How to write a book

How I cope with writers’ RSI – and when your books come back to haunt you

lizspikolIt was final revision time on Lifeform Three. I’d been living at the computer, desperate to spend every moment with my book. And one morning I woke up unable to move my right arm.

To be truthful, I could move it, but it hurt so much I preferred not to. Reaching for my glasses left me a gasping wreck. Keeping still wasn’t much better. I’d felt it nagging the previous day, but never thought it could turn into this.

The repetitive strain injury was back.

In a way it seemed like divine retribution. In my first novel My Memories of a Future Life, I inflicted a cruel case of RSI on a concert pianist. And now it seemed that some deity that sat on the interface between art and life had thought it would be very fine to dump the same fate on me – and right when I needed my fingers most.

In my defence, I hadn’t used the RSI device glibly. Its details didn’t come from comfy googling.

rsi googleThey were earned.


My RSI journey began when I became a sub-editor in the 1990s, when desktop publishing loused up a lot of limbs and livelihoods. I’ve battled this keyboarder’s curse ever since.

In some ways, I was kind to Carol, my concert pianist protagonist. Although I gave her my gruesome medical tests, I spared her the acupuncture.

Wait, are you thinking acupuncture is benign? Do you imagine it’s like being stroked by a healing Chinese butterfly? No. It is not. When the therapist needled my painful nerves, they hurt even more. (He was perplexed, though, and probably suspected I was a wuss. I thought he was an idiot. If you poke painful parts with needles, don’t you expect they will hurt?)

I also spared Carol the buzz needles – this is acupuncture jollied along by voltage from a car battery. Meanwhile my journalist colleagues told (possibly tall?) tales of being put on racks to pull their necks straight. But in our gallery of horrors, buzz needles trumped traction; hands down.

After a year of these random tortures I said stop. The publisher paid for ergonomic chairs and such, and I think these have kept me typing over the years.

So this is the advice I’d pass on to a fellow sufferer

Posture and straightness are important – I got a kneeling chair, because it makes you sit upright as though poised on a horse. (It’s good for horse-riders too, if lifeform threes are your thing.)
I learned to touch type, fluttering across the keys instead of stabbing them in my own peculiar pattern. (I rather missed my invented fingering, though. It felt more expressive than the ‘correct’ way.)
Some RSI is caused by muscle wastage, which means nerves aren’t as padded as they should be. I certainly found relief by lifting considerable weights in Body Pump classes. After a bad bout two years ago I bought a split ergonomic keyboard (this is the make I use) and joystick mouse (like this).
Screen breaks are sensible, if I remember them. I’m not always sensible.
It helps to put the strain on different muscle groups. If my neck starts to rebel, I jack the monitor up to a different height. Hooray for Time-Life books.

Some people use dictation software. As a sub-editor, that was never an option for me and it’s no good for manuscript doctoring either. As a writer, it might do for drafting, but the vast majority of my creative writing is done in the edits. Like a masseur, I think through my fingers. I can’t imagine editing hands free.

I also can’t imagine how anyone can write lolling at their laptops in bed, as we see in the movies.

But sometimes all the ergonomic wisdom in the world doesn’t help me, so I go to the bad side. I get my notebook computer, put it on my knee and hunch over. A few days contorted like that gives the overused muscles a break and they recover. Or they have so far.

So these are the ways I can carry on. But a musician, like Carol in my novel, has no other way. It’s piano or nothing, and the pain of that is worse than anything physical.

Back to haunt you

We novelists have a cruel side. We’re ruthless enough to create exquisite tortures – and sensitive enough to appreciate what they are doing. When I was writing that novel I would wake at night, telling myself these questions were not to be treated lightly, asking how I would feel if I had to face them. I know I’m earning more bad karma for what I’m doing in Ever Rest.

I soldier on, bludgeoning the RSI when I have to, so that I can continue to do my own version of playing an instrument. I hope I never have to be really brave, the way I force my characters to be.

(thanks for the pic Lizspikol. This post originally appeared on the Authors Electric blog)

Do you get RSI – and what do you do about it? How bad are you to your characters? Are you grateful you don’t have to live their lives?

PS Ever Rest is now finished and you can get a sneak preview in my newsletter here.


24 thoughts on “How I cope with writers’ RSI – and when your books come back to haunt you

  1. Things do come back to haunt you. In Away With The Fairies, a situation that affected the main character (parental decline of a very particular kind) is now affecting me in real life.
    I can only hope that what I did to a character in an unpublished novel (sequel to The Bet, FWIW) does not come back to haunt me; I had him quite literally crucifcied.
    Concerning posture etc, I’m doomed. With my faulty collagen etc, it doesn’t matter what I do: something is always giving me more pain than I can deal with. I suspect that if you asked Antony Ashurst from The Bet (etc) he’d probably say, “Good; the bitch deserves it!”

