10 ways to avoid pain when writing a lot by hand

I have done a tremendous amount of writing by hand over the last year as I returned to grad school and then prepared for the PhD written qualifying exams. I was not accustomed to this much writing by hand because I had spent 3 years at a job where I did the vast majority of my work with a computer and keyboard. I came up with a variety of ways to mitigate my hand cramping up and hurting:

1. Have an assortment of pens or pencils with different sizes and grips, and try a different utensil when using one starts to hurt.

2. Expensive pens/pencils are not necessarily better: a lot of times the cheapest mechanical pencils or BIC pens feel the best / hurt the least.

3. Lightweight pencils can be more tiresome at first than larger/heavier pencils, but they tend to be less tiring with extended use.

4. For pencils, go mechanical – the lead is much thinner and doesn’t become dull like traditional pencils (unless you’re an artist and you want that effect).

5. Get a good eraser for pencils – these make a huge difference if you’re erasing a lot. I recommend one of the white Hi-Polymer erasers that easily erase most anything. (thanks to Sam for the name of these type of erasors).

6. Pens can be pain for taking technical notes, but the decreased resistance can be worth it. I found that I preferred pens for taking class notes after a while, as I didn’t have time to erase anyways.

7. If possible write on a single sheet of paper on a hard surface, instead of on top of a pad of paper or other soft surface. This lowers the resistance, and results in much cleaner lines in my opinion. This can be difficult if you’re using a spiral bound notebook, which is why I also recommend writing on loose leaf and collecting all your papers in binders (which also makes later scanning all your written documents much easier as well, and easier to re-organize).

8. If you’re at the point where no matter what pen/pencil you use hurts, and you just need to write something repeatedly to study, try using a chalkboard or whiteboard instead. I never seem to have any pain when using these after doing a lot of writing on a flat surface, I suspect because it’s a very different writing angle and writing utensil.

9. This is “bad form,” but you may need it, especially if you’re in a class: if you write with the pen between your index and middle fingers, where most of the work is done by your index finger, try shifting the pen down one finger to a position where the middle finger does most of the work. This has gotten me through a number of classes and study sessions.

10. Lastly, the most obvious solution: take a break from. Often this doesn’t seem possible, but I’ve found that it’s usually more feasible than it seems initially. Perhaps do some reading without writing for a little while. You might actually find that you didn’t need to write as much as you initially thought.

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Posted in Health, Productivity, Technical Tips

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