Thursday, September 9, 2010
Hand pain and the working writer
I came pretty close to reaching that point. Sitting and typing all day, every day, did a lot of damage to my hands, wrists and shoulders, and it took several months with a physical therapist to all but save my life.
I still experience hand pain on an almost daily basis, but I do what I can to minimize it and ensure that I can keep working as a freelance writer.
(A quick aside: Although I often use the words "carpal tunnel" to describe my pain, that's a bit of a shortcut. What I suffer from are repetitive stress injuries, but people understand "carpal tunnel" better than "RSI," so I go with that.)
Constant experimentation has helped me to come up with a few good tips to help keep my hand pain as low as possible. Hopefully these ideas can help some of you as well.
1. Posture. I found out that most of the pain in my wrists and hands actually started in my shoulders. By rounding my shoulders, I was pinching nerves that caused problems all the way down my arms. You mother was right, sit up straight. It will save you a lot of pain in the long run.
2. The right equipment. I use a split keyboard, that allows me to put my hands at a more natural angle than a regular keyboard. My desk has a keyboard tray, so I can keep my elbows at 90 degree angles. I also use a vertical mouse, which I hold as if I were about to shake someone's hand. Normal mice require you to twist the bones in your arm, which is not healthy.
(I actually have two mice hooked up to my computer so I can switch hands once in a while. I'm not quite ambidextrous, so it's not a perfect solution, but it helps.)
(I've also used non-mouse input devices like trackballs and Wacom tablets. Your mileage may vary, and I think it's worth trying them all until you find the one that works best for you.)
3. Stretch. Just like exercise, it's best if you can loosen your muscles up before beginning a long period of time at the computer. A "warm down" set of exercises also helps. These exercises and stretches have been invaluable to me.
Working your core back muscles is also important. A tired back is a sagging back, which will hurt your hands.
4. Take breaks. If the writing isn't flowing, get the hell away from the computer. Don't surf the web. Get those hands off the keyboard and mouse and do something else for a while.
5. Speak. Although it doesn't always fit into my work-flow, I sometimes use voice recognition software like Dragon Naturally Speaking. It's a lifesaver.
6. Let others do the work for you. Transcribing audio interviews can be a pain (literally). Sometimes I upload the files to a company in India that will transcribe them for me for a very modest fee.
7. Work smart. I often have a story halfway written in my head before I start typing. This saves on edit time, and gives my hands a rest. I am also fairly confident in my skills, so I don't do a lot of second-guessing. My first drafts are frequently my final drafts, minus a few minor corrections.
I carry this over to my style of writing, which is fairly lean and mean. I could go more complex and flowery, but that would require more editing, so I keep it simple in the name of efficiency.
I also pick my assignments carefully. Too little pay for too much typing? Sorry, can't do it for you. Big paycheck with minimal computer time? I'm your guy.
8. Know when to quit. Right now, my fingers are beginning to ache, so I know it's time to step away from the computer and this blog entry. I could go on, but my body is telling me to stop, and I'm listening.
I hope his helps. If you have other tips, feel free to share them in the comments section!