Writing In Pain: 12 Top Tips That Really Work

Writing in pain

Writing in pain isn't much fun, speaking from experience. I write during the day in an office, and during my free time, I sit at a desk at home and write again.

I spend over forty hours a week sitting down.

Here’s the problem:

Sitting is the new smoking.

A couple of months 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 in physical pain 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

The first drafts are often the hardest.

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.

Alternatively, you could use the dictation app on your computer (Windows and OS X include them).

2. Respect Any Kind of Pain

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.

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 different treatment.

That brings me to…

3. Meditate 

Meditation won’t solve your physical problems 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. Buy Ergonomic Supplies off Amazon

Confession: I’m obsessed with the offices of famous writers, and I’ve spent a lot (too much) time studying other writers’ workspaces and trying to work like them.

I overcame RSI by buying the Logitech M510 wireless mouse on Amazon and by using a wrist support for my keyboard and mouse. It's easy enough to solve RSI in your right or left arm with a good mouse or keyboard.

I also use the Apple keyboard as this enables me to improve my muscle memory and reduce typos.

You don’t need these devices to overcome RSI, but examining the set up in your writing environment could help you solve physical problems connected to sitting down.

5. Set Time Aside for 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. Harness the Power of Small Wins

If you find it difficult to write for extended periods, writing for a short amount of time and doing this every day will help you make small but determined progress towards your goal.

You don’t need to sit at your desk for eight hours every day to finish that book.

John McGahern on writingThe 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. Good writing happens naturally if you turn up regularly.

7. Write Like Shakespeare

Shakespeare, Tolstoy, and W.B. Yeats all did just fine with pen and paper.

If it pains you to sit at a desk and type at your computer, take a pen and a notebook and go to your local coffee shop or into nature.

If you’re editing, consider printing out your early drafts and read through them standing up. Or you could take your laptop, lie down and write in a new position.

8. Evaluate Where You Sit on The Pain Scale

Depending on the ailment in question, your pain tolerance may vary. I was able to manage sciatica but 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.

9. Talk to a Medical Expert

If you're experiencing any type of physical pain regularly, ask a medical expert for advice. 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.

10. Read Some Writing Advice

Sometimes, writing in pain translates into 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’.

11. Manage Your Time Ruthlessly

If you're under a deadline and you can't quite get rid of physical pain, at least reduce the number of hours you'll spend working.

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.

12. Use Your Pain

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!

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!

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 continuing to have any type of pain that won't shift, speak to a doctor.

Writing In Pain FAQs

How do I stop my writing from hurting?

If you're experiencing physical pain, like RSI, 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 in 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 your hand is cramping, change your equipment or location. And take a short break.

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