  2. I have my main character in my WIP go through hell. So far she has fallen down a deep hole and had to dig her way out to another hole, then climb some rickety stairs that almost kill her. Oh and also meet a rat the size of a pony (well maybe not quite that big). So I do hope it doesn’t come back to haunt me!

  3. Far back in college, a too-cold apartment gave me an unhealthy habit of often sleeping when it was the slightest bit cold with my hands crammed under my pillow in a cramped position. The results were like RSI without the repetition. Recently that bad habit began to catch up with me. My wrists ached all the time not just first thing in the morning.

    Since I couldn’t remind myself not to do that as I slept, I bought a pair of wrist braces used by skateboarders. They were intended to prevent injuries in a spill, but they also forced my wrists to be straight as I slept.

    Only wearing them at night has been enough to eliminate the problem. That might be enough for RSI sufferers too, since it’d allow those pinched nerves time to recover overnight. If not, you might try wearing them in the daytime while typing. They’ll force you to keep your wrist straight.

    Other options:

    1. Work part of the time standing up. Standing desks are pricey, but some inexpensive drafting tables can be elevated enough to work as a standing desk. Draft with a laptop standing, for instance, then edit at your desktop sitting.

    2. Proof on a digital device walking about. For my just-out book, I took a different approach to proofing. Rather than look at the same content on the same InDesign window, I transferred the near-final version to my iPad as an epub and proofed it while I walked about my place. Typos were by that point so rare, that I wasted little time sitting down at my computer for the fixes. Then I went one step further, and put the same book on my iPhone, with its smaller screen, and proofed it, again while and walking and standing. Looking at a document in a different format, I caught still more errors.

    You can summarized both #1 and #2 with a rule to do everything you can in a different way than by sitting at a desk working on a keyboard. Change is good. Heck, with text-to-speech, you could listen to that draft while lying on a couch. That will catch still more errors and clumsy wording.

    3. This last one won’t work with everyone. Got kids who’d love to help mother or daddy with their work, perhaps for a reward? It may take years to learn how to improve a written passage. But even a kid of eight or so can follow instructions from his mother to change, “It was just about time for him to leave, thought John,” to a far better, “‘I gotta go,’ thought John.” And you’re teaching that kid about good writing at the same time.

    And yes, #3 could apply to a hired assistant if you can afford the cost. For that, you might mark up the draft in advance with all the needed changes and then talk them through making the changes in one session. The key is that it isn’t you sitting at that keyboard. You might even use that to help out a friend who is out of work and needs some added income.

    –Michael W. Perry, Inkling Books

    1. Hello Michael!
      Interesting suggestions there. I’ve seen those wrist braces – though in a surgical version rather than a skateboarder style. The latter sounds more cool.

      Dave, my husband, has used the standing desk idea. We have a wide window sill in one room that is the perfect height, and he drafted an entire book standing at it because he’d cricked his back.

      Text-to-speech and other proofing ideas – oh yes, good! As you say, they’re good for the later stages when you don’t have many errors left to pick up, and they help you see the work anew as well.

      Thanks for stopping by, and good luck with your new book.

  4. I’m sorry to hear about your pain, Roz. It sounds terrible. I remember the pianist from MMoaFL and the agony she went through. I hope you get relief soon.

    I’m a fellow sufferer, but not nearly to the degree you describe. Many years ago, I discovered that my problems were not caused by the keyboard so much as the mouse. Even now, ten minutes of intense mouse usage translates to about half a day of intense pain. I solved the problem by switching to a combination of pen tablet plus trackball. The pen tablet is excellent for everyday Windows “pointing” and for drawing in graphics programs. I would probably use it for everything, but the tablet is compact and doesn’t have enough resolution to map 1:1 to my monitor. For fine pixel-by-pixel work, I use the trackball. The trackball is better than a mouse for me, but it still causes problems if I use it for too long.

    As for mistreating my characters, I am indeed glad not to have their lives. I’m a happy ending kind of guy, so things eventually work out, but my characters have to work for it. Since I write fantasy adventure novels, I’m definitely glad not to face nasty sorcerers or aggressive monsters, although some people in real life occasionally fit those descriptions.

    1. Hello Daniel!
      ah, the mouse! Yes, those can be evil beasties. I have friends who use graphics tablets instead, and find it’s much more comfortable. I found the joystick mouse is a big improvement.

  5. I’m one of those people who loll in bed when I write! It started through necessity – I was fully bed bound for three months and partially bed bound for years afterwards after a very bad accident and it’s become a habit.

