Brian Thiem: When I entered police work some four decades ago, instructors and supervisors stressed Officer Survival, principles, tactics, and mindset that would allow us to survive a career that is full of perils. Among other things, they talked about having and using the right equipment to prevent, or at least mitigate, physical injuries as we did our job.
We writers don’t face threats of having bullets puncture our bodies, tearing our knees during foot chases, or destroying our backs when wresting with resisting subjects, but I know many writers with back, neck, wrist, and eye problems caused by long hours, day after day, and week after week sitting and working on a computer.
When I began writing a few years after retiring, I quickly began suffering pain and discomfort after a few hours of work, likely exasperated by the damage already done to my body by my previous career. I needed a solution.
Writing Space: Not all writers have the luxury of their own dedicated writing space. Stephen King wrote his first novel sitting in a chair in his laundry room with a typewriter atop a board balanced on his knees, and I know successful writers who cart their laptops from coffee shops to the living room sofa to the kitchen table.
I was lucky to have my own home office with a desk and computer table, a place where I could control my environment (noise, light, temperature), and surround myself with all the stuff I needed, like notebooks, post-its, dictionary, thesaurus, and other reference books and materials.
Chair: When I was working Homicide, I suffered a debilitating back injury. I spent months in physical therapy, and the first two doctors the city sent me to recommended me for a disability retirement. I gutted it out and was allowed to stay, but the city sent their OSHA people to my office to examine my workspace.
He was appalled at the thirty-year-old desk and chair I sat in. He ordered risers to lift my desk two inches so I could sit up straight and sent over an ergonomic chair. Within a few months, my pain subsided a bit once I sat erect and stopped hunching over my work.
External Monitor: Years ago, I gave up my desktop computer for a laptop, allowing me the flexibility to write when traveling or even outside on nice days. However, writing on a laptop brought me back into a hunched over position. That was fine for short periods but caused back and neck discomfort when I worked that way for weeks on end.
I bought an external monitor, attached it to my laptop, and set it up level with my eyes so I could sit with my back and neck straight. The other advantage was the screen was large enough to have two windows open simultaneously, so I could work on my manuscript on one side while referencing the internet, my plot outline, or character information on the other.
Eyes: One of my favorite reporters came to my office one day when I commanded the homicide unit. He complimented my office layout, with my ergonomic chair, raised desk, editor’s desk for writing and reading, but noted I was squinting. He told me that he had the same problem, since he also worked in an office with ancient overhead florescent tubes—lights that actually flicker on and off many times a second. Some people’s sensory systems can detect the flickering, which can cause eyestrain and headaches. He suggested I get a super-bright desk light, as he had, which cancels out the effects of the dimmer overhead tubes. It worked.
I never needed glasses until I was in my forties. First, I needed them for reading, but by the time I had retired, I wore progressive lenses. I could see my laptop screen okay with my glasses, because it was about the same distance as something I read, but the external monitor was farther away. After developing neck pain and headaches when working for a few hours, I realized I was tilting my head up to bring the sweet spot of my progressive lenses in line with the screen.
My ophthalmologist had me measure the distance between my eyes and the computer screen when I sat straight, and he set me up with single-vision computer glasses.
Keyboard, Mouse, Docking Station: Once I started using an external monitor, I needed to get a separate keyboard and mouse. I went to Staples and paid around $20 for both. After a few years, they stopped working, so I spent another $20 and got new ones. Then a writer friend told me about keyboards used by professional gamers and computer programmers. You know, those guys and gals whose fingers fly across the keys with super speed and precision (not that my fingers do). I tried one and fell in love. Every key clicked audibly when depressed and each one required the exact same touch. No longer did I miss a letter because my fingers didn’t hit a key exactly right, and no longer did I end up with unintended letters because my finger touched a key accidentally. I spent nearly $100 for one and never regretted it for a minute.
I also use a wireless mouse on a pad with a nice wrist rest, which I find very comfortable when editing and doing a lot of cutting and pasting.
When it was time to replace my laptop a few years ago, I splurged and added a docking station. No longer do I need to unplug a half dozen cables when I want to take my laptop on the go. With the docking station, all I do is press a button and the laptop is free. When I return, I snap it in place and I’m reconnected to all the amenities of a desktop computer.
Rest Breaks and Exercise: I take a break from the computer every hour or two when working. I get up, walk around, maybe get a drink (normally ice tea), and stretch my back, neck, legs (anyone else ever get hamstring cramps when writing?), and shoulders. I might check my phone for emails and calls before I sit back down. And I do something physical every day, gym workouts, golf, walking, or bicycling.
I’m jealous of those who can draft a novel on a laptop resting on their thighs as they sit cross-legged in bed or slouched on the sofa without becoming a cripple. But I need every advantage available if I want to continue my new writing career without adding any new physical ailments.
Brian Thiem, wishing all writers a healthy and pain-free future.