THE WRITING LIFE: Basic Workstation Setup

The general office equipment set up principals are the same for everyone. Writers joke that they are their own corporation—just a one-person shop where they wear every hat. Whether as CEO, CFO, Marketing Whiz, PR Rep, Secretary, Writer, or Editor, we need a work station that is going to actually work—and not hurt us in the process.

Sure, you can work for a while curled up in a chair, or walking/running on the treadmill, or lying by the pool. But sooner or later, all the writers I know have had to plop themselves down at an actual hard surface and stay there for a few hours at a time. (If that’s not you, congratulations. Let us know how you manage that.) And to do that, the basics are the same for everybody.

Your computer keyboard should be at a height that allows you to reach the keys with your elbows at a right angle from your waist. For most people/desks, this means a keyboard tray—something lower than desk height that slides to get out of the way. The mouse can go next to the keyboard on the same surface. This keeps you from reaching up for the keyboard and straining your shoulders/back.

Reality break: If you’re using a laptop, this is a problem. Because the screen is attached to the keyboard, which puts the screen REALLY LOW when you’re typing, and, if you’re using it on the keyboard tray, you can’t slide it under the work surface.

There are two initial solutions. First is the wireless keyboard I mentioned in the introductory post in this series. You can use that on the keyboard tray and raise the laptop screen. The other is a separate monitor.

I actually combined these into my preferred third option: Both. Over time, I have expanded my desk setup with a laptop to mimic a desktop workstation. And, in fact, use a dual-monitor display. More on that in a moment.

The other important ergonomic tip for computer usage is the monitor placement. Your screen should be approximately arm’s length from you. If you divide your screen into three strips lengthwise, your eyes should be level with line forming the upper third of the screen. This keeps your neck straight as you look at the screen.

That said, in real life 90 percent of monitors aren’t built like that, and even the adjustable ones don’t go that high. Why? Laziness on the part of the designers? I don’t know. Your monitor will probably need to be raised up a few inches. Which is annoying. I have a great little computer desk I bought years back that has a raised platform on the right-hand corner. It’s an interesting addition that happens to be perfect for raising the physical laptop enough to be close to those specs. I use this as my secondary screen—having it a bit lower isn’t too bad.

Over time, I’ve used a number of different easy options for raising my primary screen. The first was the ever-popular Writer’s Market—every writer I know owns at least one (pre-internet) copy that they can’t bear to just toss. It’s about three inches thick, and works wonders for raising the monitor to a perfect height, and looks really writerly if you set it up so the spine faces you.

My new monitor has a slightly wider base, so I had to look for a different solution with the recent office renovation. I realized abruptly that the answer was right at hand—I had also gotten a new wireless keyboard. Those come in long, narrow boxes that I always want to hold onto for a few weeks in case something glitches with the electronics. Yes, it turned out this was the PERFECT height for my monitor. But…it was ugly. A quick trip to the fabric box, and I wrapped the box in a piece of colorful silk.

My current set up is perfect for me. I have two monitors so I can leave my manuscript up while I do research on the internet on another screen. My keyboard and mouse are the right height, and I’m no longer hunched over my laptop. I can also simply unplug the monitor from my laptop, and take it with me as needed for conferences, meetings, etc., and have all my files with me.

The reduction in the amount of aches and pains I suffered while writing was astonishing. Getting an external monitor and keyboard and using them at a “real desk” at the correct heights is the first thing I recommend to anyone I hear complaining about writing-related aches and pains.

Image: Designed by Freepik


Side Note: If you’re not aware of it, your laptop can be set up to use external monitor(s) or a mix of the main laptop screen and external ones. You can also set it so that you can keep the laptop closed and it still runs. For Windows, these settings are found under Settings/System, and the landing page is for the Display, with options for Multiple Monitors.

I use “Extend this Display,” which links the screens into one giant one. Duplicate this Display does just what it says—puts the same thing on both monitors, which is not useful for my purposes. You can also switch between screen one and screen two and put whatever screen you prefer directly in front of you.

You can use a USB connection adapter rather than a VGA connector to add a third monitor as well. The system pretty much sets everything up for you when you plug stuff in. You might have to make a few adjustments to match up the screen display specs.

If you like pretty desktop graphics, there are specific desktop backgrounds available for multiple displays in the Windows customization store.

