The Worst Mistake a Writer Can Make

The Worst Mistake a Writer Can Make

Author’s note: I wrote this post while picturing James Chartrand leaning forward, squinting into a computer, wondering when all the aches and pains would go away. As always, I swooped in to rescue someone who probably doesn’t want my help.

Editor’s note: At the moment of reading this post, I was actually sitting casually (meaning, slumped, not straight), leaning to the left with my elbow propped on the chair, my shoulders forward, and my head tilted. It doesn’t sound comfy… I swear it was.

There is no off switch to adaptation. Our bodies are pretty smart and they’re always getting better at whatever they’re doing. If we teach our bodies good habits, adaptation rewards us. If we teach our bodies bad habits, adaptation is a punisher.

This is usually bad news for writers, or anyone else who spends a lot of time typing. When was the last time you were with a bunch of writers and thought Wow, everyone has such great posture!

Nope. Our heads are usually too far forward on our necks. Our shoulders slump forward. When we stand at rest, our hands don’t fall naturally to our sides, but they rotate internally to the point where our palms face the wall behind us. Not good. We have gotten better… at getting worse.

So what does this have to do with writing?

I work with people on their strength, body awareness, and writing every single day. It’s anecdotal evidence, but I have every reason to believe that the better we move, the better we think. The better we think, the smarter and more creative we become.

I can’t know what summons your own personal muse, but I can say with 100% certainty that my own creative bursts are slaves to how good my body feels. My clients say the same.

If I have aches and pains, part of my focus is on my aches and pains. Have you ever had a severe toothache, a sore eye, a stuffed nose or a horrendous headache? In those situations, there are very few distractions that actually provide relief.

It’s nearly impossible for me to pretend it isn’t happening when I’m in pain, but the best writing comes when you lose yourself in the work. Immersion is impossible when there’s pain you can’t ignore. Inviting a distraction that you can’t get rid of is the worst mistake you can make.

It’s hard enough to tune out the distractions we can control.

It begins with modern life in a box.

Modern life for the writer or office worker has shrunk to the equivalent of a three-foot box. In that box, you answer the phone, type on your computer, write your masterpiece, and lift food to your mouth. Most people’s jobs don’t even require them to go outside that box.

The longer we ignore it, the less range of motion we eventually have. The box shrinks and then bam! We’re shuffling down the street, old before our time.

So what’s a writer to do?

Relax: this is not the point where I ask you to start walking around with a book on top of your head.

It’s simpler than that. I’ve become very good at getting people out of pain, and I do it with movements. The movements that get people out of pain are often the reverse vectors of the movements (or postures) that put them in pain in the first place.

For that head that sits too far forward:

Every 15 minutes, stand up, relax your body, and slide your head back onto the top of your neck where it’s supposed to be. If it hurts, don’t go too far. Go to the edge of the pain without going into it.

If you take periodic breaks to put your head back where it should be, it eventually reverts to sitting there more often.

How about those slumped shoulders?

Every 15 minutes, stand up, relax your body, and pull your shoulders back to the point where your shoulder blades get close to each other. Don’t move into pain, just move as you’re able. You’ll incrementally undo the damage.

By the way, if you’re a gym rat like me, spend some time in the gym performing some sort of rowing motion.

What about those hands?

Every 15 minutes, stand up, relax your body, and if you can do so without pain, externally rotate your arms so that your palms face forward. The more often you do this, the more natural it becomes.

Remember: pain and discomfort are signals

The signals say one of two things:

  • Stop doing this movement
  • Keep going through the movement so the pain stops

You may not think any of this is relevant right now. If you’re not in pain, I’m thrilled! But more of our lives are being consumed by electronic screens. If 80% of your workday is spent at a computer, you need to spend some time with your limbs in opposite positions.

Either way, whatever you are doing right now will catch up to you. That can be a good thing or a bad thing. Your choice.

If you develop better body awareness and intervene periodically on behalf of your posture, you’ll think better because you feel better. It’s all connected. If you are better, your writing will be better.

Or at least all the pain and angst will be mental, but that’s the stuff of great literature, right?

If you ignore your body and your posture, your writing suffers because you suffer. Maybe not a lot. Maybe not all at once. But eventually. If time is our only limiting factor, we owe it to ourselves to ensure that our bodies and our writing are as good as they can possibly be.

If you have any questions about pain, let me know. If I can get you out of it, I will.

