Suffering from writer’s cramp isn’t much fun, speaking from experience. So, experiencing a writer’s cramp seems inevitable, but it doesn’t have to be.
Writer’s cramp is a form of focal dystonia. It’s also known as scrivener’s palsy, and in extreme cases can impact the nervous system, sensorimotor cortex, and basal ganglia in the brain. It impacts the fingers, hands, and often the forearm. It’s often known as musician’s dystonia or musician’s cramp.
Repetitive hand movements – like typing or playing a musical instrument – are suspected to be a trigger for this form of dystonia. This dystonia of the hand results in involuntary muscle contractions because the brain begins sending the wrong signals to your muscles. Years ago, I spent over forty hours a week sitting down, but here’s the problem:
Sitting is the new smoking. A few years ago, my foot went numb for hours at a time, and I experienced enough knee pain to find sitting for more than an hour unpleasant. I procrastinated for months before going to a physical therapist.
After a short examination, he diagnosed me with sciatica. My physical therapist explained this was because I spend so much time sitting down.
Before that, my right hand ached so much from RSI (an ailment common to many office workers) that I found it difficult to type or use a mouse for an extended period.
Writing when you’re suffering from focal hand dystonia isn’t fun, and it’s not very conducive to a creative or productive writer. If you experience any kind of pain while working, you can try these strategies. They work for bloggers, novelists, freelance writers, and anyone who spends time writing about the human experience!
- 1. Dictate Your First Draft
- 2. Strength Train and Stretch
- 3. Meditate
- 4. Invest In Ergonomic Writing Supplies
- 5. Take Writing Breaks
- 6. Write In Short Bursts
- 7. Learn to Type
- 8. Invest In a Sit Stand Desk
- 9. Write In Different Locations
- 10. Adjust Your Writing Station
- 11. Manage Your Pain
- 12. Speak to A Medical Expert
- 13. Use Your Computer For Writing Only
- Writer’s Cramp: The Final Word
- Writing In Pain FAQs
1. Dictate Your First Draft
Writing a first draft is hard and time-consuming. If you’re writing a novel or a book, that often means writing thousands of words for hours over the course of a few months. But, you don’t need to bring on writer’s cramp churning it out.
Recently, I’ve experimented with using the dictation app Rev. Using this app, I can dictate first drafts into my phone and then send them to a transcriber for a dollar a minute. This allows me to give my affected hand a rest. Alternatively, you could use the dictation app on your computer (Windows and OS X include them).
These types of apps enable writers to produce more words each day without relying on their typing skills. That’s good for your hands and fingers. Read my dictation tips
2. Strength Train and Stretch
Writing is a mental activity, but it’s essential that you look after your body too. My physical therapist gave me a number of stretches and exercises to perform each morning and evening. I use a foam roller and even a massage gun when sciatica and other writing-related ailments flare-up!
These have all but eliminated my sciatica. I also run regularly, which has increased my stamina for sitting in one place. Thankfully, I didn’t have chronic pain which would have required a different treatment. I also keep a stress ball near my desk which is good for strengthening my hands when dictating.
Meditation won’t solve your focal dystonia or movement disorders directly, but it will help you become more aware of the times you need to take a break. Meditation can also help writers become more accepting of emotional pain.
Writing is a solitary experience, and many writers find the process lonely. If you’re new to creative work, managing your emotional reactions is a key skill to cultivate, particularly if you receive a negative review or comment from a reader.
If you want to learn how to meditate, I recommend using the app Headspace and reading the book Mindfulness in Plain English by Henenpola Gunaratana.
As an added bonus: there’s a proven scientific link between meditation and creativity, which means you will become a better writer through meditation.
4. Invest In Ergonomic Writing Supplies
Often writer’s cramp boils down to typing with a cheap keyboard or mouse. These budget-friendly devices aren’t ideal for producing words at scale. Professionals invest in good tools and so should writers.
It’s easy enough to solve RSI in your right or left arm with a good mouse or keyboard. I overcame RSI by buying the Logitech M510 wireless mouse on Amazon. I also use wrist support for my keyboard and mouse.
I type with a Logitech MX keyboard. It enables me to improve my muscle memory and reduce typos. I prefer it to the Apple keyboard, which although nice to look at, is painful to type with for hours. Previously, I sued a mechanical keyboard and I also found it was helpful for avoiding RSI. It was fun, if noisy, to type with too.
You don’t need all of these devices to overcome RSI or writer’s cramp, but examining the set-up in your writing environment could help you solve physical problems connected to sitting down.
Read my guide to writing tools
5. Take Writing Breaks
I use the Pomodoro Technique to time how long I write and to encourage more frequent writing sessions. Essentially, I write in bursts of 30 minutes and then take a short break. After four 30 minute sessions, I take a longer break.
If you write like this, these breaks are good for your back, your hands, and your mind. You can use your breaks to have something to eat, make a phone call, or stretch. The point is to stand up and get away from your desk, but do make a point to get back to it when you’re done.
6. Write In Short Bursts
If you find it difficult to write for extended periods, don’t do it! Writing for a short amount of time every day will help you make small but determined progress towards your writing goal.
You don’t need to sit at your desk for eight hours every day to finish that book. It’s not worth developing movement disorders pushing yourself too hard either. The Irish writer John McGahern wrote in the early mornings and in the evenings after spending the day attending to his farm in Leitrim. Getting to the end is more important than writing faster.
