Tag Archives: ergonomics

The Tax Man Cometh

Is there anything less conducive to creativity than income tax preparation? My imagination flees. My desire to write takes a vacation. My incentive dries up. My brain freezes. My heart sinks out of sight. I dread walking into my home office and looking at the ledger lying on my desk, warning me that the sharp talons of misery are waiting to grip me.

In short, I hate it.

Cue up the violins playing in the background because who doesn’t detest this annual task? I am hardly alone. I try not to be such a baby about it. I crack the whips of fear and self-discipline to make myself start. Procrastination is only going to make it worse, right?

My annual New Year’s resolution is always to break this behavior and start keeping up with my accounts on a weekly or monthly basis so that the actual prep is a quick snap to do. But I never keep the resolution. Never. Occasionally I try, and my resolve will hold on somewhere between February and April. After that, I’m gone.

In other words, I do my accounts once a year, which makes the whole job much much much worse than it need be.

Still, it gets done somehow. And then I shove things out of sight–files and ledgers and calculators and scraps of papers–until next time.

So, if you sell your book–woo-hoo!–or a short story or a novella or a magazine article, (and whether you go through a traditional publisher or self-publish electronically)–if you sell your written materials, you will have to file a Schedule C form on your tax return and report the income. Along with that, you’re entitled to take deductions. Although they continue to dwindle, you should know about the ones that are not yet extinct.  Given that not all accountants and tax preparers are conversant with writer deductions, here are a few things you should know so you can consult successfully with your professional tax adviser or CPA. (The following does not constitute official tax advice. Always consult with a professional.)

The home office deduction. In the past, this was a dicey, muy dangerous deduction to take. You had to have an actual room dedicated to writing. (You still do.) None of that corner of the kitchen table business. Then you had to really tiptoe through the landmines of what was allowed and what would get you audited. However, IRS rules have changed somewhat on this one. So many people now work from home that the Feds have created a standard deduction that you can take. It’s much easier usually to take the standard deduction instead of trying to calculate the square footage of your house versus the square footage of your office to determine the percentage of your utilities you can deduct. I think this one is still being tweaked, however, so be sure you find out exactly what you can and cannot deduct here. But if you qualify, O ye hardworking writer, take it!

Equipment. Do you need bookcases? A new printer/copier/fax machine? A new computer? A lamp to see by? A fabulous ergonomic chair that will help you write comfortably for long hours? A great camera for your blog? Sometimes you have to depreciate expensive items, which means spreading out the deduction over multiple years, but your accountant can advise you on the best approach.

Car mileage. This one requires keeping a–sigh–mileage log. You can purchase little books at the office supply store that have entries for the day’s beginning and ending mileage, what the trip was for, etc. (And make sure you deduct the cost of the log.) For many writers, the mileage log may not add up to a lot of miles. See, we’re sitting in our computer chair, writing, instead of going places. Used to, jaunts to the post office to mail manuscripts, to deposit royalty checks, to go to the library, to shop at the office supply store, to browse at the local bookstore, etc. were all legitimate errands for a writer’s business. Now, we email our manuscripts, we may deposit checks via our smartphones, use the Internet instead of the public library, and browse on Amazon.com. All those conveniences erase our deductions, alas. However, if you conduct in-person interviews, or travel for research, or don’t care to deposit your checks via your phone, then you should keep the mileage log. At over fifty cents per mile, those little trips across town and back can add up quickly.

Office supplies. After shopping in a bookstore, the office supply store is one of my favorite places to visit. You may do everything via your computer. I combine low and high tech, so for example I stick Post-Its to my AirBook lest I forget something. That’s because I’m a visual person. I need the note where I’ll see it, not have it buried in some computer file or reminder app on my phone. So I need Post-Its, envelopes, pens, file folders, tape, thumb drives, paperclips, and printer paper. All the wonderful paper-oriented products that the modern world is trying to dispense with. Computer software programs and anti-virus software fall into this camp as well. (As long as you’re not buying games for your five-year-old.)

Internet service. The IRS expects writers to keep a log of how many hours they clock on computer usage, especially if the computer is shared among members of a family. My computer is shared with no one. My Internet access is for my business use, so I deduct the cost of it. Your CPA may suggest that you deduct a portion of your communications costs. However, your business phone line, your Internet access, the costs of your Wi-Fi router, etc. are potentially all deductible.

