Ergonomics for Writers: the Basics

last updated: 6 October 2018 (approximate reading time: 5 minutes; 1019 words)

Writing a book involves sitting still for long periods of time while tapping buttons. One result of this button tapping is a story. Another result is physical strain which may lead to repetitive strain injuries.

I talk about the problems associated with using a keyboard—and the resulting choices I have made—in a separate article. Here I want to talk about some of the other (non-keyboard) factors that should be addressed when setting up a comfortable work environment for spending long periods of time looking at a screen and typing.

Screen Position

A significant factor for the health of the typist is the position of your screen. A poorly positioned screen can lead to one or more of neck problems, back/spine problems, shoulder/arm pain, tension headaches, and eye strain.

Ideally, your screen should be placed directly in your line of sight. When you are sitting at your desk with your neck straight, your line of sight should be near the top of your screen. If you feel the need to tilt your head forward when looking at the top of your screen, then you should raise your monitor (as in physically raise the hardware—put a stand under it or if you don’t have a suitable stand, then find some books to lift the screen).

The screen should be close enough that you can read it, but far enough away that you can take in the full screen without needing to move your head. Once the screen has been placed, if you have any problems reading the text on the screen, increase the size of the text and/or have your eyes checked by a suitable professional to see if you need glasses (or need a new prescription if you already wear glasses).

Laptops

The physical design of a laptop—with the screen and keyboard being joined by a hinge—means that using these devices can bring additional challenges.

If you are using a laptop and it is placed on the desk in front of you so you can type on it, then the screen will probably poorly positioned. The screen will be lower than is ideal which will necessitate tilting your head forward. That tilt will introduce permanent strain on your neck/back of your head while you are working.

The solution for a laptop is the same as for a desktop computer—raise the screen so it is in your direct line of sight. As you would suspect, this will make it difficult to type so you’ll need a separate keyboard. You can read my thoughts about keyboards by following this link.

The other approach is to use a separate screen. You can then position this separate screen correctly and ignore the laptop screen. You can, of course, have a separate screen and a separate keyboard and still use your laptop.

Laptops have their uses, but they may not be great devices to use on their own for the longer-term.

Mouse

If you do anything more than using the mouse to open your apps, then I suggest you consider:

  • Acquiring the largest mouse that you can find. A small mouse is more fiddly to control than a larger one. With a smaller mouse, you can find yourself tensing your muscles to grip the device—by contrast, with a larger mouse, you can let your hand simply rest on the device.
  • Getting a second mouse. Seriously. Use one with your left hand and one with your right hand. This way you will halve the amount of work each hand does and halve the muscle strain.

You could even get a third pointing device. Maybe get a trackball type mouse to supplement your regular mouse. A different form of pointing device will mean that you use different muscles and different movements, and hence reduce the strain you place on any one (group of) muscles.

There are ergonomic mice on the market. In my experience these are horrible and the ergonomic gains are theoretical, not practical. Usually there’s some notion of improvement—for instance, many of these mice are “vertical” rather than “horizontal” and this positioning does reduce wrist twisting. However, trying to then click buttons on a vertical mouse is incredibly difficult, leading to extreme muscle tension. So while the new mouse may reduce one set of symptoms, it does so by adding a new but different pain in your hand/wrist.

Chair and Desk

Lastly, make sure you have a sensible chair and a sensible desk, both set at a comfortable height.

Set your desk height so that your forearms are flat when you are typing. Set your seat height so that your feet are firmly on the floor. If you can’t adjust your desk height, then adjust your seat to achieve the optimal typing position and find a footstool to support your feet so you are sitting comfortably.

When you work, you should be sitting straight. Once you have set your seat and desk to the optimal position, if you need to lean or twist, then adjust your computer hardware (or get better glasses)—don’t adjust your body.

Also remember, if you make one change, this may necessitate others. For instance, if you change the height of your seat, then that will change the height of your eye line meaning that you need to adjust the height of your screen.

A Few Words of Caution

Every human being is unique and different. When it comes to ergonomics, you need to find your own answers—you need to find a way to work that suits you. Simply because a product is labeled as being ergonomic or someone claims they have a “solution”, that doesn’t mean it will work for you.

You will probably have to spend some money—but not necessarily that much. For instance, if you’re positioning a screen, a stack of books to raise a monitor will have exactly the same effect as an expensive stand. A cheap solid desk (maybe from a Swedish flatpack furniture company) is just as effective as an expensive desk—all that matters is that you acquire a firm horizontal surface.

And if you feel pain when you work, stop, and then make a change.

Filed under

Category: tools
Tags: ergonomic   keyboard   screen   mouse   pain   rsi   health   furniture   laptop