THE WRITING LIFE: I Can See Clearly Now

Face it: As writers, we’re on the computer an insane amount of time. Eyestrain is real. There are ways to avoid it or reduce eye issues. Use adequate lighting in your office area. Have updated monitors that don’t have the old fashioned “flicker” issue. Keep the brightness/contrast adjusted correctly for the level of lighting you’re using. Make sure you get to your eye doctor regularly and keep your glasses prescriptions up to date.

Be up front with your doctor. Mine groaned when I explained exactly how much time I spent on the computer—my day job is work-from-home editing. I freelance doing editing. I’m a writer. To relax, I read (on an e-reader, my phone, and ‘real’ books), play computer games, and watch videos. I do graphics and marketing—which all on the computer. He actually gave me some great tips for eye care, some included here.

Simply being aware of the potential problems is a big help. Studies show that while working at a computer, people blink one-third as often (and not as hard) as they do normally. I cannot wear contacts—I don’t blink enough and they dry out, becoming like slivers of glass in my eyes. I tried and gave up. A couple of years ago when I was stressing myself out, my eyes became very dry. I started using the artificial tears/dry eye drops. (DON’T use the get-the-red-out drops; those are different, have additives that constrict blood vessels, and are not as lubricating. Those types are not for long-term use. Ask your eye doctor for recommendations.) I kept bottles by my computer, by my bed, and in my purse. I’m pleased to report that at this year’s eye exam, the doctor commented how much my eyes had improved, and that dry eyes were no longer a major concern. Honestly, I think the computer glasses mentioned previously helped substantially with that.

The other eye-related suggestion is one I’m hearing from multiple sources lately. Medical experts recommend that while using a computer for an extended period of time, every 20 minutes, look at something 20 feet away for 20 seconds (the 20-20-20 rule).

I solved this problem easily. I have my workstation in front of a window, and I put up a bird feeding station with five kinds of bird feeders and a little bird bath about 20 feet into my garden from the window. I look up regularly to watch the cardinals, goldfinches, and woodpeckers visiting the feeder, and have my 35mm camera nearby to snap some shots. Sometimes when I’m caught up in my work, the flurry of wings as a flock of bluebirds swoop in or the flash of a humming bird zooming by will remind me I need to look away from the screen for a few seconds.

Site for help:

THE WRITING LIFE: The Better to See You With, My Dear

I was depressed when I had to get bifocals. I was outraged when I had to move to trifocals. I’m not that old!

I tried progressive lenses at first. You’d think ophthalmologists would warn you about how weird stairs are with progressives. I learned that from a coworker—after a couple of months of wondering if I was either going crazy or had a brain tumor. News Flash: The focal points with progressives do weird things in stairwells. Be prepared for a vertigo-like experience. Some people get used to it; mine never went away.

They were okay for driving and for walking around, but I never found progressives comfortable for working at the computer. NOTHING ever seemed to focus quite right. A new eye doctor suggested trifocals, and they were a huge improvement. Loved them, especially for driving. The ability to easily switch between distance, map reading, and the dashboard was amazing.

I was hoping that my new home office’s ergonomic set up would resolve all my various body issues, but I found I was still getting a stiff neck and jaw while I wrote, and couldn’t figure out why since everything was arranged ergonomically. When I moved to a two-screen display, things got worse. One day, it finally struck me: Because of my trifocals, I was craning my head at odd angles, raising my chin, trying to see through the tiny mid-range lens to the words spread across the screens. Only a tiny bit of my shiny new multi-screen set-up was in focus at any one time.

As it happened, I had my annual eye exam and didn’t need a new prescription…so I used my insurance glasses allowance to buy a dedicated pair of computer (mid-range) glasses. I can’t say enough good things about my eye doctor—he did an amazing job on the prescription, including checking to see at what distance I preferred my monitor to sit. (To be discussed at length later, but short form, it should be arms-distance from you.)

Since I have gotten my new glasses, I am telling everyone I know with bifocals, trifocals, or progressives to invest in a pair of dedicated computer glasses for their writing. These have resolved ALL of my neck, shoulder, and jaw issues. The difference was clear within a day or two. Now when I accidentally start working with my regular glasses on, I quickly recognize that I’m tilting my head at odd angles trying to see things.