Meals and travel expenses. If you travel to interview someone or you travel to writers conferences, you can deduct your transportation and hotel costs, your conference registration fees, and a percentage of your meals.

Books, magazines, and movies. If you write novels, part of your job entails knowing your genre and the market, which means you’re reading novels constantly. Those are deductible materials for a professional writer. If you write magazine articles and/or you are perusing journals for research, you can deduct the magazines you read. If you rent or purchase movies in order to do research, you’re writing a filmscript or teleplay, or you need to input the plot to feed your imagination, you can deduct those costs. Going to a first-run movie in a theater, however, is a gray area that might get you audited. See what your CPA thinks. Mine gives me a thumbs down on that one.

Professional services. This covers such expenses as paying your CPA to do your taxes, or hiring a cover artist to design your next e-book cover. And although there are DIY options, you may prefer to spend your brainpower on your plotting instead of design. You may want to hire a company to make a video book trailer that you can put up on YouTube or your Web site. You may need professional assistance in designing your Web site or putting up Podcasts. If you’re selling very well, you may need to hire an assistant to handle your emails, PR promotion, and/or research. If you have a literary agent representing you, then the agent’s commission is deductible.

Donations. Find a few charities you like and give to them. You may want to donate to your place of worship, or to organizations like First Book that support literacy, or to some other cause near and dear to you. Besides monetary contributions, if you decide to clean out your garage and donate a pile of stuff like old sporting equipment, toys, and that bike you can’t use since your knees went bad, then you should itemize everything, assign each item a garage-sale value, drop them off at a donation center or arrange for an organization to come to your house and pick them up, and deduct the value. Make sure you obtain a dated receipt from the organization and attach your itemized list to it for your records. Such clean-out donations are easier to cope with than holding a garage sale, and sometimes the deduction from your taxes will profit you more than whatever cash you might earn from a sale. However, be sure your records have the name of the organization and its address because that information must be provided to the IRS.

While there are a few more deductions that you can dig up to ease your tax burden, these are some of the major areas available to writers. Good luck and may the task of doing your accounts prove less onerous to you than it is to me.



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Writing Ergonomics: Lighting

My very first personal computer was an IBM. It did only text. No graphics. No Internet. I had a choice of green or amber for text display. I liked the amber better, but I chose green because the salesman assured me this was “air-traffic-controller” green, designed to mitigate eyestrain.

As a myopic novelist, I needed to dodge eyestrain as much as possible. (And still do!)

Today, of course, that kind of equipment seems prehistoric. But although my computer now does graphics, streams television episodes, and stores my personal photographs, eyestrain avoidance remains my objective.

I try to remember to take short breaks so that my eyes don’t get blurry and fatigued. I wear computer glasses. And I always seek optimum lighting for my office.

Presently, my home office offers dismal illumination. Four blazing bulbs hang suspended from a ceiling fan, casting glare behind me as I work. Not good!

Terrific ceiling fan in my office, but the lights are all wrong.

During the day, my lone office window captures only indirect sunlight until the late afternoon when the sun stabs into the periphery of my right eyeball, creating more glare.

As people get older, their retinas thicken, which means less light reaches their vision. In other words, a 60-year-old needs ten times more light to see as well as a 20-year-old.

Other factors that affect aging eyes include sensitivity to glare, less ability to detect contrasts, and a dimming of color perception.

I didn’t know this until recently. Yet during the past several months, I’ve been accruing a lot of lamps. My home looks like a lamp store.

Granted, I’m a collector. I’m also still arranging the house since moving in. So all the lamps that belong in the library happen to still be stacked around the living room.

This copper-finished bridge lamp is destined for my library, but currently it's been orphaned in an undecorated corner of the house.

Nevertheless, I’ve also realized that my middle-aged eyes are demanding more light. In my 20s, I utilized two table lamps and a floor lamp in my living room. Today, my living room sports four powerful torchieres, five table lamps, two lamps on the fireplace mantel, a light on the ceiling fan, and recessed spots in the ceiling. Let’s blame part of that on the new house’s architecture. Ten-foot ceilings are hard to illumine well. I keep switching on lamps, and the general effect remains soft and dim.

