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By Claire Aitchison

Writing is a physical activity that subjects the body to specific routines and impositions – it wears on the body in particular ways. I recall the deformed fingers of my grandfather: he had callouses from holding a pen, the physical manifestation of a lifetime of writing. Writers these days wear different traces of their labouring.

It seems particularly pertinent to raise this question during AcWriMo – a month when all around the world doctoral students are busy pushing themselves to write, write, write. Writing is the business of doctoral scholarship, but not all doctoral students realise that when they sign up for a PhD, they are signing up to become a writer – like it or not. Despite the acceptance of a growing diversity of doctoral output (new forms of the thesis such as inclusion of artefacts, performances, exegesis, series of publications, multimedia and so on), the vast majority of doctoral students still solo-author a large manuscript for examination. In addition, students will write for publication and undertake numerous other writing tasks on a daily basis. Doctoral scholarship involves not only mental aptitude and fortitude, but also many hours of writing labour.

There is wide recognition now of technology-related injuries, and yet doctoral scholars are rarely warned of this. Contemporary writing-related harms include, for example, wrist, hand and shoulder injuries from use of the mouse; pain from repetitive keyboarding actions; neck and eye strain associated with peering at small screens; finger and thumb strain from texting and scrolling; back issues from prolonged sitting and so on. These are very real and potentially significantly debilitating side-effects that can have lasting impacts on our bodies.

Do travel/have desk: The ironing board standing desk

Traveller’s favourite: The ironing board standing desk

I am not qualified to give advice about workplace ergonomics or writing injuries – there is plenty of information available on this topic – but I do advocate that in the haste to produce text, doctoral students (and academics) should be more mindful of the potential harm.

These days with lightweight laptops and tablets and with ready access to the Internet, our capacity to set up and write anywhere, any time is pretty well unlimited. Our portable devices provide us with the capacity to access the information (literature and data) that we need write, and simultaneously to store and share our writing from the same device.

Our writing lives have been liberated from the need to sit in a defined space to access the same computer in the same location. This freedom, I’m sure, has in part fuelled the popularity of ‘writing together’ events such as boot camps, meet-ups and writing retreats. It has also meant that as individuals we need never leave off writing.    The accelerated expectations around publishing and speedy completions are further exacerbated by these new technologies.

But is there a price to pay for so much writing activity? Or, too much speedy writing? How can we protect ourselves against emotional and physical damage?

Whenever I run writing intensive events there will be a number of people who arrive with an array of creature comforts – home made and purpose built accommodations to improve their writing experience.

The DIY standup desk

The DIY standup desk

Just recently I looked up to see someone carrying in a corkboard, a plastic container, a riser, computer, mouse and heatpacks for a three-day writing intensive.  All too often these folk are taking special care of their bodies because they have already suffered injury. It is harder to convince others (especially bright and shiny, enthusiastic new doctoral students) of the need to avoid injury.

Some say sitting is the new smoking … if you are about to commence a PhD, consider how much time you will be sitting at your desk. You deserve a safe and comfortable work space – you will spend years of your life there.

How to take care of your writing body – a user’s perspective

The first thing is to be proactive – don’t wait for an injury before you assess your bodily needs and build a safe working space, whether that is at home, in the postgrad room, a café or at boot camp. It’s your body and no one else is likely to look after it.

Do your homework – there are numerous sites with advice on how to avoid computer injuries. They all refer to things like screen to eye level, making sure arms and hands are horizontal to the keyboard, good posture, and so on and so on.

Look and learn from others – at boot camps and such events, chat to others about their crafty equipment and practices.

If you can, it is sometimes well worth getting a specialist workplace assessor in to help advise you.

Seriously consider forking out for the right equipment early on: (if you are still a seated writer) a proper ergonomic chair; a big screen (or two); a separate keyboard; the right kind of mouse; a footstool.

A standing desk. These can be quite expensive, but, in my own experience, can be life-changing. It is so much harder to hold stress in the shoulders and arms when standing – and being on your feet is bone-strengthening.

Special things for boot camps and when away from your normal writing environment 

Some basics that I have picked up from others, through my own experiences and from professionals such as physiotherapists:

  • Bring a cushion (seats can be hard and immovable)
  • Keep moving – if the organisers don’t prompt you to move, get an app.
  • If you can, stand up – even for short periods of time (pict bootcamp stander)

    Boot camp innovation

    Boot camp innovation

  • Use a separate keyboard. Laptops don’t allow for the right eye–screen adjustment.
  • If you are using your laptop (preferably with a separate keyboard) bring something to raise the height of the screen – and increase your font size to reduce eyestrain.

Once you are aware of ergonomics for a healthy and long writing life, you can make small inexpensive adjustments such as these so that you can keep on writing whenever, wherever you like.

Lastly, one of my favourite pieces of writing equipment is wonderful smelling hand cream – aromatherapy for the soul. I never go anywhere without it!

Has anyone got any of their own experiences or tips they’d like to share so ensure healthy writing habits?