Writing Ergonomics: Comfort and Ease

Once your office is functional–meaning you have a desk that’s right for you; a chair designed to hold you for hours; a good lighting system; a stout battery backup system for your computer; file, book, and supply storage; and whatever phone, printer, and computer equipment you need–the next step involves making the room attractive and pleasant to spend time in.

I have seen writer offices that looked like something from a magazine–everything organized, the desktop as clean as a banker’s desk, not a stray sheet of paper or stack of books anywhere. I have seen offices that looked like a rat heap in the corner of a spare bedroom, with the computer perched precariously on top of a sagging desk made of particle board and contact paper, wedged behind discarded exercise equipment, outgrown toys, and an ironing board.

I’ve moved a lot, so I’ve set up several offices. When I began my novelist career, I worked in a poorly lit storeroom with exposed wall studs, inadequate heat during the winter, a homemade table, and a paper grocery sack for a waste can. A loaned space heater scorched my knees and let the rest of me shiver.

When I sold my first two books, I invested in a better typewriter–yes, these were ancient days of yore–then I got different office space with finished walls, a window, and heat. I furnished it with a big mahogany desk, a secretarial chair, a sofa, built-in cupboards and bookshelves, and some framed prints. It was beautiful, spacious, and comfortable.

It’s unimportant to this post as to why I left that second office behind, but I still miss it. In the years since then, I’ve had big offices and tiny, cramped ones. I’ve had pretty ones and rooms that I didn’t bother with. And I’ve even tried arranging my space according to the ancient Chinese principles of feng shui. Here are a few of the things I’ve learned along the way:

Beyond function and efficiency, a workspace should

1. Inspire you

2. Showcase your success

3. Be a pleasant, attractive room

4. Validate what you’re doing

5. Avoid excessive clutter

What inspires you to write? What keeps you charged and ready to work at the keyboard? What fuels your dreams and imagination? To the best of your ability, surround yourself with those things in your work space. Make your writing environment a creatively supportive one.

I was given that advice very early in my career by my then-agent in London. He sat me down in his big office and told me that as soon as I began to make money as a writer to buy myself the view that would most inspire me to write. I’ve yet to buy that view, but I understand the principle behind his suggestion. How can I make my surroundings appealing?

I’ve chosen a beautiful shade of red that I want for my office walls. Right now they’re a dreary brownish faux treatment that doesn’t do a thing for me. However, although paint’s relatively inexpensive, I keep putting off the chore because I don’t want to spend an entire weekend moving furniture and doing the necessary prep while I’m under a book deadline. So I continue to procrastinate, despite the fact that a more attractive color would probably do wonders for my morale.

A brag wall or shelf isn’t to feed your conceit. It’s to help you sustain your confidence. We writers can be a little delicate. It doesn’t take much beyond a sharp remark from an editor or a barbed reader review on amazon.com to knock our feet out from under us. Our sensitivity is necessary for the kind of work we do, but if we aren’t careful we can start to brood too much over weak sales or a project that’s not going smoothly. Several years ago, I started framing covers of my books and hanging them up. It gave me a boost every time I saw what I’d accomplished. You don’t have to paper your walls with your achievements, but by all means display the ones that mean the most to you. And spend the money to have your diploma or book cover framed professionally. In a former home, I hung all those bookcovers on my staircase wall. Now, I have a couple that I think are really special. They’re blown up to poster size and mounted in brushed-metallic frames so they’re quite eye-catching.

As for the furniture arrangement, what do you have? What do you face when you sit down to work? Your window? Your brag wall? Is your back to the door so you always feel a little uneasy? Can you switch your desk around to fix that? My present arrangement gives me no view, which I dislike very much. My back’s to the door, and I don’t like that either. Worst of all, when I sit down I feel like towering stacks of furniture might fall on me. I have very tall bookcases in the room, plus an antique paper cabinet that sits on my desk behind my computer monitor and looms over me. None of this makes me comfortable or relaxed. I need to change it.

Do your furnishings look like worn-out hand-me-downs? Do you have a new flat-screen TV in the living room, but you write at a chipped desk with a short leg propped on some old encyclopedias? What might that say about your priorities?

Where you write, whether it’s an actual office or simply a corner of a room, should reflect the value of your creative work. It should be furnished with the best you can afford. It should be worthy of the stories you write. If you like flea-market style, it can be funky and second-hand, but it should never be second-rate.

As for clutter … it takes over my office the way Tribbles overtook the USS Starship Enterprise. Because I’m more of a “piler” than a “filer,” I tend to lose documents pretty easily, and I waste a great deal of time hunting for that folder or chapter or contract that I can’t locate. Believe me, I’ve read several books on clutter management, and it remains a problem. I think the solution has to do with simple discipline. Once the room is cleaned and organized, it’s about keeping it that way through sheer willpower.

In the past, I’ve justified my messiness with the excuse that cleaning up clutter takes too much time. That’s nonsense, and I should know better.

Now, I don’t intend to shift myself to a sterile environment. I like books around me. I want that falcon statue from the Ramses II exhibit that I bought years ago. I keep that rock from New Mexico on my desk for a good reason. And I will continue to stick Post-Its on my computer monitor as needed. I still wince from watching an episode on HGTV where the designer told her clients that all the books on their shelves were clutter and to clear them away. But I don’t have to save every scrap of paper and it doesn’t all have to be stacked in precarious piles to the point where my desktop isn’t visible.

I’m resolved to do better.

Are you?

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