‘Elf and safety for writers

Some recent research has suggested that sitting is as dangerous as smoking. (Smoking and sitting at the same time is clearly a bad idea.)  This comes as no surprise to most writers. Put two writers in a room and it won’t be long before the conversation turns to backpain.

On a building site there are invariably brightly coloured posters offering advice about hard hats and the importance of not standing under falling hammers.  This is my version for avoiding the hazards of life at the desk.

Obviously evolution has carefully designed us not to sit at desks. So the first thing my poster would say in big letters is THIS IS RIDICULOUS GO AND DO SOMETHING ELSE. This advice is likely to coincide with what friends and relatives have been telling you for years and is something you can safely ignore.

Sitting position. You don’t have to buy a £900 Herman Miller Aeron. But you do need to be able to sit with an open hip joint. That is, your hips should be higher than your knees.  A cheap foam sitting wedge will convert most dining chairs into a back-friendly work chair. This might seem a poor substitute for the all-embracing leather fantasy chair but see below.

Screen position. The top of your screen should be just below eye level. Adjust the font size so that the image comes to you. The resolution should allow you to sit back rather than hunch forward. Your elbows should be at 90 degrees, your wrists relaxed.  Notice this combination of seating and screen position is impossible to achieve with the laptop that everyone uses. Ideally you should plug your laptop in to an external screen, and probably an external keyboard. Or just yourself get a desktop.

Writing slopes. Even if most of what you do happens at the keyboard you will still need space to read scripts, scribble notes, and doodle. So get yourself a writing slope. The sort medieval monks used. Your back will thank you. You can pay proper money for these or you can knock one up out of blockboard. You might find they even encourage you to try using a pen.

Use a pen. All right, you don’t have to use a pen.  But when things aren’t going well I don’t know a better solution than turning away from the screen and picking up a pen. This also allows you to indulge your stationery fetish and your fountain pen fetish at the same time.

Standing. It worked for Philip Roth. Standing to write has a good pedigree. You can buy desks with adjustable heights or you do what I do and stand your writing slope on top of a chest of drawers.

Think movement rather than stillness. The big message here is that you should not be aiming for the perfectly supported position where there is no strain on the body. Because that means you are still and being still is a bad idea. You have to find a way of making your work practices dynamic. The body needs to move. Galen Cranz in a wonderful book called The Chair argues that your workspace should be thought of as a gym rather than somewhere you can support yourself in immobility. It should have a variety of places to work, sitting and standing as well as room to lie on the floor.  Lying on the floor, head slightly raised on a paperback, feet flat on the floor, knees pointing skyward is what you should do when you’ve ignored all of the above. It’s a life-saver.

Schedule breaks. At least every hour. Get up, walk around, take some deep breaths. A view is a bonus for any workplace. Let your eyes focus on the horizon instead of the screen. At low tide I can see seals on Scroby Sands. The seals aren’t essential but the view probably is.

All of this might seem obvious. But it’s easy to lose sight of when you’ve got a deadline looming.  A laptop in bed might work in the short term. But the thing about writing is it’s a long-term game.

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