RSI and when your books come back to haunt you - by Roz Morris

It's final revision time on my latest novel, Life Form 3. I've been living at the computer, desperate to spend every moment with it. And yesterday morning I woke up unable to move my right arm.

To be truthful, I could move it, but it hurt so much I preferred not to. Reaching for my glasses left me a gasping wreck. Keeping still wasn't much better. I’d felt it nagging the previous day, but never thought it could turn into this.

The repetitive strain injury was back.

In a way this seems like divine retribution. In my first novel My Memories of a Future Life, I inflicted a cruel case of RSI on a concert pianist. I imagine some deity that sits on the interface between art and life has thought it would be very fine to dump the same fate on me - and right when I need my fingers most.

In my defence, I haven’t used the RSI device glibly. Its details didn’t come from comfy googling, they were earned.

My RSI journey began when I became a sub-editor in the 1990s, when desktop publishing loused up a lot of limbs and livelihoods. I’ve battled this keyboarder’s curse ever since.
In some ways, I was kind to Carol, my concert pianist character. Although I gave her my gruesome medical tests, I spared her the acupuncture.

Wait, are you thinking acupuncture is benign? Perhaps like being stroked by a healing Chinese butterfly? No. When they needled my painful nerves, they hurt even more. (The therapist was perplexed, though, and probably suspected I was a wuss.) I also spared Carol the buzz needles - acupuncture jollied along by voltage from a car battery. Meanwhile my journalist colleagues told (tall?) tales of being put on racks to pull their necks straight. But buzz needles trumped traction, hands down.

After a year of this I said stop. The company paid for ergonomic chairs and such, and I think these have kept me typing over the years. This is what I'd pass on to a fellow sufferer.
  • Posture and straightness are important - I got a kneeling chair, because it makes you sit upright as though poised on a horse.
  • I learned to touch type, fluttering across the keys instead of stabbing them in my own peculiar pattern.
  • Some RSI is caused by wasted muscles pressing on nerves, and I found relief by lifting enormous weights in the gym. After a bad bout two years ago I got a split ergonomic keyboard and joystick mouse.
  • Screen breaks are sensible, if I remember them. I’m not always sensible.
  • It helps to put the strain on different muscle groups. If my neck starts to rebel, I jack the monitor up to a different height.

Some people use dictation software. As a sub-editor, that was never an option for me. As a writer, it might do for drafting, but the vast majority of my work is done in the edits. Like a person kneading bread, I think through my fingers. I can’t imagine editing hands free.

I also can’t imagine how people write lolling at their laptops in bed. But sometimes all the ergonomic goodness in the world doesn’t help me, so I go to the bad side. I get my notebook computer, put it on my knee and hunch over it. A few days like that gives enough respite for the tender muscles to recover. Or it has so far.

So these are the ways I can carry on. But a musician, like Carol in my novel, has no other way. It's piano or nothing, and the pain of that is worse than anything physical.

We novelists have a cruel side. Ruthless enough to create exquisite tortures - and sensitive enough to know what they are doing. When I was writing that novel I would wake at night, telling myself these questions were not to be treated lightly, asking how I would feel if I had to face them. I must be earning more bad karma for what I’m doing in Life Form 3.

I soldier on, bludgeoning the RSI when I have to. I hope I never have to be really brave, the way I force my characters to be.

Thanks for the pics Lizspikol
and Marc Falardeau

Roz Morris is a bestselling ghostwriter and book doctor. Her novel, My Memories of a Future Life, is pick of the month on can listen to an audio of the first 4 chapters of the novel here.
She is also the author of a writing book: Nail Your Novel - Why Writers Abandon Books and How You Can Draft, Fix and Finish With Confidence.
She blogs at and has a double life on Twitter; for writing advice follow her as @dirtywhitecandy, for more normal chit-chat try her on @ByRozMorris.


CallyPhillips said…
ouch. Bad news about the RSI but good news about a forthcoming novel!

And I would encourage every and any writer out there YOU MUST LEARN TO TOUCH TYPE. I have no idea how anyone can write without this skill. I learned in a 2 week course the summer I left school aged 17 'shut in a room with keyboards with no letters on an a screen which ran at speeds in front of you' it was 2 weeks of hell but it has been the best money ever spent on my career! You of course all suffer that I can type at lightening speed, means I can write much more, much faster.... this took no time at all!
Ho ho, hello Cally! Touch typing definitely made a big difference to me - although I rather mourned my older, more individual fingering!
Susan Price said…
Sympathy for the RSI, Roz - I've had it too and know how painful it is. I couldn't pick up a magazine or turn a key without yelping!
But, like Cally, I want that next novel!
Karen said…
Touch typing is good - I learnt at 18 but not the be all, I have two damaged shoulders from a fall plus a history of frozen shoulder and RSI. Posture, frequent breaks and ergonomic adaptations are essential. A chair/seat that holds you in the correct position is an absolute must. I can't use the bed for typing at all, my arms freeze if I do. I need to have the screen raised, preferably to eye level to keep that posture. I have yet to purchase a split keyboard, that is my next spend but have invested in a mouse that keeps my shoulders turned back rather than hunched. I also have dictation software, and a 'magic' pen that records my handwriting and speech and when used with other software can change them into type. Like you, dictation doesn't come easy, words come out of my fingers and I can't use it for editing at all. I do keep persevering with it. I don't want to lose the words because I can't type.

