Monitors: If You Don’t Stop You’ll Go Blind – Tools for Writing

This is the second installment of “Tools for Writing”. We continue our look at the barriers that exist between our brain and the printed word. In the first article we looked the exit point for our ideas, namely our hands and computer keyboards. In this article we’ll examine the other end of the feedback loop: our eyes and computer monitors. All of the articles in this series will conveniently be collected here as they are released.

Eye in the Monitor

Treat your eyes to a good quality monitor

When we are young, our eyes are often sharper than our brain. As we grow older, this relationship has a tendency to invert. Regardless of your age or the relative sharpness of your brain, you need to be able to see what you are writing without straining, which means investing in good quality computer monitors.

As writers, we tend to spend long hours at the computer, often without breaks. Some of us like to work from our office caves with the lights dimmed, perhaps working by the light of only a single desk lamp and the glow of our monitors. While this may be a great setting for our concentration and creating ambiance and inspiration for your Goth novel, it is definitely not doing your eyeballs any favours. Let it be a dark and stormy night on the pages of your work, not in your office.

Having spent many years in the IT industry and countless hours in front of computers, I have some suggestions based solely on personal observation.

Several factors influence the suitability of a monitor for writing. The best monitors for playing computer game or for professional photography may not be the right choice as an author. Gamers are often focused on refresh rates. I don’t know how fast you type, but I can assure that the refresh rate of your monitor is not a huge concern in programs like Scrivener or Microsoft Word.

Photographers and graphic artists obsess over colour accuracy, again not much of a concern when writing and the technology to give this level of accuracy often comes with a heavy slam on your pocketbook.  With that said, “photo quality” monitors a generally very easy on the eyes.  You can see the difference in both the quality and the price tag if you go to your local big box store and compare one of those sexy Apple displays to the average LCD monitor attached to the PCs.

Resolution, Sharpness and Contrast

As a writer, I’m looking for three things in a monitor: resolution, sharpness and contrast. Resolution is simply the number of pixels on the screen. The more pixels, the more text I can squeeze into more windows. I just cant seem to satisfy my desire to have more information on the screen so I invariably set up multiple monitors to enlarge my virtual desktop to even greater resolution.

Sharpness has to do with how well defined each pixel is. This is somewhat of a subjective measurement and is often difficult to judge when looking at monitors in the big box store. You want each letter to be crisp so that as your eyes grow weary, they are not struggling to differential an I from a lower case L.

The other factor in sharpness is the physical size of each pixel and the distance which you will be viewing the monitor from. Laptops typically have very highly compressed pixels, hence the reason why their displays are significantly more expensive to produce. This does mean however that the shiny new MacBook Pro that you just brought home is going to produce some fairly small text on screen. Your big screen HDTV might have a similar pixel count, but if you examine your TV screen closely, you’ll discover that the pixels are far apart and best viewed from a greater distance. Televisions make for horrible computer monitors.

Contrast is closely related to sharpness in that it influences how crisp the black text is on your white background. Newer LED monitors are almost too bright and need to be toned down when you unpack them, particularly if you are working at night or in an office with dimmed lighting. If you want a bit of extra help without getting overly technical in calibrating your monitor, have a look at the PhotoFriday Calibration Tool.

One obscure and often overlooked factor when shopping for a new monitor is the reflectivity of the monitor display and the bezel. You may be able to position your new glossy monitor such that you do not get any reflection from light sources in the room, but the bezel might beam the afternoon sun straight into your eyes. Bezel issues can usually be masked, so don’t discount an otherwise perfect monitor for that reason alone. I have even resorted to colouring a post-it note with a black marker and then trimming it to fit a spot that is causing problems. I have one monitor that I’m seriously considering repainting the entire face complete bezel in matte black. When you’re selecting and setting up a new monitor, you definitely want to avoid either direct or reflected specular light shining directly in your eyes. When possible use diffuse lighting sources in your office to eliminate this problem entirely.

Monitor Ergonomics and Efficiencies

Ergotron Dual Monitor Arms

You'll have to pry my Ergotron dual monitor arms from the clutches of my dead fingers.

Personally I like my monitors mounted on a swivel arms so I can reposition them easily and maximize the space on my desk. Many of the new monitors do not have VESA mounting holes so you are forced to keep them on their often shaky, plastic stands.  As with keyboards, we want to have our monitors positioned ergonomically – a comfortable reading distance away with the upper third of the monitor at eye level.  Monitor arms let you make these adjustments easily and change them if you grow fatigued in one position or just want to reorganize your desk.

Final Tip – Swallow Your Pride

Assuming that your monitors are properly calibrated and positioned, there is one final step that can ease your eye strain at 2:00 am. This one is often the most difficult. It requires that you swallow a bit of pride and consider bumping up the default font size a wee bit in your favourite writing tools. Personally I struggle with this one somewhat. My eyesight is not what it used to be, but I am still pixel hungry and I want LOTS of screen real estate. My 17″ MacBook Pro is wonderful when I am on the road, working from a hotel desk, airport lounge or attending meetings. When it is on my desk in my office, it gets pushed back farther to allow for keyboards, track pads, notepads and general work clutter.   In my office the text on my near-perfect laptop seems a bit small. Consequently, I tend to do most of my writing on the larger external monitor and save the laptop screen for my research notes.