Still, we’re here to discuss writing and how to make it comfortable. To counter the dreadful lighting in my office, I always make sure that I have at least one light source on besides my computer monitor. And I’m working on arranging fixtures around the room to provide my workspace with better quality of light.

According to an article on lighting from Stan Pomeranz (www.lighttechdesign.com/agingeyes.htm), higher illumination may be desirable, but that doesn’t mean a fixture should be excessively or uncomfortably bright. (In other words, don’t aim for an operating theater!) Instead, there should be more fixtures of lower wattage. Also, task lighting should be adjustable for location, direction, and intensity to accommodate individual needs.

In my office, I want to shield my eyes from glare. That means better window treatments to counter the late-afternoon sun. I’d also like a substitute for those ceiling-fan light bulbs blasting down from above.

Adding ambient light will make the room more psychologically appealing. To that end, I’ve added a couple of low-wattage, attractive lamps in opposite corners.

My general lighting should be brighter. (But without glare.) If I can fit a torchiere into the room to cast light upward and bounce it down from the ceiling, perhaps that will solve the problem.

And I need good task lighting. Ott lamps offer full-spectrum light that replicates natural sunlight pretty well. I should have one next to my computer monitor. The style of Ott’s products doesn’t fit my decor, but then neither does old Steel-and-Formica (my computer desk). Meanwhile, I plan to ask my lamp restorer if Ott lightbulbs can be used in antique lamps. I don’t see why not.

This Ott light is very chic, sleek, and modern. It casts a narrow beam of clear, soft light straight down, making it good for desktop work.


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Writing Ergonomics: Your Chair

What do chairs, writers, and a former king of England have in common?

In one of my college history courses, years ago, I learned that while Henry II of England might have been an astute political leader, he had an awful time sitting still for any length of time. Apparently he possessed a ten-minute attention span and commanded his archbishop to limit sermons to that length. Otherwise, he was out the chapel door.

My father used to say that people stop listening or paying attention once they develop “tired bottom.”

So besides your computer, the chair you write in is probably the most important piece of equipment you should own. Do you have a worthy chair? Or do you sit in whatever’s at hand?

When you write, how long can you stay focused and productive? (Presuming that the writing itself is going well, of course!)

How comfortable is your chair? Can you sit in it for several hours? Is it supportive to your low back? Are the arms–if any–at a height that keeps your forearms parallel to the floor? Is there correct thigh support so your ankles don’t swell or your legs don’t go tingly and numb? Are your feet flat on the floor when you’re working at the proper keyboard height? Do you have a chair that can adjust to your needs? Can your chair compensate for poor ergonomics in the rest of your equipment?

For example, at my day job, I have an office outfitted with a beautiful wooden desk. The desk lacks a keyboard drawer, so my computer keyboard is on top of the desk surface, far too high. Fortunately, my office is also equipped with an Aeron office chair. After my request to have a keyboard drawer installed was denied, I found that if I raise my chair on its pneumatic lift to maximum height, I can keep my wrists and forearms parallel to the floor when I’m typing. I lose proper thigh support, have no lumbar support, and perch on the very edge of the seat so my feet can touch the floor, but I’m not risking carpal tunnel in doing so. When I’m not at the computer, I lower the chair to a more normal position.

In my previous home, the rooms were so tiny that I had to commandeer two of them for writing purposes: one to hold files, copier, and business matters; the other to hold reference books, my own published work, and my writing computer. I used my old leather chair for the business office. It isn’t very adjustable and there’s not a lot of low-back support, but the seat is cushy and comfortable. For my writing office, I invested in an Aeron chair as soon as I could afford one. Every aspect of the chair adjusts. It’s designed for long-term sitting and high productivity. As a result, I’m not frequently squirming with discomfort or leaving my keyboard in mid-scene to go get a snack.

The chair is well worth its purchase price. It’s even worth the time and effort necessary to assemble it. (Everything on this chair is easy to put together except one tiny little cable that affects the lumbar control.) I’ve had the chair for about five years now. I’m sure that designers have come up with some other chair that’s even better, but as long as my chair is working for me, I’ll keep it.

