Writing Ergonomics: the Desk

A few years ago, I assigned a novel from my Nether fantasy series as class reading. One comment from a student surprised me: “Why does nearly every character in this book have a hurt shoulder?”

When I wrote that novel, I happened to be undergoing physical therapy for a frozen shoulder–a truly painful condition. I hadn’t made the connection until my student asked that question.

Of all the myriad distractions that can afflict writers, pain is one that affects your writing far more than you may realize.

Once upon a time, I had a very pretty new house. It featured a study at the front, with a tall window overlooking the street. I wanted very pretty office furniture to go in it.  Suddenly my old gray, steel-and-Formica computer desk looked too ugly for its new surroundings. I also needed a tax write-off at the time, so I invested in a dark cherry-veneered computer desk, file, and bookcase. It looked stunning. When I entered the study to work on my book, I felt successful. But after several weeks, I noticed sharp pains in my neck and shoulders during writing sessions. Investigation led to the discovery that the desk was too tall for comfortable computer work. It set my monitor at a height that was causing the muscle strain. Furthermore, the keyboard was at the wrong height, too.

Enduring those discomforts, I finished my manuscript in progress and started the editing/revision process. Normally I write fairly clean drafts, with few spelling and grammatical errors. But in this instance, the manuscript was littered with spelling mistakes and poor punctuation. I had been so physically miserable at my new desk that the effects had crept into my writing.

At that point, I hauled the ugly old computer desk in from the garage and put the pretty office furniture elsewhere.

Old Steel-and-Formica was constructed when personal computers were first being marketed to the public in the mid-1980s. It’s made at a lower height (28 or 29″) that allows the monitor to stand where it should. Because the desk top is lower than a standard desk height (30″), the keyboard drawer is also lower (27″). This means I can sit in my chair with my feet flat on the floor; my forearms are level and parallel to the floor; and I don’t have to skew my neck to a strange angle in order to work. I avoid neck strain and carpal tunnel problems in my wrists and hands.

Of course, although I’ll be forever grateful that I didn’t get rid of it, I still think old Steel-and-Formica is ugly. After my cherry wood furniture debacle, I set out on a mission to find a pretty computer desk at the proper height.

It doesn’t exist. By the 1990s, established desk manufacturers had taken over the fledgling computer furniture makers. To save money, they left the desks they’d always made at the same height they’d always been (30″) and simply attached keyboard drawers. Trouble is, the 30″ height works best for hand writing and is too tall for computers.

No one’s going to retool the factories.

Is there any correlation between incorrectly sized furniture and the rise of carpal-tunnel injuries during the last two decades?

So I cling to Steel-and-Formica. The old desk’s a rarity. It’s functional. It saves me a lot of grief. I pretend not to see it, and most of the time I can’t because its surface is piled with manuscripts and books. I will keep it forever, and when I move–as I do fairly often–the new abode must have a writing room large enough to hold it.

Best of all, when I write at it, I don’t hurt.

1 Comment

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One response to “Writing Ergonomics: the Desk

  1. Thanks for stopping by, my Old Historic House and visiting Nancy’s shop. Richard

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