Whatever setup you decide on, don’t be afraid to make adjustments in font, calibration or monitor position if you feel it’s just not working out. I have found in the past that simply moving a monitor an inch or two can improve the legibility of the text dramatically.

Our objective at the end of the day is to write. Invest in a decent display for your work, set it up properly and you will find it pays for itself over and over on those late nights where you otherwise would have to pack it in because of eye fatigue.

Keyboards and the Spanish Inquisition – Tools for Writing

This is the first installment of “Tools for Writers”.  It begins with a look at the barriers that exist between our brain and the printed word – in this case, the computer keyboard.  As the other articles appear, they will conveniently be collected here.

The Evolution Of Man

The Evolution of Man

I am a big believer in using the correct tool for every job.   I don’t use my pocket knife as a screwdriver.  I don’t use my wedding ring as a fishing lure.  I don’t light a match to check the gas tank in my car.  When I write, my choice of tools is equally important. Whereas some writers are blocked if they don’t have the right pen or if someone swaps their Moleskin for a Blueline, I can’t get by without the right computer keyboard.

The Keyboard and the Spanish Inquisition

Generally, computer keyboards are instruments of torture, whose primary function is to inflict prolonged pain in the wrists of writers.  They were designed by chiropractors and physiotherapists to ensure that the children of these same medical professionals could attend the very best schools.

Not satisfied with securing their children’s education, the physiotherapists put forward a new keyboard design which they called “The Laptop Keyboard”.  This Machiavellian refinement of the original desktop design subtly expanded the ailments of the writer to include the muscles in the shoulders, neck, upper back and most of the spine itself.   Absolutely brilliant!

I have always been a fast typist, so I prefer using a computer over pen and paper to collect information and organize my ideas.  I worked for years on generic desktop keyboards as a programmer and technical writer.  When my wrists started to bother me and I noticed my typing speed was suffering along with my body, I began looking for alternatives.

Keyboard Relief

Both Microsoft and Logitech had introduced what I would describe as marginally ergonomic keyboards which were available as commodity items in the local electronics stores.  These two new designs gave me some relief, but I was burning through the key contacts in under a year.  After going through four various keyboards from MS and Logitech in just over three years, I still had some numbness in one hand and pain in both wrists.  I required a more permanent and complete solution.

Kinesis Advantage Pro ergonomic keyboard

Kinesis Advantage Pro ergonomic keyboard

In doing research, I found a few outrageous ergonomic designs that looked more like Borg implants than keyboards, but eventually came across a device that was both ergonomic and highly functional.  The Kinesis Advantage Pro ergonomic USB keyboard is compatible with both Mac and PC and provides significant relief to sufferers of repetitive strain injuries (RSI).

Knowing that there was going to be an adjustment period while my muscle memory converted to the new keyboard layout, I made another radical change.  I committed to switch from QWERTY to DVORAK layout.   The first day in DVORAK Land was definitely a test of my commitment.  My typing speed dropped from mid 90′s to under 30 w.p.m.  Fortunately I was on vacation and didn’t have any projects approaching deadline.  Adjusting to the ergonomic keys on the Advantage Pro was trivial.   My battle was DVORAK-centric.  Over the next few days, my speed steadily improved.  In less than two weeks I had surpassed my original speed and was consistently achieving over 100 w.p.m.  Best off all, I was RSI symptom-free within two months.

Life was wonderful.  My typing speed had increased.  The pain was gone.  I had a spring in my step and the sky was a deeper shade of blue.  I was unaware that a dark cloud was looming just ahead.   My job was about to radically change such that I would be expected to work on many different computers.  I was to frequently work on site at Fortune 100 companies and would appear to be a complete dunderhead when I took control of the keyboard.  What had escaped me at the time was that my tiny brain and the muscles in my hands and forearms were incapable of maintaining a reasonable typing speed on both DVORAK and QWERTY systems.   After months of trying to ride two horses in the same race, I had to throw in the proverbial towel and abandon DVORAK.

My Kinesis Advantage Pro is not going to win any design awards, unless I perhaps use it to accessorize my Buck Rogers costume next Halloween, but it works as well today as nine years ago when it came out of the box.   Since then it has seen thousands of hours of very heavy use.  It is a joy to work with.  The keys have a definite natural, but subtle click which allow my ears to keep my fingers and brain in step.  The slightly recessed bowls which hold the keys are a natural extension of my hands.  I don’t type  _on_  this keyboard, I slide into it.

If you are using a flat PC or Apple keyboard, especially if you are regularly typing directly on a laptop, you owe it to yourself to investigate alternatives.   Your body and your publisher will thank you.   You can check out the offerings directly from Kinesis or search online for one of the many ergo-friendly resellers carrying Kinesis and competing products.