You have two hands. As a writer, they are valuable assets. Writing, or more specifically, typing, can be hard on them. You should protect them.
I should stop right there and make a disclaimer. I am not a doctor. I can’t diagnose or treat any medical conditions via a blog post. The information I am sharing is just that, information. Please use your own best judgement about how to apply this information.
Repetitive strain injuries are an all too common danger of spending most of your day on a computer typing. Repetitive strain is an umbrella term for a number of medical conditions caused by spending too much time with your hands cramped in an unnatural position. Examples can include carpal tunnel syndrome, tendinitis (tennis elbow) and trigger finger. Common symptoms include, numbness, tingling, weak grip and pain in the hands, arms or elbows.
If you have any of these symptoms regularly, you should see a doctor. RSI can be treated with analgesics, physical therapy, and in extreme cases with surgery.
However I am not going to advise you on treatment if you have RSI, rather I am going to talk about some of the things I do in hopes of avoiding RSI in the first place.
Take a career mindset
If you’ve never experienced RSI or had any of the above symptoms, count yourself lucky, for now. The career mindset means this, if you are going to make a lifelong career out of writing, understand that RSI is a realistic danger. Don’t wait for it to happen, start working now to keep it from happening. Building up good habits at the outset of your writing can save you a lot of pain and lost work down the road.
Pay attention to your body
Are you in tune with how your wrist, fingers and hands feel after a long writing session? Like the old saying goes, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. Recognizing when you are in discomfort and taking steps to alleviate before it becomes a chronic problem is key to keeping your hands in writing shape.
In particular, pay attention to which tasks create the most problems. For me it’s surprisingly not typing. Editing and research bother my wrists and fingers far more. Why? I use a MacBook with a trackpad. The keyboard fits my hands and makes typing a breeze. Scrolling and doing touch gestures on the trackpad are the problematic tasks.
Practice good posture
Posture plays a huge roll in RSI. What’s more steps to prevent RSI can also help with other dangers of modern living, like back pain. There are a number of places around my house where I write regularly. Of them my writing space in the attic is the best. I tend to sit more upright and the table (a cheap folding table) happens to be at a good height for me personally. I can type for hours up there with little problem.
Sometimes I sit on the couch and write, or sit propped up in bed. It’s more relaxing in ways, but it’s noticeably harder on my wrists.
There is a whole science of ergonomics but my suggestion is to simply pay attention. Check in with yourself at the end of any writing session. Everyone’s body is unique and the height of a table or the comfort of a particular chair can make a world of difference.
Invest in the right equipment
One of the things I love about my MacBook is the keyboard. It’s a great size for my hands. I love being able to rest my palms on the metal casing while I type. Other keyboards force me to cramp my wrists upward at an odd angle and that hurts my wrists after a time.
Remember what I said about editing and web surfing, though? My next purchase will probably a good wireless mouse. I think that will help.
There isn’t one right answer and again, paying attention to your body is key. Try out new keyboards before buying them, if possible. The longer you can spend on a laptop, typing, the better feel you will have for how it will work. It may depend on the size of your hands and what works for one person might kill your wrist or vice versus. I hate little keyboards. You might love them.
If you write on a desktop computer, keyboards are relatively cheap and there are many choices. investing in a good keyboard and mouse combination can help stave off RSI.
Keyboard shortcuts, that is. If you aren’t familiar with the common short cuts for the operating system you use, or your go-to writing program, take a few days off and research. It’s time well spent. If there is a common task you use and there isn’t a shortcut, make one.
Here are some resources to get you started.
Before I learned keyboard shortcuts, I didn’t think there was much to them. Once I learned a few, I got hooked. They can save you a great deal of time on common tasks and really reduce the strain on your wrists. One huge oversight in Word is that there is no shortcut for add comment. I am part of a critique group and being able to enter a new comment through a quick keyboard shortcut, instead of moving my hand to the mouse, is an essential. Luckily it’s easy to make your own. Here is how.
Do yoga for your hands.
One of the fundamental theories of yoga is that when you stretch or stress one part of the body, you need to then counter-stretch it. The same idea applies to RSI. To prevent RSI you should take the occasional break and counter stretch your hands in different directions. There are a number of good videos of exercises and yoga for your hands.
I have a set of “yoga balls” on my writing desk as well. They are just cheap rubber balls of varying give. I run them over my palms, squeeze them and move them around with my fingers to help stretch my hands and loosen my wrists.
If your wrists and fingers are already hurting, and you want to give them a rest without losing writing time, try a dictation program. There are commercial programs like Dragon Naturally Speaking. But you don’t have to spend money. Macs have built in dictation. So do Android smartphones, so in a pinch you can get a free note app and dictate into your phone. You can then email the results to your computer and paste them into whichever writing program you use.
Take plenty of breaks
One final suggestion for RSI is to take breaks regularly. RSI is repetitive after all. One secret to avoiding it is to avoid being repetitive. Write for a half hour and then stop, do some exercises for your hand, or take a walk, do whatever. After a few minutes, get back to work.
Your hands are one of the most important assets as a writer. Until the day that we can telepathically send stories into listeners heads, writers will need to be able to write. The means of that writing might change, but for now, we will have to use our hands. If you dream of being a writer someday, do yourself a favor today and start taking care of your hands.