How to protect your writing eyes

Reading time: Just over 4 minutes

People often ask me about the best software for writing. Instead, I tell them, they should worry about the hardware — their eyes!

After spending 10 days in southern California some years ago, I noticed my eyes had become uncomfortably dry and itchy. And, of course, the plane trip home — which was kind of like a dry bath in chilly, dehumidified air — made my discomfort even worse.

Because my eyes remained dry for months after the trip, I eventually went to see my optometrist. He prescribed eye-drops but instructed me to get the single-dose variety, which contain just enough fluid to moisturize both eyes, once (you break open a very small plastic ampule to get liquid for one treatment.) 

These single-dose varieties, he told me, don’t require the same number of chemicals needed by entire bottles of eye drops, which are designed to guard against contamination over time. (If the tip of the bottle touches your face or eye, you are contaminating it.) The optometrist put me in that category of people who get irritated eyes simply from the chemical in the treatment to fix eye irritation. Ironic, no?

I’m okay now, but all I can say is thank goodness I’ve never had to deal with blepharitis.

Blepharitis is an inflammation of the oil glands in your eyelids. Experts say it’s the result of:

  1. A blocked oil gland in the eyelid
  2. An excess growth of bacteria normally found in the skin
  3. A hormone imbalance
  4. Allergies
  5. Overuse, especially related to not blinking enough

If you have any of the symptoms of blepharitis — especially, a burning feeling, sensitivity to light, red or swollen eyes or eyelids , dry eyes or crusty eyelashes — be sure to see your doctor or optometrist. Blepharitis left untreated can scar or injure you eyes for life. 

I have no medical training so I can’t advise you on the first four causes of the disease (see your doctor!) But I can comment on the fifth one — overuse and failure to blink. Recent surveys have shown that we’re all over-using our screens — as much as seven hours a day. And I’m just guessing here, but I bet writers use their screens — and their eyes — more than most people.

Although blepharitis can be treated, there is no cure for it, so start by taking steps to prevent it. Here’s what to do:

  • Take frequent breaks from your screen. After you’ve been writing for several hours, don’t take a “break” by spending 45 minutes on Facebook or email! Instead, go for a walk, do a few stretches or sit down with a cup of tea or coffee.
  • Do regular eye exercises. These included palming, blinking, eye rolling, focusing and glancing. See instructions here. If you have time for only one exercise, though, make it blinking. And if you think you already know how, it’s more complicated than you think. Watch this 2-minute video. I’m sure you’ll find it surprising.
  • Follow the 20-20-20 rule. Every 20 minutes, look up from your book or computer and spend 20 seconds focusing on something that is at least 20 feet away from you. I know  this might sound annoying but consider how this micro-break will be so much less intrusive than suffering from eye-strain or blepharitis.
  • Adjust your computer display settings. First check brightness, ensuring it’s the equivalent to the brightness around you. Hint: If your screen looks like a light source, it’s too bright; if it seems dull and grey, it’s too dark. In certain situations (a shiny reflective office), glare-reduction filters can help. Second, check your text size and contrast. The rule of thumb is that text should be three times the smallest size you can read from a normal viewing position (20 to 30 inches from your monitor.) Finally, check the colour temperature of your screen. The best way to do this is to use an app called F.lux. This product — which is fr.ee — will use your computer location to set your screen brightness for relatively cool during the day and relatively warm during the evening. F.lux is available for Mac, Windows, Linux, iOS and some Androids. 
  • Take frequent breaks. I never write for more than 25 minutes (a pomo!) without taking a break. If you’re the type of person who works in hour-long or more stretches at once, set a timer so you take several breaks during your writing binges. (And here’s why you might want to reconsider that way of writing.)
  • If your eyes become dry or sore, relieve them with warm compresses. Wet a facecloth with warm water and wring it mostly dry. Place it on your eyes for at least one minute.
  • If you wear makeup, be sure to remove it before bed. Also, don’t use eyeliner behind the eyelashes — that’s just asking for trouble. And if you already have an infection or blepharitis, stop wearing makeup for a few days (and throw out the eye-related products you’ve been using until now. They will be infected!) I wear makeup rarely but I keep a date affixed to my mascara. When it’s six months old, I throw it out as a matter of safety. (Some experts suggest purging every three months.)

And if you do develop blepharitis, be sure to have it treated medically. 

My thanks to reader, colleague and mentor to sensitive people Emily Agnew for suggesting this post. She’s dealing with blepharitis now, largely a result of her years as a professional oboist, where she had to stare unblinking at sheet music for several hours at a stretch. Her current eye-cleaning routine takes her 23 minutes, twice a day. (Isn’t that an excellent reason to avoid blepharitis?)

If you end up having to treat the disorder, here’s her advice: Don’t try washing your eyes with soap or baby shampoo, as some websites recommend. It hurts! Instead, she recommends Tranquil Eyes TeaTree Eyelid and Facial Cleanser. Then, to combat the dryness of the skin around the eyes, she suggests rubbing a drop of sweet almond oil above and below. 

Incidentally, I have at least one regular reader who is blind and listens to this post using voice activation software. I salute him for continuing to write. If you have been lucky enough to maintain your vision, do whatever you can to protect your eyes. 

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If you want to write your own book (or thesis or dissertation), consider applying to my Get It Done program. Deadline for applying to start Feb. 1 is this Thursday, Jan. 23/20.  To apply, go here, scrolling to the very end of the page. Click on the bright green “click here to apply now” button.

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My video podcast last week addressed how to switch from journaling to other types of writingOr, see the transcriptand consider subscribing to my YouTube channel. If you have a question about writing you’d like me to address, be sure to send it to me by email, Twitter or Skype and I’ll try to answer it in the podcast.

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How do you protect your writing eyes? We can all learn from each other so, please, share your thoughts with my readers and me in the “comments” section below.  Anyone who comments on today’s post (or any others) by Jan. 31/20 will be put in a draw for a copy of my first book, 8 1/2 Steps to Writing Faster, Better. Please, scroll down to the comments, directly underneath the “related posts” links, below. Note that you don’t have to join Disqus to post. See here to learn how to post as a guest. (It’s easy!)