Writing and the Persistence of Eye Strain

In an average week, I read over 200 pages. During my busiest weeks, that number can easily reach 1,000. Schoolwork, editing jobs, book reviews, and reading for this blog–not to mention reading for fun–can really add up. I shouldn’t complain; reading is, after all, one of my favorite things to do and I love my work and education. Still, there is one huge side effect common to all writers and avid readers, one which can hinder our writing and reading pursuits, if not put a stop to them: eye strain.

We’re all familiar with the headaches, burning eyes, fatigue, and other symptoms which come with eye strain. Whether it’s from reading too much or writing too much, all writers have experienced the phenomenon at least once, no matter how minor the case may seem. Sometimes it can even lead to–or be a symptom of–a larger problem. For some migraineurs, eye strain can go so far as to trigger a migraine attack.

Fortunately, Mayo Clinic claims that eye strain usually doesn’t cause any long-term damage. It’s just irritating as all heck and can bring a grinding halt to our work as we try and alleviate the issue.

Still, writers–as both writers and enthusiastic readers–can suffer much more damage than eye strain. John Milton went blind before he even wrote Paradise Lost. As I type this post, my eyes are starting to hurt and I can hardly concentrate. The digital age has brought on a new slew of sources for eye strain, the most notable ones for readers and writers being e-books and laptops.

Image retrieved from The Eye Solution

What can we do to combat this menace?

Some people need to see an optometrist if the eye strain becomes too severe. In those cases, glasses for reading and/or screen time may be necessary. Most times, however, lifestyle changes are all that you need to prevent and alleviate the irritation. Mayo Clinic has an extensive list of these measures, but I think the following are particularly useful for writers in the modern era:

  1. Blink often. This may sound obvious but it can be pretty easy to forget to blink. Mayo Clinic points out that people tend to blink less when staring at electronic screens, and I can personally vouch for that. How often have you blinked while reading this post? I’m guessing not as much as you would expect. Blinking often will refresh your eyes by producing more tears, which will help keep your eyes moist while staring at a computer, tablet, e-reader, TV, or phone.
  2. Take breaks. Again, obvious but not always the first thing that comes to mind. It’s also not the easiest thing to do. We’re busy and working under deadlines, how can we afford to take breaks? Suffice to say, ten-minute breaks here and there will save a lot more time and preserve the quality of your work better than headaches, blurred vision, and eyes that won’t stay open.

    Image retrieved from Pinterest
  3. Adjust the lights. My dad is particularly fond of this one, although he alternates between it being because the lights hurt his eyes and because he thinks even two fluorescent bulbs heat up a room. He insists on most–often all–lights being off when he’s in a room, day or night. This approach doesn’t help eye strain, either. Trying to see in such little light is just as bad for your eyes as lights that are too bright. You have to adjust the lights depending on your activity and what’s comfortable for your eyes. If you’re in a room with someone whose eyes are as different from yours as my dad’s are from mine, good luck. That’s all I can say.
  4. Adjust your screen. I don’t just mean the back light, although adjusting that according to how your eyes feel can really help. You should also experiment with how the screen is positioned, the angle and amount of external light surrounding it, and even the font size can make a huge difference. On top of that, you need to keep the screen clean in order to keep dust from messing with the contrast and worsening any glare issues.

All in all, the best thing anyone can do for eye strain is to not focus on any one surface too long, especially if that surface is an electronic screen. It’s easier said than done, especially for writers. We eat, breathe, and sleep the written word (and often the moving pictures, too), and most of our days are spent staring at screens, books, and papers. Nevertheless, unless you want to get a patient relative or friend to transcribe your work like Milton did, you should preserve your sight now for your future writing endeavors.

Do you suffer from eye strain frequently? How do you deal with it? What was your worst experience with eye strain to date? Leave your thoughts and stories in the comments below!


Designed by Stephanie Hoogstad circa 2011

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