About the author: As always, Josh Hanagarne has been writing about whatever he wants. Lately that has meant strength training and chasing the one-armed pull-up.

Post by Agent X

Agent X is the name many mysterious and intriguing people take on when they guest post at our site. Their mission is to slip in like a thief in the night, leave you with entertaining, valuable and useful content, and slip away again - without getting caught.

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  1. Posture is a very important thing to think about especially if you are a freelancer. Whether you work in an office or not, it’s important to adhere to occupational health and safety standards. Your back will thank you for it!

  2. This is so true and very important advice. I have a clickly joint in the index finger of my right hand. For years and years I’ve been driving my family insane making a clicky noise with that finger. I learned early on I could amplify the sound and totally freak them out if I added the bridge of my nose into the equation. It was awesome!

    Except, I’m 32 and I now have what I suspect is arthritis in that joint. It doesn’t really hurt so much as is stiff but the point (and yes, I do have one!) is that if one teeny tiny finger can be affected like that, I dread to think about posture. (Or more accurately, I’m now very aware of posture.)

    Thanks Josh. Important and great post.


    • El, I would try moving that finger in different patterns, in different tempos, and then find out which speeds and patterns you can move at without any clicking. When you find one, work on it periodically throughout the day and see if you can expand the patterns. Circles, figure 8s, stuff like that. Lines are the most challenging on our tissue, and circles are the easiest, so circles are nearly always the best place to start when resolving an issue.

      I would like to hear it with your nose, though!

  3. This is an AWESOME post – how many other sites out there talk about the other things that affect writing, like posture? NONE. Anyway, this is fabulous and will maybe try and not work in bed today 😉

  4. This is such a basic concept, and yet so many writers, programmers, web designers, and other assorted dedicated computer users forget or don’t know about them. Personally I have ready access to a Soloflex and a rowing machine as well as miles and miles of steep, winding mountain roads and their associated majestic views to entice me away from the keyboard periodically. (Not that I give in to those enticements as often as I should, but they are there)

    Thanks for the reminder!

  5. You’re right! The worst mistake we can make is to not take care of our health.

    Wonder if the writer in the next century will have physically adapted to their environment, just as the giraffe or falcon or…. Nah, probably by then some magic computer will record our thoughts and we can do other things to ruin our posture.

    This weekend in Cincinnati, over 1000 people will celebrate Oktoberfest by doing the Chicken Dance–now that is exercise and fun. Have a great weekend everyone.

  6. Hi Josh,

    Funny you mention posture. During the summers as a kid I went to overnight camp. Every week, the person who sat up the straightest during meals got the coveted Owl Pin. The slumpers – often me – had to go to remedial posture sessions! I’ve never forgotten about posture because of that experience.

    The laptop must be responsible for increasing neck pain, if not cervical disk ruptures. The low screen encourages people to hunch over. I’ve got a laptop but connect it to my monitor so I can sit up straight.

    Maybe I’m hallucinating, but I swear younger folks seem to be hunching over.

    Not sure this is something we will adapt to, unless we want to return to a crouched over position.

    The best antidote is to get outside as much as possible, carrying a notebook!

    Good post … G.

  7. Josh Josh Josh,

    It’s great to see you way over here too. If anyone has yet to see Mr. Hanagarne’s blog I reccommend you high-tail it over there right now.

    I would say that I focus on everything else except posture when writing, so thanks for pointing it out.

    Sometimes when I take breaks between articles or something I like to do pushups.

    It’s a great way to get your daily workout in without having to dedicate specific time for it.

    -Joshua Black
    The Underdog Millionaire

  8. Dear Josh,I so want to be able to do a one arm push up! Pull ups are out of the question though, I just can’t do them!
    All writers should of course be entitled to a neck massage on the National Health Service, but of course you guys don’t have that do you? 🙂

  9. ah ha! What a brilliant slant on an otherwise done topic!
    Love it – actually I don’t because my brother is a masseur and is always on my case about my posture! LOL
    One thing I have always made sure to do is to stare at something in the distance every so often so that my eyes get rested – or something.
    But my question to you is this – if I am in a cubicle where it is hard to find a distant object, if I turn my monitor off and stare at something as far off as possible through the reflection, is that the same as looking far away or not?
    It is a stupid question, and I laugh as I write it – but at the same time, …what do you think? seriously?

