Writing Tools I Love

There is a lot of repetitive motion in using a computer keyboard. Many of us are at a keyboard almost every waking moment. For us, our hands and wrists are like the hands of rowers, tennis players, archers, shooters, and rock climbers; at risk of injury and in need of good care. It's worth it to pay attention to preventing injury.

Have you ever had these symptoms? Soreness, burning, tingling in the knuckles, fingers, wrists, palms.numbness, weakness or loss of strength. hand pain that wakes you up at night. If you have any of these symptoms, start to change your behavior. Begin with simple things:

  • Put your hands in your lap for a few seconds.

  • Keep your hands and arms warm

  • Increase font display size.

  • Practice light touch typing.

  • Use a footpedal for the command key or frequently used modifiers.

  • Step away from the computer for a few minutes every x minutes.

  • Get computer glasses if needed.

  • Train yourself to stay relaxed while at the computer.

  • If your hands hurt for more than a few days, get help immediately. Search the web, read about your options, inform yourself of the possibility of semi-permanent injury, and start exploring what might work for you.

    The Kinesis Keyboard is One of the Great Writing Machines in the World

    In late 1997, my hands got sore while writing a book proposal. There was a deadline, the publisher was waiting for the proposal, and there was a lot of editing and rewriting to do, and I was working way too many hours. My hands really ached. My knuckles hurt from the impact with the keys, and my little finger was sore from hitting the "delete" key. My palms were sore. So I typed "sore hands" into a search engine and found a wealth of good, informative sites about repetitive motion injuries, how to treat them and prevent them. The keyboard that was recommended again and again, in that way you can tell emerges from true love, is made by Kinesis (www.kinesis-ergo.com). The image below is of a good basic Kinesis keyboard, in white.

    I bought one and fell in love instantly with the feel, and my hands began to heal even as I was writing and editing 8 hours a day. Therefore to me, this may be the best keyboard in the world. It's built to fit the human hand. There is 5 inches of space between the two key areas, so your wrists do not have to bend in order for you to type. The back space and forward delete keys are under your left thumb, and the Enter key and Space key are under your right thumb. Once you try one of these keyboards, you will see how utterly primitive and inefficient the standard keyboard is. The Kinesis I use costs about $300.

    Remember, you LOOK at the monitor or screen, but you TOUCH the keyboard and trackball or mouse. If you use a computer for work and at home, that may be 8+ hours a day you are hands-on a keyboard. Many people I know use the computer for awhile before work, then all day at work, then for awhile after. Don't cheat yourself by using a cheap keyboard that may injure your hands right when you are in the middle of some crucial project.

    Below is my Kinesis setup: the Kinesis Advantage keyboard, on a Kinesis adjustable keyboard tray, with dual Kensington trackballs. This particular model of adjustable tray is just barely wide enough for the trackballs – they are attached to the tray with velcro strips and each one sticks out 3/4 of an inch. The tray goes up, down, out, and it tilts.

    Above the keyboard, on the desk, you can see the lower part of two 22" Mitsubishi Diamond Pro monitors. Down below, on the floor, you can see peeking out some footpedals.

    On the floor are two Kinesis footpedals, each which has 3 pedals. So 6 different commonly-used commands are on the floor in addition to being on the keyboard in the usual places. The footpedals handle the command key, page up, page down, carriage return, and shift. This takes a real load off my hands, and is fun. Until you have used footpedals such as these, you have no idea how delightfully they change the way you interact with your computer. Paging up, paging down, scrolling through screen after screen, hitting command keys, hitting the Enter key, the shift – all this can be done with your feet. Your hands and fingers get a tiny rest, which lets circulation be restored.

    This is what my footpedal setup looks like:

    Here you see two different types of Kinesis footpedals. The one on the right is a USB pedal, and plugs into a USB hub (or the back of the computer). The one on the left plugs into a cable on the back of the Kinesis keyboard. This allows the pedals to function as easily reprogrammable extensions of the keyboard. It takes about 5 seconds to transfer any key to the pedals.

    I experimented with many different key combos, and evolved a set of functions I like so much that it hasn't changed in two years. The far right pedal is PAGE DOWN. The big, middle pedal is ENTER or Carriage Return. The pedal on the left of the right-hand (right foot) is PAGE UP.

    For the unit on the left, the footpedals give me COMMAND, a keyboard toggle, and SHIFT. Of all of these, four are indispensable: COMMAND, PAGE UP, ENTER, PAGE DOWN. Just these take a load off of the fingers and hands – they give you lots of tiny moments, a second here and a second there, when you can lean back, stretch, rest your hands, and still be giving commands to the computer.

    This whole setup cost about $900: $300 for the keyboard, $100 each for the dual trackballs, $200 for the adjustable keyboard tray, and about $100 each for the two footpedals.

    With the Kinesis keyboard, I can type indefinitely and my hands do not hurt. Sometimes when I am on deadline, I need to work very long hours if I want to make last-minute improvements in a manuscript. A day before the Breath Taking manuscript was due, for example, I suddenly got an inspiration on how to radically improve the flow of the material. I worked for 23 hours straight, going over and over the manuscript before sending it in. I started at 2 pm one afternoon and finished at 1 pm the next day. The next day, after sending the manuscript off by Fed Ex, I was sleepy, and my biceps were a little sore from the work of holding my arms up, but my hands weren't sore at all. My hands actually felt good from being used – they felt very well used. And I think there was a little bit of soreness in my right foot from working the Page Up, Page Down keys as I scrolled through the 300 pages of text backwards and forwards, working on the flow and rhythm of the layout.

    More About Turbo Mice

    On each side of the keyboard is a Kensington Turbo Mouse.

    These trackballs are programmed with the cool Mouseworks software to do what I want. Most important to me is to have one button be double-click and one be Close Winndow. Each one has four buttons. It takes about a week to become ambidexterous with mice or trackballs, then you have it for life. I will often start a motion with one hand then continue it with the other. Recently, Kensington came out with a black Turbo Mouse, so I gave my wife the silver ones, and I have black ones.

    One of the things you must do if you haven't already is to train yourself to be ambidextrous with your mouse or trackball. It takes about a week to train your non-dominant hand to be good at using the mouse or trackball – then you have it for life. While you are at it, check out what is available to you of the various mice and trackballs – find out what your hands like.