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Sunday, February 28, 2010

Stay Healthy While You Write!

In early February of last year, I had a request from the small press that published my first short story to present them with a full-length Regency novel. Now, I had four, so I wasn’t lacking in material! But, I saw this as an opportunity to have my first novel published. I told them I would turn it in three weeks from that day once I had “tweaked” it a bit. Well, once I dove into it, I realized it needed way more than tweaking – it needed a full rewrite. So, I extracted my characters from the original plot and wrote an entirely new story for them…in three weeks.

While this might seem like an amazing accomplishment, it came at a price: my health. I’m the type who is a 4-6 day/week exerciser, but trying to write a book in 3 weeks meant that exercise went to the back burner. And therein lay the problem. By the time the book was done, my back and, particularly my left shoulder/arm (which already suffered from tennis elbow), were in shambles. I was in so much pain I couldn’t sleep at night, which led to painfully long days while I was trying to edit, work, pack for a trip to Toronto, do some last minute babysitting for a friend, visit my in-laws in CT and shoot our friends’ wedding. Whew! That was a rough week that I never want to revisit! So, I’ve developed a system of sorts, along with my chiropractor and my hubby – a way to keepmyself in check and make sure I’m not hurting myself while pursuing my dream. I hope you’ll find some of my tips useful!

1) Exercise! When I finally took time away from writing and hobbled into my chiropractor’s office, he shocked me with his advice. “Get to the gym! You’ve been tensed in one position for so long that your muscles aren’t even separated anymore,” he said. “You have one big shelf of tensed-up muscle across your back and the only thing that’s going to fix that right now is fatiguing those muscles. Get on the treadmill and walk until you can’t walk anymore. Get your arms and shoulders moving gently so those muscles will loosen up.” He was right, and I owe a lot to getting my butt back into the gym! Now that I’m better, my focus is on strengthening my back and shoulders with weight training so this never happens again!
Warning: If you’re having muscle spasms, avoid weight lifting, and any yoga/pilates that require you to bend backwards (ie, sun salutations, cobra, etc…)
2) Take frequent breaks! I know it’s difficult, when you’re in the zone, to stop for a walk around the house or a mini stretch, but ya gotta do it! My tech-genius hubby set me up with a great program called Time Out (this is for Mac only, but I’m sure there are ones for PC as well). It’s a free download and every so many minutes, it gives you a warning that it’s time for a break. The break is short (default is 15 seconds, but you can change that) and they even show you a little countdown to when you can start working again. During those breaks, make sure you roll out your shoulders, do some deep breathing and stretch your spine. You’ll feel much better at the end of the day! http://www.dejal.com/timeout/
3) Don’t lump your writing into one long session! If your goal is 4,000 words for the day, I highly recommend 4 sessions of 1000 words. Do 1000 when you wake up, another 1000 before lunch, etc… I don’t recommend trying to write all 4,000 words at once, or you’ll end up like I did!

4) Be mindful of your positions! At my day job (which was actually in the evening), I kept my keyboard and screen in the same position the operator on the day shift did, which meant that for 15 hours a week for two years, I had my head twisted to the right. Eventually, that culminated into one big “OWWWW!” and a lot of rehabilitation to fix all the muscle and nerve damage I inflicted on myself. Of course, my new chiropractor had a fit and I started rearranging my desk every night before and after I left so that the screen and keyboard were directly in front of me. I can’t emphasize the importance of this enough. Having your screen at the proper height and position is a must! And if you’re a laptop user, I highly recommend getting a separate keyboard and raising the laptop on a stand – the angling down of the head is not all too healthy either! Watch your hands, too! My poor positioning led to tennis elbow, and can also lead to carpel tunnel, so raise those wrists!
5) Relax! It’s easy to get caught up, even obsessed, with writing and finishing a project. Your mind races constantly with the next scene and you’re desperate to get to the keyboard to get it on paper – I know, it becomes an obsession. But that obsession can cause a lot of damage. In addition to what I’ve talked about already, my nutrition suffered greatly and I gained a few pounds, and my obsession turned into high blood pressure (which took months of every day exercise to get down). So, take time out to relax – watch tv, read, sleep, play with your pets, have sex - whatever! If you’re working hard, you deserve to play hard!
Whatever you do, take care of yourself! You only get this one body and you have to live with it the rest of your life. Your manuscript will wait a few minutes or even a half hour while you take a time out J
-Jerrica, Her Grace of Grammar


  1. Thanks for the great tips, Jerrica. It's supposed to be up to 50F here today, so I think that means an afternoon of biking by the river.

