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Ergonomics for Writers: Part One

Most of you aren’t aware that before I was an editor I spent a couple of years working one of the most truly boring office jobs I’ve had (sorry to my wife who still works for the same company). We had the very fun job of administrating worker’s compensation claims. That is people who get hurt at work. Obviously, there were plenty of these that involved heavy machinery and unlucky workplace accidents, but many of the injuries we saw involved repetitive strain and many of those were from people who spent a lot of time at a desk.

Guess what, authors spend a lot of time writing and that can put a huge strain on your body. Especially if you’re also working a day job and this is your leisure time.

Ergonomics might sound like a boring thing to talk about and it might not sound like something an editor needs to be talking about, but guess what, it’s way more fun than spending hours at the physio or needing surgery to recover form an easily prevented injury. My goal is for my clients to have their books be successful so that they can continue writing more books (that way they’ll come back to me for editing). So my interest extends to your health as well. I want you to stay healthy.

Today, we’re talking basic ergonomics for a standard sitting desk. This is the start of an entire series of ergonomic posts, so settle in and get ready for less neck and back pain. With a disclaimer that you should absolutely talk to a healthcare professional before jumping into this, especially if you have any kind of disability that may preclude this set up from working for you. Of course, it’s likely you’re more well-informed about what works for your body already and won’t be reading this article.

Sitting Desk Ergonomic Guide

At any rate. The most basic desk set up requires a place to sit, a desk, and some way to write (keyboard, mouse, display, computer).

Step one: Grab a notepad or phone to keep a quick list of things that are working or aren’t working.

Step two: Sit at your desk in your current chair. Your bottom should be shuffled back into the seat and you should be able to lean against the back rest comfortably. You may need a third party to accurately observe you at this point. Your body should be in a straight up position, looking straight ahead, your shoulders relaxed. Your legs should form a 90 degree angle (roughly) with your feet sitting flat on the ground.

Step three: If the way you’re sitting right now doesn’t match the position above, use your chair to adjust this as best you can. Lower your chair or raise it, can the angle or height of the back be altered in any way?

Step four: Once you’ve adjusted your chair. Go back to step two and check if you meet the sitting requirements. If not, write a note in your handy notebook with what isn’t working for you right now.

Step five: With your adjusted chair, let’s look at the position of your mouse and keyboard. Start off by positioning yourself in front of your desk with your keyboard in the center and mouse to the side of it. Place your hands on your keyboard as if you were going to type (you can type if you like). At this point, we want your elbows to be at a roughly 90 degree angle and your arms close to your sides. It’s perfectly fine if you’re sitting with your elbows at a slight downward angle but if your forearms have to slope upwards to get to your desk, then you’ll need to raise your chair a little. Keep raising it until your elbows are at the 90 degree angle. If you can raise your chair any farther at that point, feel free to go just a little higher as many people find this a little more comfortable. If your feet are no longer on the ground and your legs no longer at the 90 degree position, make a note, you’ll want to look into a footrest most likely.

A quick addendum to this step, if you have a height adjustable desk, you may want to adjust the height of your desk instead of your chair (or a combination of both until your feet and arms are positioned correctly).

Step six: Now comes for the part I see most people ignoring. The height and position of your monitor. While you’re sitting in the above position, your monitor should be at head height, with your eyes falling near the top of the screen in this resting position. If not, you’ll want to raise up your monitor in some way. This is something I have consistent issues with along with others if my time in the office was any indication. While it’s possible to buy a monitor riser, our preferred method at my office job was simply to use whatever was laying around, most often reams of printer paper. Of course, it’s also possible to get an adjustable monitor which could make this easier. Once the height is good, check the distance. If you reach out your arm from your typing position, the tips of your fingers should brush the monitor.

Those of you with laptops have likely noticed the issue by now. You can get your keyboard positioned well but you’re squinting at a screen that’s too low and too close. I love my desktop computer, but I seem to be in the minority. I see so many folks posting their desk set ups with a tiny little Macbook Air and I cringe every time I see one because it looks cute but it’s about as practical as well… going to the physio three times a week for neck and back pain.

So, if you don’t want to invest in a desktop computer (well worth it in my opinion), how can you make your Macbook (or other laptop) work for you?

Option one: Get an external monitor. You position the keyboard of your laptop as per step five and your external monitor as per step six. Voila, you’re probably in pretty good shape now.

Option two: Get a laptop riser that can position your laptop screen at eye height then get an external keyboard and mouse to use for typing. Position the laptop as per step six and the external keyboard and mouse as per step five. Voila, you’re done.

Fixing your set up

If you found your feet dangling once you got your keyboard positioned, you’ll need to get a footrest.

If you’re sitting in a wrong position on your chair because it doesn’t have lumbar support, you’ll need to either purchase a chair that does provide lumbar support or get a lumbar support cushion (available from plenty of online retailers).

If you simply can’t get your chair high enough because your desk is crazy high, you may need to look into a new desk, in which case I’d suggest looking for something height adjustable.

If you can’t get your monitor the right height and you’re using an external monitor, get a monitor riser or use a couple of reams of paper to prop up your monitor.

For laptop users, either an elevated laptop stand or with an external keyboard and mouse or an external monitor with your laptop keyboard.

If you’re reading this and thinking none of it applies to you because you write on your sofa/bed, there’s a reason I’m not talking about sofa and bed ergonomics. For most people, this is never going to be an ergonomic position.

Keep an eye out for part two of this series where we’ll be talking about alternatives to the traditional sitting desk that may work better for some of you including some software and items that can further improve your set up.

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