I also collect vintage office chairs, the kind made from wood, with seats that were carved to fit human contours. Yeah, they’re hard. But they’re not as uncomfortable as you might expect. In fact, I used one of them for years at my day job before a remodel gave us Aerons. However, I wouldn’t want to do a long writing session in an old wooden number.

Now, what are you using when you write?

An old wobbly kitchen chair? The kind that numbs your backside within twenty minutes, so that you’re distracted away from the story you should be writing and wandering away to look in the refrigerator?

You may think it’s outrageous to spend as much money on a desk chair as you would on a computer. But consider which pieces of office equipment your body directly interfaces with: your keyboard and your chair.

Where is the position of the keyboard? Is it going to hurt your body?

What kind of chair are you sitting in? One that supports you and keeps you comfortable? Or one that lets physical misery creep into the edges of your awareness while you create?

Go to high-end office furniture suppliers and sit in everything they have. Don’t bother with discount stores that stock cheaply made, one-size-fits-all furniture. Figure out what make and model of chair suits you best. Then save up for it, or when that book advance comes in, spend a portion of it on a decent chair.

Your body will thank you.


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Writing Ergonomics: Standing to Write

Something else to consider in the search for the proper desk height is whether you might like writing while standing up. If it worked for Ernest Hemingway, why not try it? You might find it easier to adjust your arm position, and your posture should improve as well. You’ll burn a few calories, which could help offset some of the sedentary spread many of us writers are prone to. It requires a good, supportive pair of shoes and you’ll have to adjust to being on your feet for long periods of time, but each of us has to find what works best for our body, budget, temperament, and level of stamina.

Ikea used to make a computer desk that was adjustable to standing height. A quick search on the Internet turns up any number of futuristic-looking slabs of work surface affixed to towering rods. Perhaps there are more aesthetically pleasing options as well.

However, I like the Hemingway version of a short bookcase just tall enough to support a typewriter (or laptop). I think drafting tables might be usable. The old wooden ones–battlescarred from decades of use–sound appealing to me. It depends on whether they can be leveled off or whether they have to remain at a slant.

Another option for the DIYer: buy a base cabinet for a kitchen, top it with a sanded piece of plywood or a scrap of countertop or stone and position it for use. Unfinished cabinets can be purchased from retailers like Home Depot or Lowe’s, or you can search for one at your local Habitat for Humanity ReStore.

For further information: http: smarterware.org/7102/how-and-why-i-switched-to-a-standing-desk.

Ernest Hemingway standing at a desk on his friend's balcony. Image from Life Magazine.

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Writing Ergonomics: Laptops

In my previous post, I sneered at the current litter of computer desks available out there as being largely unsuitable for sustained writing. Writers need to work without interruption for two to four hours minimum. Many write in eight-hour shifts. Of course, when a deadline’s looming or the story has you by the throat, you may go even longer.

Trouble is, the human body wasn’t designed for computer work. The screen’s hard on our eyes. Long periods of sitting affects our body. We get stiff and sore. Our circulation grows sluggish. If we slump, our organs suffer. Poor posture takes its toll on our shoulders and lungs.

The laptop computer is ideal for writers who prefer to work away from a desk. I have friends who like to write on the sofa or outdoors or in bed. However, the laptop brings its own ergonomic problems, chiefly from the size and position of the keyboard.

Maybe you enjoy writing with the laptop balanced on your knees. But if you ever try to use it on a desk or your kitchen table, you’ll quickly find that the keyboard is too high. Your shoulders are pushed up, and that position can eventually bring strain, discomfort, perhaps even pain.

My best recommendation is to comb through used office-furniture stores or garage sales for an old-fashioned typing table. These inexpensive tables are generally small and low. Many of them have wheels and may feature drop-leaf extensions. They were originally designed to support a typewriter. I’ve found them to be ideal to hold a laptop at an optimal height.

I own about three or four of these versatile little tables. One has a wood top, but the others are all metal. Cost has ranged from free to $30. I’ve spray-painted them to spiff them up, and find them equally useful for occasional sewing or craft projects. Their small footprint makes it easy to tuck them into a corner when they aren’t in use. Presently, I have one supporting my copier.

If you’re lucky, you may find a table fitted with a small undershelf. This was designed to hold typing paper, carbon paper, or envelopes, but it can also be a terrific place to store the laptop.

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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.

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