RSI: Important advice for beginning writers…

…that they will rarely hear until too late.

I started on this train of thought after reading Sean Williams’ blog entry here, with all the writers commiserating, including myself.

If you are intending to be a professional writer – or in fact, are expecting to spend a great deal of time at a keyboard in your professional life (or gaming life!) – give a thought to RSI: Repetitive Stress Injury.
Because the odds are ten to one it will creep up on you and leave you partially crippled.

So think about it at the beginning of your career.

What can you do? Google around and see what works for other people, but expect to spend some serious money. Look on that as investment in a healthy future. In the long term it will cost you less than doctor fees, surgery, physiotherapy, time off work, medication, mental stress and worry – and the pain…

Realise this first: you are going to spend a lot of time at a desk. Yet all non-adjustable furniture is built to a average standard, and few people are actually standard. Especially women – men design and build most furniture and they build to the specifications for men. Ever walked into a bathroom and found that you can only see half your face because you’re not as tall as the man who installed the mirror? That’s the kind of thing I mean.

Secondly, desk specifications are often to old industry standards – and don’t factor in the height of a keyboard!

Until I went to IKEA and bought one of their more expensive desks that I could adjust to my diminutive height (5′ 2″), I never in my adult life had sat at a table or desk that was right for me.

Get a table large enough. You can’t work properly if you don’t have room for all the things you need within reach.

If you really, really can’t afford a new desk, then think of going to a lumber yard and buying a piece of flat heavy quality board, large enough for your chair and feet, small enough to fit at and under your desk, and of sufficient height to make the table top height right for you. Conversely, if the desk is too low for you, consider a board to place over the desk top to make it higher, or solid pieces to place under the legs. The important thing is: do not use a desk that is wrong for you.

Get an adjustable chair that fits you. If the rest of the family complains, tell them to go get their own.

Use a large adjustable monitor screen. A laptop screen on a desk is not going to put your eyes at the correct level. If you can’t afford one, then place the laptop on a stack of books to the right eye level, and use a detachable keyboard.

Which you must anyway, because you are going to get yourself an ergonomic keyboard. This is the most important buy, and should be the first thing you get. Different people will prefer different types, so try them out if you can. Honestly, this alone can make a huge difference.

Another thing to remember:
Take frequent breaks, even if it is only to lean back in your chair, and wriggle your feet and fingers.

If you have other solutions and suggestions, please add them in the comments section. If you are a writer with this problem, tell us in the comments. And spread the link around. Let’s get the word out there to the people who are not yet troubled by this, but who are in danger…



RSI: Important advice for beginning writers… — 11 Comments

  1. Great advice, Glenda. I have lost count of how many writers I have seen commenting online lately about different RSI problems they are facing.

    And it affects editors, too. My physio added copyboards and writing slopes to that list. Long periods spent hunched over marking up hard copy manuscrips or looking down at hard copies to take in changes on-screen do bad things to neck/shoulders/back.

    Copyboards, which hold pages up next to your monitor are easy enough to find, and I have several different designs, but I am finding it pretty hard to get hold of a writing slope that will take a manuscript. Most of them are really things that are designed to save space on desks that have a keyboard, rather than being specifically designed for intense paperwork on a raised, sloped surface. Suspect I will end up with something homemade. In the meantime I am compromising with a copyboard which can't really handle writing pressure. It has, however, made a huge difference to RSI issues!

  2. I find constant mousing is the worst thing. Every now and then I have a mouse-free day when I only use the keyboard. Tedious, but holds the wrist pain at bay.

  3. I agree – mousing is definitely the worst thing. I find a mouse in the keyboard (like on a laptop) is actually better in this respect.

    I have two pieces of advice in addition to the above, learnt the hard way.
    1) as soon as pain starts, get it treated. I didn't realise there was something that could be done, but there is, whether it's a physiotherapist, hand therapist, etc. Getting it early means more likelihood of getting it fixed.

    2) consider investing in voice operated software, to be used to give your arms/hands/fingers a break. You don't have to use it all the time, it'll help stave off potential issues.

