch typist to use it. You cannot see the keys while you type.

  8. Two monitors YES! What a great addition to my work flow.

    • Going from one to two monitors was a huge thing for me. Going from two to three was no big deal… of course, with a desktop more than five feet wide, I’ve realized there are limits to my field of view and my neck gets Rockettes’ Syndrome…

  9. Felix J. Torres

    Monitors I get along fine with one but rotated to portrait mode.

    I got a heavy duty monitor arm with pivot function ages ago so I just took off the monitor stand and mounted it on the arm. Technically I can rotate at will but it stays in portrait 99% of the time. Works great for me because I can run word full screen and zoom out to full page to sit at arm’s length with the screen lined up with my visual field.

    My back and eyeballs both prefer it that way.

  10. I helped set up a friend with a Microsoft sculpt keyboard because the 4000 (which I had didn’t help her much. Oh my. That sculpt keyboard and mouse are even better. They are so much better, I went out and bought a set for myself. The key board has a much lighter touch, and is quieter as well.

  11. Eye strain? Eye Ergonomics. The key for me is decreasing my monitor’s brightness and more importantly, the color temperature. Instead of the standard blue 6500K screen, I’ve got a cozy, warm 4000K screen using a Colorimeter. Makes all the difference on my eyes. (and because I’m also a designer and do color-critical work periodically, I just switch back to my calibrated 6500K setting for Photoshop, etc.)

    For change of pace, I love doing manual labor on my property. Chain sawing trees, clearing brush (George W.!), spreading gravel.

    • Regarding eye strain, it turns out that, paired with headaches, can be a sign of dyslexia. It seems that people with dyslexia move their eyes about 4 times as much as other people while trying to read the same text, so if you (or someone here) keeps having a problem with eye strain and headaches, that might be something to have checked out.

      • Interesting point, Chong Go. I’m speaking more of “mental tiredness” after staring at a bright, cold screen for hours. Changing the brightness and the color temperature reduces the fatigue factor significantly (for me). It’s like the difference between sitting in an office vs. sitting next to a campfire. Or something like that.

  12. RSIs have gotten much better since I switched from QWERTY to Dvorak. I shattered a shoulder in a bicycle accident, and I had to do something to keep working and avoid madness. Dvorak took a lot of the pain away from using my bad arm. After the shoulder healed, I noticed that both hands were working better on Dvorak. No miraculous increase in typing speed.

    I use a Microsoft Natural Keyboard or my ancient IBM Model F PC/AT keyboard. Switching from one to the other is like starting over for the day.

    I also like to use the handwriting input on my Surface with a stylus as a relief from the keyboard. It’s more of a mental than physical shift for me.

    I do a lot of Visio engineering diagrams, which are an exercise in mouse torture. I’ve gone through wrist tendinitis therapy twice. Microsoft gave me an Arc mouse as a token gift once. I hated it at first, but it travels well, and after six months of using it on the road, it became my favorite. It seems to retard my urge to white-knuckle when making single pixel adjustments. I never have been able to abide a touch pad.

    I am a single display troglodyte. I tried using two and three displays, but I went back to a single. Multiple displays tempt me to multi-task, which is a total loser for me. I use a KVM switch to flip between boxes running different operating systems.

    I also have a standing desk arrangement but I find it too easy to walk away to do something else. I jury rigged a walking desk, and I liked it, but I have yet to devise an arrangement I can really work with.

    Experiment often and find what works best for you.

    • Have you considered a graphic tablet and pen instead of a mouse? There are quite a few on the market but I think the Intuos by Wacom is one of the best.

  13. Be cautious about using Bluetooth keyboards in public places. With most BT kbs, script kiddies can remotely capture your keystrokes easily. BT range is 30 feet, sometimes more, and the signal goes through walls.

    Secure BT kbs are possible, but I don’t think I have ever seen one. If the vendor does not make a big deal about being secure, assume twelve-year-olds are listening in. I believe the NSA bans them for confidential communications.

  14. I use that Windows ergonomic keyboard and mouse. I also have 2 monitors, but 1 is for when I’m standing. So I can sit or stand, just move the windows to whichever monitor is needed. No raising of desks or anything like that.

  15. More health in general than ergonomics, but I dictate as much as possible and ride a stationary bike when I do now. It’s helping battle the bulge.

    I also traded a chair for a stool. You have to use your core a bit to sit upright.

    Of course Norm from cheers sat on a stool too, so…..

