Ergonomics for Writers: Tension on the Page, Not on Your Back

Welcome to Deep-Fried Friday. I recently went to see my chiropractor (due to soreness from a car accident), and he pointed out that my laptop writing was likely aggravating my back discomfort. Of course, I knew this already, but I had done nothing whatsoever to make my work station friendly to my back and neck and shoulders.

Don’t be like me.

Or at least not the me before I researched this post. I toured the Internet looking for ergonomics tips. What does a writer need to pay attention to when designing a workstation? What equipment is necessary or beneficial to help keep the tension on the page and not on your back? Take heed. Here is what I discovered.

Your computer. Get your body and eyes vertically in line with the center of your desktop or laptop. Make sure you are directly in front of it. If you complete many tasks at your desk as well, you can shift the computer slightly to your non-dominant side, so that you can work to your dominant side.

Your chair. Lower or raise your chair until your feet sit flat on the floor and your knees bend at approximately 90 degrees. If needed, use a foot rest. Foot rests can be found at office supply stores (e.g., Staples, Office Max) and run maybe $30-50.

Make sure you have lumbar (that’s lower back) support. If your chair doesn’t include such support, purchase a lumbar pillow to wedge between your back and the chair. You can find one for $15-30. For the best back posture, recline a bit in your chair, at about a 110-degree angle. The 90-degree angle is not as good for your back as a slightly reclined posture.

If you have the money to invest, you can find some quality ergonomically-designed office chairs. What should you look for? Look for a seat pan (that’s the seat size itself) that has at least an inch on either side, meets the underside of your knees in the right place, and contours to provide weight distribution. Look for height adjustability and a large back rest that gives good lumbar support. For stability, the chair should have five-pedestals (legs). If the chair has armrests, try to get adjustable ones so they can adapt to your arm size and can be moved aside if needed.

Your screen. Position your screen so that your eyes are aligned with the top of the screen or 2-3 inches below the top of the monitor. Cornell University Ergonomics Lab suggests this test: “Sit back in your chair at an angle of around 100-110 degrees (i.e. slight recline) and hold your right arm out horizontally; your middle finger should almost touch the center of the screen.” In addition, this arm test gives you an idea of the right viewing distance–an arm’s length. If you need text larger or smaller, change your computer’s text size instead of moving closer or further away from the screen.

Your keyboard. While your wrists should remain straight, your forearms should tilt down toward the keys. A negative tilt tray or keyboard achieves this effect. Your elbows should form an angle greater than 90 degrees (obtuse). Cooling trays for laptops often have this tilt as well, allowing you keep your arms at a good angle.

Also, while there are various ergonomic designs for keyboards, there isn’t much evidence to support such features as a split keyboard. The issue in protecting your arms and hands is the angle of your forearms and wrists.

Your mouse. Ideally, your mouse should be as close to the keyboard as possible, even placed on a raised platform above the alphanumeric keys. If this isn’t an option (and it isn’t for me), use an angled pad to the side of the keyboard. Avoid simply placing your mouse on the desktop. You want the mouse at the level of the keyboard or above. Also, shift the mouse more with elbow movements than wrist movements to prevent carpal tunnel issues.

Other materials. If you are working from other documents (like inputting revisions from a print copy of your WIP), use a document holder if you can. You should avoid looking up and down from screen to desktop. As much as possible, place the documents at the same height as your monitor, so that your eyes are shifting horizontally, but not vertically.

For a good visual of all of this, see Humanscale’s diagram HERE.

Breaks. You know to take breaks, but it sure is hard to do when you are writing that exciting climax or watching beautiful prose flow from your brain to your fingertips and onto the screen. But take breaks! Go transfer a load of laundry, use the bathroom, doing some jumping jacks, throw on your MP3 player and dance like a showgirl, get a glass of water, whatever you need to do. Just get up and move around every 30 minutes or so.

One more thing: I have issues with neck pain from time to time, and the best thing I have ever bought for it was a jumbo bottle of Ibuprofen spa neck wrap. You can find them at beauty stores; Bed, Bath and Beyond; and online. These are wraps that can be heated in the microwave for a couple of minutes and worn around your neck to provide soothing pain relief. The wrap will cool within 15 minutes–the maximum time (according to my chiropractor) that heat is beneficial for muscle relaxation. You can even make your own cheap or custom version of a spa neck wrap with fabric and dry rice filler.

Hopefully, if you get your work space into shape ergonomically, you won’t need any pain relievers or heat wraps. You’ll have great posture, comfort, and productivity at your work station. Now I’m off to redesign my work space and get the tension off my back and onto the page!