  2. Some things I've found to be really important for me, while I write, are having a good, supportive chair, and an ergonomic keyboard.

    When I spent hours a day for weeks on end trying to write my first manuscript, I was having constant back pain and wrist pain. When I bought a new desk chair and a curved keyboard, those things almost instantly disappeared. Comfort while you're working is a necessity!

    Thanks for the reminders about taking breaks, though. That is one of my biggest problems. I get into a groove and can't seem to stop myself. I'll have to see if I can find a program like the one you mentioned for PC, because I'm sure it will help me out in the long run.

  3. Oh, Gail, that sounds lovely. I hate bike riding, due to an unfortunate incident at an impressionable age, but I wish it was nice enough FOR a bike ride. LOL!

    Catherine, great point about comfy chairs and ergonomic keyboards. If one can't afford those things, there are always pillows that provide lumbar support and special wrist cushions to put in front of your keyboard. Thanks for that reminder!

    Let me know if you find a program for PC - I'd love to know so I can recommend it!

  4. Okay, I just did some research on programs for PC. I found one called Workrave that is freeware, and it had decent reviews, so I installed it and am trying it out. So far, it seems pretty customizable, so that you can put in your own settings for how often to take breaks, how long they should be, etc. I'll let you know if I like it after I've used it for a while.

  5. Great advice, Jerrica! I work at home, both writing and typing manuscripts for other writers, so spend a lot of time at my desk in my dining room at the keyboard.

    But I do place my workout high on my priority list, so much so that I feel terrible when I miss a workout and a bit guilty as well. I also space out my work and take frequent breaks to avoid fatique.

  6. Cool, Catherine! Thanks for coming back to share :) Keep us posted on how you like it!

    Susan, good for you! I love to hear about writers who make their health a priority! Thanks for stopping by! :)

  7. Jerrica -

    I just need you to come down to North Carolina and get me all set up. :)

  8. Good post! I downloaded the time out program as I have a Mac also. When I figure out how to work with it, it will be quite handy.

  9. Lydia, I'm happy to come on site. I'll look for my plane ticket in the mail ;)

    Carole, that's great! I hope you like it!

  10. Jerrica,

    I love this post. Very timely. I have had issues for years with headaches and neck strain, and they have gotten worse since I started writing. I appreciate all of the tips. Not sure why I never thought of a seperate key board for my laptop. That would help a lot, so I'm going to do that. I definitely need a new chair. The one I have doesn't cut it. And I plan to download the break program. I get busy and have no idea how much time as passed. Hmm, I guess the only things I'm doing good for myself are exercising, eating right and taking time out to sit in our hot tub with the family every day. I need to step up my game. :)

  11. Samantha, you're more than halfway there! You've got steps 1 and 5 down :) The separate keyboard will make a world of difference. And the chair too. I hope those things help your headaches to lessen!

    Thanks for stopping by!

  12. Breaks aren't a problem for me. When I am at a pause point, thinking bout how I am going to move to the next scene, or playing out dialogue in my head before I type it I usually get up and walk around. In the summer it is the best because I am in my backyard and sometimes I garden my way through and go back to typing. On the other hand, typing at my patio table is not the most comfortable, but I hate going inside on beautiful days. In the winter, I need to make a point of making time to excercise

  13. Ah, that sounds lovely, Amy! Gardening through your ms! I love it!

  14. Great advice! I love Calgon moments! Now guess the highest cause of ulner defects (sort of the opposite of carpel tunnel) in modern society.... The culprit is the cell phone texting.

  15. Great post, Jerrica. I have to exercise every day to burn off stress and when I miss my day at the gym I feel it everywhere.