  16. I use and have recommended Razor’s Black Widow gaming keyboards to a half dozen writers. So far, all that have tried the Black Widow (regular or Chroma) love them.

    They’re mechanical with backlit keys. I have two, and use one with my laptop. 🙂

    • I have a DAS keyboard and love it. The tactile feedback and sound are great. Alas, the cat has learned that a pause in the sound means I might be done for the day, which means it might be feeding time. So every time I take a break in the afternoon? Cue the begging and pathetic eyes from the Worlds-Fluffiest-Starving-to-Death-Housecat.

  17. I love my MS 4000 keyboards and still have an original MS Ergonomic keyboard as a backup (somewhere). Although I am not sure I can actually plug it in to anything I own still.

    What I really want though is a quiet mechanical keyboard that has similar ergonomics to the MS 4000. Unfortunately there aren’t many out there and they are very expensive.

    For a monitor riser, I have taken a cheap shelf and some door stops to build a <$20 monitor stand that can hold 2 or 3 monitors and has room underneath for the keyboard when I need desk space for something else.

    • You might like the Microsoft Sculpt keyboard. It’s not a mechanical keyboard, but it’s got a slightly longer and firmer push than a chiclet keyboard, and is very quiet. A bit pricey, (80-90$) but the ergonomic mouse it comes with is really comfortable.

  18. Funny enough, typing *fixed* my carpal tunnel. But only after I got a keyboard tray that put the (flat) keyboard below my desk level. That way I can type without bending my wrists upwards. As a touch typer, I don’t have to look at the keys.

    And funny enough, I started writing like a madwoman while waiting for surgery on my right wrist (the left was scheduled for a month later, and I cancelled that one). I had been hit by the novel bug out of the blue, and I wrote several thousand words a day, using wrist splint supports at first. Symptoms lessened within a week. I believe it was the added motion without added strain that lubricated my sinews and thus reduced the inflammation.

    Symptomes flared up once when I got a new desk at work and was refused a keyboard tray by the “office experts”. I put my foot down a couple of weeks later, got a keyboard tray and have been fine ever since.

    • I have a desk like that as well. Having the keyboard at the right height is excellent but I’m a touch typist too.

    • My wife has an ancient Steelcase desk with a “typing return.” It’s designed to hold a Selectric-sized typewriter with the keyboard at what used to be thought of as “proper working height.” A PC keyboard sits much lower than that, but since she’s very short it works out for her.

      I went the other way and raised my desk up so I can lay my forearms on the desk while I type instead of bending my wrists backwards.

      What you have to be wary of when reading about “office ergonomics” is that much of it has the hidden assumption that the target is a typist using a manual typewriter and transcribing from vertical pages on a holder. Computer keyboards are much more complex, plus the normal user has a mouse or trackball of nearly-equal importance to contend with.

  19. PG I hope you will post an image of your multi monitor set up. Sounds cool.

  20. Standing desks are really no more healthy than sitting desks if you never move around. Moving around is the key, not staying in a different single position for hours at a time.

    As for walking desk, they sound like a neat idea, but when I focus I sink so far into my head that if I was really in the “zone” writing-wise, I’d probably stop moving my feet and give myself a concussion.

    • Ive wondered Shawna, how one kinda bobs up and down on a treadmill even without a desk attached, and do some people with inner ear sensitivities get kinda sea sick if they are trying to read or, what keyboard too while walking treadmill?

      Do you think they retrofit treadmills with some kind of stable desktop that is ergonomic for a keyboard, or?

      • I’ve tried reading on a treadmill. Couldn’t do it. Can’t keep my eyes properly focused on the page with all the movement (and of course reading while going faster than a walk is a no-go). If the goal is simply to keep moving, rather than getting exercise, I can see how one would be able to walk slowly enough that it wouldn’t be a big deal. My problem with that is that there’s too much split focus. I wouldn’t be able to fully concentrate on the work I’m trying to do because I’d be making sure I don’t trip and fall. It’s different from walking while reading if you’re going down the sidewalk or something. In that case, you use your peripheral vision to watch out for obstacles, but if you stop moving your feet, you just stop moving. On a treadmill there are no obstacles to watch out for, but you have to focus on keeping your feet moving in a straight line. No sudden stopping to think for a moment or get your bearings, or else ka-bam.

        • good answer. That clears up that bobbing thing. Your insight about ‘having to keep moving’ splitting, is a good one. Thanks

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