What have you learned about a comfortable, supportive work space? Do you have any tips to add? Did you even consider ergonomics when setting up your work space?

Sources: European OSHA; Cornell University Ergonomics Web; Humanscale; NASA Chiropractic; Ergo Development

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24 thoughts on “Ergonomics for Writers: Tension on the Page, Not on Your Back

  1. Excellent post, Julie. I printed out the illustration to show my husband. I want an ergonomic writing chair, and this will help us select the right one. Currently, I either write at my kitchen table, at my patio table in the backyard, and on my couch in the den (with an e-pad). After suffering major back and side spasms the first year of writing, I’ve learned to pay attention to my body and take many breaks.

    Don’t forget that eye strain is a major issue for writers as well. We really should be resting our eyes every 45 minutes for 15 minutes when using a computer. Eye drops can combat dry eyes due to less blinking while staring at a monitor.

    Do I follow all these rules? Of course not. Some days I’m so immersed in my story that three hours fly by yet I feel like I’ve only been sitting there for 20 minutes. I like your idea of dancing like a showgirl. That’s so me. LOL Feel better soon, and I look forward to hearing what kind of car you eventually choose. 🙂

    1. Thanks, Jolyse! I appreciate you mentioning eye strain!! That is definitely a problem. And it is SO HARD to take a break when you feel like your story is going and flowing, but we want to live to write another day, right? Best wishes with the chair shopping!

  2. Julie, you have perfect timing. Right now I have one of those rice socks around my neck. My work space isn’t terrible, although I see a few things I could improve, but it’s the stress and poor sleeping position too. Ouchy. I need to remember the breaks, get up and move around, shake off the stress. I’d bet taking regular breaks would actually make me more productive. Thanks, Julie.

    1. Yep, definitely ouchy. I think those breaks may be the hardest part for writers. When I was working in an office, I was thrilled to get up from my computer and take a break. Now I want to stay put and “just finish this scene” or whatever. Take care of yourself, S.J.!

  3. Fantastic tips and things to be aware of Julie. For awhile, I did a lot of my writing with my laptop on my lap on the couch or in bed but soon realized that would not work for the long term – ouch! Now I have a proper desk, chair, keyboard and mouse etc. I can write pain-free now. Love it! Thanks for the great reminder!!!

    1. Thanks! Laptops are really hard because you can’t get both the keyboard and screen at the right level. I do have a lovely laptop tray (which hubby bought) that is wonderful for those times when I want to write in bed. 🙂

  4. I use a separate wireless keyboard & mouse with my laptop, which helps a lot. Well, I hate laptop keyboards and pads anyhow. May try the neck wrap, but I refuse to jump up and dance like a showgirl. lol. Great article, Julie.

  5. I thought of you on my road trip cause I wanted to buy all the cool cowboy boots I saw everywhere.

    Love this article because I do suffer from back pain (also from a car accident). I’ve got a special pillow I sleep with and a roller that helps maintain the adjustments after the chiropractor visit. The doctor also said rowing exercises help, so part of your break session could be a few reps with some resistance bands on the doorknob.

    Great article, Julie!

    1. Sorry that you have back pain. That’s frustrating! My doc also mentioned rowing exercises; great idea. I love my resistance bands as well. I have several exercises I do with them to free things up. Thanks, Jess!

  6. Most people I know who spend most of their professional and/or personal lives typing have a real problem remembering to take breaks. My answer to that is always the same: don’t try to remember. Set up a timer.
    You could use a simple egg timer, but there are a number of software options too. I especially like software timers that monitor your keyboard and, when you’ve typed for some specified length of time, the software tells you to take a break. You can even find some of these break reminders that will lock out your keyboard for a certain number of minutes if you ignore them.
    If you just can’t remember to get up every once in a while, get one of these tools.

  7. I have an ergonomic computer stand, which keeps my laptop screen at eye level. I then use an external keyboard on my lap, which keeps my wrists at the right angle. Been writing for years, and this is what works best for me.

    Though, I know of a few writers who use vertical keyboards, and they swear by them. It’s all about finding out what works for you, and sticking with it.

  8. Great advice, especially considering I’m slumped in my chair with one leg thrown over the arm and the other leg propped unnaturally on the ottoman. Must move now. Thanks Julie!

    1. Ha, Coleen! I wonder sometimes if it’s a curse that our furniture is sooo comfy these days. It feels unnatural by contrast to sit in a straight office chair. Ugh.

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