    Great post Agent X

    • Josh hanagarne says:

      Ok, sorry I’m late! I’ve been out of town and my parents’ pc had some weird filter that would not bring up mwp.

      I’m no optometrist, but I will tell you two things that I feel benefit my eyes at work.

      20/20/20 every 20 minutes I look at a point 20 feet in the distance,and blink 20 times.

      Also, looking at objects that are near, then far Away’ then trying to bring my eyes into focus as quickly as possible. As far as whether gazing intently into a pc can replicate the effects of staring into the distance, I have no idea but you made me smile!

      • Ooh, I couldn’t do what either of you do. I have perfect vision from far, perfect from near… but my zoom is broken, which means that the time it takes for my eyes to switch from near to far (or vice versa) is slow. And if I have to switch fairly often, I’ll give myself lovely blinding headaches.

        Or wear glasses. *sigh*

  10. Good reminders here on the implications of slouching–you’re not going to want to sit at a desk long term if you feel miserable. Mom & dad were right!

    Personally, I find it helps me keep better posture if I raise my monitor higher than you usually hear recommended. (If I have to look too low, my neck tightens up.) I do think desk/chair/monitor heights are more individual than the OSHA guidelines, etc., would have you believe.

  11. All such really good advice! My posture while working on my computer at home is usually pretty terrible–I sit on the floor (on an old sofa cushion) with my computer in my lap. I used to keep it on a bed-tray and type on it that way, but since I started using the sofa cushion to soften the floor, the bed tray is too low, and trying to balance it over my lap ON the cushion is too much work, so … computer in lap (albeit on one of those cooling pads so it doesn’t burn). Meanwhile, I’m leaning back against the ottoman of my comfy red chair (because sitting in the chair, the arms get in my way while I type–and then my dog can’t come and lay against my leg). Did I say leaning? I meant slumping … and as the night goes on, I slump further and further until I’m practically lying flat. Um … not really ideal, eh?

    On the plus side, my posture when I’m at my day job is at least a little better–at least I’m in a chair! Though, even there, I mostly sit with my legs folded up on the chair, not flat on the floor…

    Okay, you know what? I’m going to stand up and stretch now!

  12. Excellent suggestions… and, if you have time before or after your workday, squeeze in some exercise (even if it’s mild) – you’ll sleep better and your blood will get used to flowing – and as a result, you’ll write better.

    I figured that out when I switched from an active job to full-time freelancing and started tearing through my jeans like a girly Hulk.

  13. My favorite posture issue creates the dreaded cold right arm issue, a sure sign of RSI or carpal tunnel from poor positioning. There’s nothing quite as frightening as feeling your arm slowly get colder and number until it’s tingling nearly up to your shoulder… and realizing that if you don’t do something about it, you could lose your ability to write well.

    Thankfully, I’m a lot less stupid than I use to be and have made changes to how I position my arm so that there’s not even a prickle disturbing me – and at the slightest sign of one I get the hell away from my computer for a while!

    Then there’s standing straight, but that’s a whole ‘nother story.

    • Even with repetitive use discomfort like that, I’ve been able to fix them for many people having them move in the opposite position. Extended wrists vs the flexed wrists we type with. It’s all about keeping proportion in the tissue.

  14. Holy cow, a blog post I can comment on in my professional capacity as a massage therapist! Almost everyone who comes to see me for pain in the neck, back, or shoulders sits at a computer all day. They all suffer from the same thing – lack of any real movement. You’re suggestions are all excellent – the main thing is to take a break every hour and move your shoulders and hands through their full range of motion.

    That ache between your shoulder blades and the rounded shoulders is caused by tight pecs. Doorway stretches is the cure. That headache – it’s suboccipital trigger points caused by staring down at a computer screen or iPhone, Get your laptop off your lap, get the middle of the screen level with your eyes. Sore shoulders? That’s tight trapezius caused by sitting at the computer too long. They are having to hold your arms still while you type. Get up, move your arms around, tilt your head side to side.

    And drink lots of water. Not to flush some imaginary toxins out of your muscles but so that your bladder insists on you taking a break every hour. You can ignore the reminder on the computer screen, but a bladder can’t be ignored forever.