I hope your RSI improves soon.
Anonymous said…
I failed to learn to touch type until I changed to the Dvorak Keyboard. It's a different keyboard layout designed to prevent difficult stretches and it's much easier to use. I was touch typing really fast within a fortnight. It's built into all Windows PCs - you just change the keyboard setting.

I also find mouse clicking bad for my RSI so I use a touchscreen mouse (from Cirque) and a piece of software called Mousetool that makes the mouse click automatically everytime it stops. I turn it off for Internet banking and other situations where mistakes can be awkward but it saves lots of strain on my fingers at other times.
Dan Holloway said…
much wisdom. I spent years as our work's Display Screen Equipment assessor so I know the theory and spend hours telling other people - but putting it into practice is so tricky when you're shattered and sliding down the back of your chair - the kneeling chairs really are wonderful, though - likewise split keyboards - especially if you do weights or swim and have broad shoulders
Pauline Fisk said…
I've suffered from RSI and been saved by acupuncture so can respond on both fronts. I didn't know about RSI when I first moved from my clunky electric typewriter to my buzzing brand new Amstrad. As I wrote, I'd swing about, swivel round, sway from side to side, almost write on my head as I congratulated myself on escaping heavy pounding and clunky keys.

Well, I got through two books that way. Towards the end of the second one, 'Telling the Sea' I began to realise dimly that I was in pain. You know what it's like. It's hard to notice these things when you're absorbed in writing.

Well, I paid a high price for the swinging about. Yes to everything you, Roz, and everyone else has said about sitting straight, taking breaks and using ergonomical chairs. For six months I couldn't type, and my only respite from pain was swimming - ironic considering I'd just brought all this about by writing a book about a girl who'd tried to drown herself.

And the acupuncture? Didn't use it for RSI, but gave birth to two children with acupuncture for pain relief and compared to my other three births, it was a walk in the park!
madwippitt said…
You poor thing - hope it improves soon ... re: the acupuncture - I'm no expert on it, but one of my dogs used to have it for his arthritis. He found the needling too much, so my vet changed to using cold laser acupuncture which worked brilliantly. Might be with trying as it is very good for pain relief.
Jami Gold said…
Sorry to hear about the RSI, Roz. I get a lot of aches and pains, but nothing that prevents me from typing (yet).

I use a split keyboard, which I won't change from no matter how gunky it gets. :) It really helps with my hands and wrists not needing to move around.

I have to focus on keeping my shoulders back. I get a knife-stabbing pain in my shoulder blade if I do too much mousing, so I've learned lots of keyboard shortcuts.

As for my characters? Yes, I'm extremely cruel to them. I'm hoping fate doesn't have a plan to get back at me for it. Does the excuse "They asked for it" work with imaginary people? :)
I went through something like this recently, Roz, and it was horrible, so you have my complete sympathy. (My last two blog post have been about dealing with nerve's the worst!)
It really is all about 'tricking' your body into thinking you're not going to use that muscle anymore, followed by using it differently went you do again. You sound like you've got that game down.
Here's to speady healing...
Unknown said…
What thoughtful and practical advice from everybody - RSI is the writer's curse. The only other thing which might help, which I don't think anyone else has mentioned, is some software called Wellnomics which reminds you to take regular breaks and even suggests some physical exercising for you to do during them. I also use a WAcom tablet and stylus instead of a mouse and that has made life much easier. Good luck with the book -- no pain, no gain, I guess....
Kathleen Jones said…
commiserations from a fellow sufferer. Rest is the only thing that works for me, coupled with gentle massage, soaking arms in hot water, gentle exercises to keep them flexible, painkillers and patience. I have splints i wear at night when they're bad, but hate them.

Glad the novel is coming along so well though!
Thank you, fellow sufferers, for all your good wishes! Great suggestions about the pens and tablets - that sounds like a lot of creative fun, quite apart from the physical benefits. Tricking the body probably is the name of the game - finding new ways to type while pretending you're actually doing something different. I seem to have got it under control again, to my relief, but now I'm, ahem, armed with more alternatives to keep it at bay.

As to the characters, Jami has hit it on the head. When we're at our most dastardly as writers, we should look at Jami's phrase 'they asked for it' as the missing piece!
Linda Newbery said…
Roz, I can sympathise too. I do touch-type, but it's mouse-work that does for my wrists - both of them, because I alternate hands from day to day. Yoga is great for getting rid of all kinds of aches and pains, and many of the poses work on making the wrists more flexible. Before I did so much yoga, I used to get painful tension in my shoulders from so much screen work, but that is no longer a problem, or if it is, I know how to alleviate it. The wrist problem doesn't quite go away, though.

I have a separate keyboard which rests on my knees, and my screen is at eye-height. Using a keyboard at desk-top height is instantly uncomfortable.

Imagine what it used to be like, hammering away at a manual typewriter ...!
Robin Hawdon said…
Everyone has different ways of finding the right posture. For forty years I have found the only way to write for hours at a time is to recline on a sofa or chaise longue (not 'lounge' as so many Americans call it!) with my FEET UP, and my lap top on a cushion on my lap. I have never had any back or muscle problems with this method.
Robin Hawdon.

Popular posts

A Few Discreet Words About Caesar's Penis--Reb MacRath

Navigating by the Stars

The Splendid Rage of Harlan Ellison - Umberto Tosi

No, The Times Journalists at the Hay Literary Festival, Burglarising is Not What It's All About, says Griselda Heppel

Meddling Lemons by Susan Price