Write 500 words a day for five or six days a week, and you’ll produce 2500-3000 words. Do that for a month and you’ll have 7500-10,000 words. (I’m assuming you’ll exceed this target some days).
Write like this for four to six months and you’ll have the first draft of a book. Good writing still happens if you turn up regularly for short periods rather than for hours at a time.
7. Learn to Type
One way to avoid and ease writer’s cramp is to use proper technique. If you’re doing a task that requires repetitive motor tasks – like typing or playing piano, it’s important to move your muscles purposely and carefully so you’re not putting them in an unnatural position. Having abnormal postures while working can contribute to task-specific dystonia too.
If you’re reaching across your keyboard in a funny way, it could end up straining some of the muscle groups in your hands. Make sure you watch your posture by sitting up straight and positioning your elbows at a right angle. Typing using the Home Row method seems the most natural technique as your left-hand hoovers around the ASDF keys and your right by JKL.
If you’re still typing using one or two fingers, read my guide to the best typing software.
8. Invest In a Sit Stand Desk
Several years ago, I bought a sit-stand desk for my home office. I usually write in the morning for several hours while standing at it.
In the afternoon, I sit down and edit. This alternation means I’m never in a single position for too long. Plus, standing is usually healthier than sitting. I also bought a special padded matt designed for these types desks, which is more comfortable to stand on for hours.
Read my guide to the best writing desks
9. Write In Different Locations
Not everyone can afford to set up a single place in their house, home or apartment for ergonomic writing. If that’s you, alternate where you write each day. You could write for a few hours at a local coffee shop or library. Bonus points if you get in a walk to and from this location.
10. Adjust Your Writing Station
If you’re writing at a kitchen table hunched over a small laptop, that’s bound to lead to problems like writer’s cramp.
If possible, set up your writing station so you’re sitting upright and staring horizontally at your screen and not downwards. A laptop stand costs about $50 and it’s ideal for propping your computer up at an ergonomic angle. However, you’ll need to use an external keyboard too.
11. Manage Your Pain
Depending on the impairment or physical abnormalities in question, your pain tolerance may vary. I was able to manage sciatica and write. I still struggle to write when I have a migraine.
I find sciatica is manageable with the help of painkillers and a foam roller, available on Amazon. However, with a migraine, I can’t concentrate on the screen. When that happens, I go for a nap and consider dictating my first draft while out for a walk, later on.
12. Speak to A Medical Expert
If you’re experiencing any type of physical pain or symptoms of dystonic conditions regularly, ask a medical expert for advice and treatment options. My physical therapist provided me with an assessment and a series of exercises.
I found paying a professional more beneficial than diagnosing myself by reading articles online then and treating myself by watching YouTube videos.
There are times when it’s worth getting the opinion of an expert, like a broken bone! If you need outside help to overcome physical pain while writing, get it. You might need to see a neurologist or occupational therapist to help your writer’s cramp. Others opt for treatment with botulinum toxin (botox) injections into the affected area or take anticholinergics.
Our guide on the best mouse for carpal tunnel syndrome might also be helpful.
13. Use Your Computer For Writing Only
If you’re under a deadline and you can’t quite get rid of writer’s cramp, at least reduce the number of hours you’ll spend working at a computer. That means culling LinkedIn and other social media platforms from your day.
Stopping for a quick email check isn’t a good idea either. Avoid email and the news. Bookmark those websites you want to read and come back to them later on when you feel better. Focus on a day’s good writing and nothing else. Then, stop working as soon as you can.
Read my guide to productive writing tips
Writer’s Cramp: The Final Word
Sometimes, writer’s cramp results in procrastination. When that happens, I like picking up books on the craft of writing by fellow writers like Stephen Pressfield. In his book Turning Pro Art, he playfully suggests:
The amateur believes that she must have all her ducks in a row before she can launch her start-up or compose her symphony or design her iPhone app. The professional knows better. . . Athletes play hurt. Warriors fight scared. The professional takes two aspirin and keeps on truckin’.
Writing is sometimes painful. I’m talking about the deep introspective writing that real writers put themselves through and not the extreme pain of a broken bone!
Depending on where you stand on the pain scale, perhaps you can work elements of it into your article or story? Readers love hearing about the human experience, and pain is part of it.
If, for example, you’re writing about a new character or an action science, perhaps you could give him or her an ailment that corresponds to what you’re experiencing. Your character’s pain may make them more relatable!
Speaking from personal experience, writing should almost never be physically painful over the long-term. It’s not good practice to write when you’re in pain and there’s no sense in suffering through your practice or making your health worse.
You can use the tips in this post to help you overcome the physical challenges that are preventing you from writing. But, if you’re experiencing pain that won’t shift, speak to a doctor.
Like this post? Check out our guide to writing in pain.
Writing In Pain FAQs
How Do I Stop Writer’s Cramp?
If you’re experiencing physical pain, like writer’s cramp, RSI or carpal tunnel syndrome, speak to a doctor or physical therapist. It’s also a good idea to invest in ergonomic office equipment. If your writing hurts because of emotional pain, that’s a good sign. It means you’re not holding back. Keep going.
Is Writing Too Much Bad For You?
The author Danielle Steel said she wants to die face down on her keyboard. That’s an extreme example. Writing too much is only bad for you if it affects your personal life dramatically or if you have a bad case of RSI. If you’re starting to experience writer’s cramp, change your equipment or location. And take a short break. Overuse of your hands will only exacerbate the issue.
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