  15. Great article! I have forwarded it to my husband who for years has been sitting in the most awkward looking positions at his computer for hours on end! He is now suffering for it!
    I am a digital artist and spend many hours at my computer as well, and most of that time in a slumped position with my head thrust forward. I have noticed though, that using the mouse to surf the internet causes more pain in my right arm and shoulder joint than painting with my Wacom tablet and Intuos pen. Probably because the movements are not quite as repetitive as using the mouse only, with a small amount of typing. Lately in addition to the dreaded cold arm I have experienced tingling, then numbness in my fingers (which makes it very hard for me to hold onto the pen and paint!) It takes a conscious effort to remind myself to get up and move around before things progress to this state. A sticky note reminding me doesn’t work because I tune it out when I’m focused on painting. The best solution I’ve come up with so far is, to set a timer to alert me to move. It would be good if I had to get up to turn it off though, because then I could not ignore it, or tell myself “yeah, okay I’ll move as soon as I finish this part.” lol!
    Getting up, moving around and doing a crazy range of motion dance to some really upbeat music helps a lot, but can’t imagine myself doing this in an office where people could see me!
    It’s not only writers that make these posture mistakes, artists whether they are digital or traditional suffer from some of the same repetitive motion and bad posture habits. Maybe computers should have a setting that freezes them every 30 minutes for a few minutes to force us to move. Sort of like, “Big Brother is watching you and making sure you move! lol!) How intrusive would that be! On the other hand not being able to work productively because of pain and injury is pretty intrusive and counterproductive too! As someone who suffers from migraines and neck and arm pain from cervical disc herniation, (I have had a cervical disc surgically removed and now there is a narrowing of the opening where the nerve comes out from scar tissue) I can attest to the fact that you do not do your best work when you are in pain. Sometimes the pain is so bad I am unable to work at all! That leads to other problems like loss of income, lowered self esteem and all that sort of stuff, so sitting up straight and remembering to do range of motion exercises at intervals is no laughing matter, or one we can just ignore and put off to another time!

  16. Great post. I had always worried about getting a slumped back. When I was younger, I would always stand up and rarely sat. I don’t know why. I just enjoyed standing, I suppose. When I did sit, people would comment about how straight my back was. However, when I went into high school, I started sitting more and slumping. Every now and then I’d catch myself slumped in the chair and correct myself. But still, the fear remains. Now, I’m constantly sitting. Being a freelance writer, that’s all I ever do. I rarely come out of my office and, when I do, it’s to get something to eat or get another cup of coffee (strangely enough, I’ve managed to keep my figure).

    I hadn’t thought about taking a break every now and then to just stand up and stretch. That’s a very good idea. I need the time to relax from my work anyway, so a 5 minute break every 30 minutes sounds fabulous.

    Thanks for calling our attention to the physical aspects of our lives. So often do we forget about our bodies when we’re cooped up in a room all day writing.


  17. Josh swears he’s been trying to come comment to each of you all day and has been viciously attacked in his efforts by a misbehaving network. Knowing Josh to be a truthful man and an overall good guy who’d climb tangled jungles for me while slaying rampant snakes, I’ll let him off the hook until later. 😉

  18. Incredibly good resources here. I went through lot of your posts they contain immense data embedded for a budding writer like me. Shall come back quite often here.

  19. “the better we move, the better we think”

    Indeed. My wife thinks it’s funny that I walk up and down on the phone, I’ve explained that it’s quite normal, it just helps me talk better. It’s one of the reasons I use speech recognition for most of my writing – much more fun to stride up and down the office dictating to the laptop than sitting hunched over it.

  20. P.S. I meant, of course, “walk up and down while talking on the phone”. I’ll concede that the alternative reading would be a little eccentric.

  21. I straightened up and improved my posture just reading this. OT @El Edwards You should visit your GP and get a referral for a rheumatologist. The quicker arthritis is diagnosed, the quicker it can be managed.

  22. Quite a timely article – thanks! The last chiropractor I went to was astonished at how misaligned my neck is because of my job (as a graphic designer/copywriter). These exercises and stretches will be great to do at my cube. Thanks!

  23. Gosh, well it’s nice to know I am not the only one! Now if I can only figure out how to stop once I feel like I’m on a roll, perhaps I can get rid of these crazy muscle knots in my upper back! Someone did suggest to me sitting on a medicine ball while writing, somehow I feel as if that would do more harm than good at this point!! Great post!

  24. … That position you described at the beginning of this article? I was sitting exactly like that when I read your description of it. Isn’t that strange?


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