  4. I had real problems finding a desk that was big enough to suit me and at a reasonable price, so I custom built one.

    1. Get a sheet of 8' by 4' MDF
    2. Work out how high you want it off the ground and cut that (less the thickness) off the end and cut those in half to be your leg panels.
    3. Work out how deep you want it and cut the big panel to that width – the remainder becomes a back brace.
    4. Screw the panels together (centre the leg panels front to back and about 1' from left and right and butt the back brace against the desk and legs to make two solid corners for strength), fill the screw head holes and paint the desk.

    One of the best things is that you've made the desk and so can add holes for wires, screw in power strips, etc. to the desk exactly where you need them and while the desk is still in pieces.

    A single small hole right of center is great for PC keyboard, mouse and iPod cables, they don't end up snaking across the desk and if the hole is just big enough for the USB connector (two 3/4" holes next to each other should be fine), the iPod cable can't disappear down it.

    You can even incline the desk by cutting the leg panels an inch "taller" and then cutting a wedge off their lower edge.

    I use the cheapest Dell keboard
    1. Because it has no special keys and a 1/16" bezel so takes up the minimum space possible
    2. My MS ergonomic keyboard keeps on getting lent out at work to colleagues with RSI.

    But I have a Logitech G5 optical gaming mouse with weights and the whole shabang – corded because the batteries in wireless mice are too heavy and keep on running out.

    BTW, Glenda, just got Stormload delivered from Amazon UK – it's a great novel.

  5. I often try to write 10,000 words in a day when I get behind, which always leads to aching muscles afterwards.

    Something that I found helped with my hands are those mediation chinese(?) balls, the ones with the charms inside, that you're supposed to roll around on the palm of your hand without them touching?

    Really helps 🙂

  6. Secretaries have been bothered by this kind of thing for a very long time but I didn't get carpal tunnel syndrome until later in life. I have sets of Chinese balls, I hadn't realised it would help. When I first started typing, we used to have stands for papers we were copying from, somewhere during my career those disappeared, but if you are constantly referring to other documents I do so agree you need something which keeps them at eye level. Most of the computer desks in this part of the world come with extra shelves for your keyboard (pull in and out). I would think if you are writing professionally a desktop computer would be a much better bet than a laptop. I have both so have some idea what I'm talking about. Of course if you are travelling you don't have any choice in the matter.

    Never used an ergonomic keyboard, but I would imagine they take a lot of getting used to.

  7. I have a different set-up, as I don't even try to work at a desk any more. I have RA, and an hour in a normal chair puts me in too much pain to concentrate. I work on the couch, with a footstool. And a pillow for my back, and another one for my neck (oh, and watch out for long hours spent editing hard copy with your head held in one position. Ask me how I know!) I use a bolster to support my wrist when using a mouse, and for a while I used one for typing as well, but carpal tunnel got me anyway. Now I have one of the full-on ergo keyboards, and I love it! Don't let anyone scare you away from the ones with the hump in the middle and the two pads of keys, they are brilliant.

    So yes, my set-up is a little… idiosyncratic, but it's comfortable and it works for me, and that's what matters.

  8. I have an ergonomic keyboard at home and, thanks to a receptionist who had ganglion cysts in her wrists and requested an ergonomic keyboard at work, and then promptly left, I grabbed it for my work computer (it was actually an excess one from home which I 'sold' to the office), so I am a very happy little vegemite. I make so many typos when using a normal keyboard now it's not funny! And my hands keep colliding with each other!

    Ergo keyboards do take some getting used to but I have never (touch wood) had an RSI problem yet.

    I, too, have been searching for a writing slope for when I'm working on hard copy. My dad had something like that but when he moved in with hubby and I it was one of the things that got dumped (grr) – he'd made it himself and I think I'll have to do the same.

    I did create something temporary though when I had an ms to type up – it's half of a slim cardboard box that I cut down to fit between the keyboard and the monitor stand – it slopes enough so that I didn't end up with too sore a neck.

    As for my desk – I found a reception desk at my local second-hand store so there's a shelf for my stereo, small dragon statues (as opposed to my big dragon statue), photos, lamp and a couple of Daleks, and a return that holds my printer, and when I get around to tidying the desktop there's quite a bit of space!

    Oh, and I disposed of my cordless mouse a couple of weeks ago too – for the same reason, weight and batteries always running out.

  9. Great advice, Glenda. Being a Software Egineer myself I'd like to add that this applies on us as well, so geeks be careful…

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