I’ve also JUST picked up my dedicated reading glasses. Again, after finding I never made time to read traditional books any more, it occurred to me after far too long that part of my problem with reading, making lists, and writing pages by hand was that I couldn’t get a comfortable view of the page. I could see part of it, but not enough. The process suddenly felt weird. With my new prescription reading glasses, I spent a nice chunk of my Christmas break curled up with some new hardback books I received as gifts! VERY nice to be back in the reading groove.

I never would have considered glasses an ergonomic solution, but they are now the top suggestion I currently make to people who mention neck and shoulder problems. In fact, this was going to be one of the last articles in this series…and the evening after picking up my reading glasses, I promptly tagged this to be the first article in the series.


Being a writer is not all sitting in a Parisian garret eating bonbons and dictating your next book to the scribe/chef hired to write everything out in flowing script from a fountain pen. Don’t we wish!

I’ve been writing seriously for twenty years now, and know hundreds of writers. None of us have the same system, setup, preferences, or equipment for producing our books. And yet, there are some commonalities that should be considered. The most recent one to catch my attention is that the majority of writers I know have some sort of physical issues related to their writing. Every day I go on social media, get a newsletter, or open an email, and find stories of medical difficulties: Hand surgeries, wrist surgeries, elbow surgeries, shoulder surgeries. Upper back problems, lower back problems. Hip problems. Knee problems. Neck problems. Eye problems. Jaw problems. And sooo many of them are directly writing related.

I remember decades ago, my day-job office hired an Ergonomic Workflow Consultant to rearrange our office spaces. Were the employees pleased? Hell, no. We were, overall, annoyed. First of all, there was no way a complete stranger would understand how we worked or organized our stuff. Secondly, this whole woo-woo ergonomics thing was just another of those fads, like seasonal colors or Myers-Briggs, and really didn’t deserve a place in a serious office.

I will readily admit we were wrong. The first thing that surprised me was the near-immediate difference I noticed in my body after moving things around at my workstation. Little changes—that made sense when you realized what the consultant was doing—had a huge impact. I’m fairly sure upper management was less thrilled with the process as we ordered now-necessary things like keyboard trays, monitor stands, and better desk chairs. Now, this was all before the days (or at the start) of the home computer era—and far before the days of the laptop era. I moved quickly to being a firm believer in ergonomic work spaces.

When my desktop computer sputtered and died, I replaced it with a newer, higher tech laptop. And my writing suffered. And because the human brain is an absurd thing, it took me years to realize why. My body hurt after writing. My arms throbbed, my neck ached, my shoulders burned, my lower back spasmed. I had shooting pains in my wrist and elbow. I got headaches. My eyes were dry, and tired, and scratchy. One might call these things warning signs.

I could never get comfortable writing on the laptop. It was awkward in my lap for actually producing words on the page for hours at a time. I felt like a kid at the grownup table trying to type at the dining room table. On the coffee table, I got shooting pains in my back from hunching over and reaching for the keyboard. If I could use the keyboard, I couldn’t see the screen well.

One day, I ran into another writer who mentioned she used a wireless keyboard with her laptop. This let her keep the screen higher, but put the keyboard in her lap where she could reach it easily.

This was a revelation to me. I had never considered just ignoring the perfectly good laptop keyboard. And the keyboard I bought came with a wireless mouse…no more using the seriously annoying touchpad I had always hated. Writers are rarely tech-types. The fact that this stuff existed and could be used for something OTHER than a desktop computer had simply never occurred to me.

As I set up my system in a more permanent location, I started wondering if there had been any new developments in ergonomics, so I searched on the topic. And discovered a whole world of other things you can do with a laptop setup to be more ergonomic.

I have discovered something else. Other people don’t necessarily know about this sort of stuff. What I had considered fairly common knowledge to “everyone else” actually isn’t. Especially to writers. So, I’m sharing my discoveries. Some are basic, some are new tech, and some are just making connections that aren’t necessarily obvious. But everything I’ve found has helped me dramatically, so I’m going to share.

We’re only human. And at least to this point, we only get one body—so look after it. It doesn’t have to be difficult, or expensive, or fancy. In some cases, it’s a fix as simple as shoving a box under something. Or seeing your doctor for a new prescription. Or taking a break of a few seconds to a few minutes. In the long run, it’s worth it. You’re worth it.

Keep an eye on this space for some tips on how to actually survive the writing life in one piece. I’ll be covering different topics on the subject every few days. If you have any tips or suggestions, feel free to comment!