    I write between three and ten thousand words a day every day, depending how much other work I’m doing, and when I realised that at least some of the pain I was in was rsi I asked my mother, who’d been a personal assistant and typist back in the days of the heavy typewriters of the 50s, how she’d coped.

    She said that they never got rsi back then as they were taught how to avoid it. She gave me a lot of advice, most of which I’ve forgotten as I’ve stuck to the only part that resonated and has kept rsi away ever since. Elbows below wrists and wrists below hands so that my hands are almost in a straight line with them but slightly raised, keeping my shoulders relaxed and my forearms slanted around 45 degrees up from the horizontal. So I loll against the pillows with my laptop on a cheap slanted rest from Ikea propped against my raised knees, and type in a decadent way that I’m sure would have been frowned on back then, but it works just as well. I also stretch and shake out my arms if I can feel any tension building there.

    Since I found it worked so well when I do use the laptop out of bed I have it on a table with an adjustable top slanted to roughly the angle the old typewriters were. I suspect a lot of rsi may come from keyboards being horizontal these days.

    1. Hi Kate! What you say about arm posture is what I was taught on ergonomics courses. It’s also the position that a kneeling chair puts you into – straight with everything hanging naturally. I didn’t know that typists were taught posture, but when I was having treatment it was a constant mystery how typewriters didn’t seem to cause trouble. Indeed, typewriters had to be bashed quite hard by comparison with electronic keyboards, but I’ve heard theories that it’s this sensitivity that’s part of the problem because the movements are so fine.

      You might be right about the angle too. When I freelance I have to use a dead flat keyboard and it becomes painful. At home I have a tilted hinged thing, like a keyboard sawn in half and propped up, and it’s much more comfortable.

      Thanks for stopping by.

      1. Yes, it’s pretty nasty and just gets worse unless you do something about it. I did, eventually, and now I’m fine again but I still remember how unpleasant it was. I think that’s why I could empathize with your heroine in Future Life. Very debilitating.

  6. I bought a cheap laptop stand which I use at a make-shift standing desk as a preventative measure to keep lower back problems (and RSI) at bay. Lifting weights in Body Pump class and pilates helps me maintain a strong back. I gave up playing tennis as I found I was getting tennis elbow in my writing hand. I’m extremely lucky. I know someone who has chronic RSI. He can’t even email or text any more.

    1. Hi Alison! Another Body Pump fan! I have actually felt the RSI kinks disappear after a class. I’d say it’s as effective as acupuncture!

      Your story about your friend’s experience is salutary. I had two friends who were completely unable to use keyboards again. That was before we all became so wedded to little texting devices too, which have become another necessity of life.

      I quite like the idea of the standing desk. I imagine you can type a bit, wander about, return to your lecturn and fling some more words down. A little like conducting an orchestra.

      1. The ‘desk’ is a chest of drawers made out of cherrywood that we inherited. It’s covered in filing and sometimes I feel bad that I’m using it as a desk. But it’s the perfect height. I haven’t tried conducting from it yet…..

  7. I’ve used an “alternative” mouse for several years and no longer have wrist or arm pain. Made by Contour, I think. It has a rubber-like roller that you spin to move the cursor up or down or slide the roller sideways to move it left and right. There are 3 button beneath the roller bar for left, right, and double click functions. It’s fabulous. Costs about $200 in US. Also will be getting a Veridesk which allows you to sit or stand at your desk. It’s about $350 for the largest model. People have said it increases their overall energy. Also use Laidback (got at for about $50) to prop up my laptop while I’m lying in bed. It’s adjustable sturdy plastic. Now with my back issues I use it everyday. Best of luck to everyone!

    1. Gosh, Mary, you’ve been through the mill. Your remark about the desk that can adapt for standing or sitting makes me wonder: do you find the tone of your writing changes if you stand? I’m imagining it might make me more assertive.

      Anyone else?

      1. Not sure yet if standing while writing will affect the tone. I have yet to order it ($$$), but being a desk person for so many years, it will take time to develop the stamina for standing.

      2. Goethe used a standing desk for his writing.
        I stood at it once when I was 15, and visited his house. I can’t say that at 15 I knew a thing about him, though.

  8. Forgot to mention, you can get an “over the bed” table that are used in hospitals for about $79 US which are easily adjustable for height. The desks I’ve seen specifically designed for standing desks are at least triple that amount.

  9. I’m fortunate that the things that happen to my characters will not happen to me. I mean, being stuck in a life pod floating in space for six months and then stuck in a station invaded by rabid mutants isn’t what I call remotely possible. Is it??

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