A monthly column from The Writer’s Center

by Whitney Fishburn

If you stand, be sure to deliver

Standing desks have become more common in the last decade. Chief among the arguments used in their favor is health: sitting has been associated with a host of chronic ailments including obesity, heart disease, and type-2 diabetes. Careful, though. Correlation does not imply causation, and studies have so far only shown that people who sit a lot also tend to have poorer health. There is no proof that sitting causes poorer health.

Some researchers also claim that standing desks lead to increased productivity. As a career health sciences reporter, and especially as a freelance writer and author, I also find this dubious.

When my chronic hip pain occasionally flares while sitting, I assent that standing while working sometimes leads to better outcomes for me. It certainly can feel better. However, the most persuasive cause/effect data on my productivity as a writer comes from the observational data more than 30 years of writing professionally has provided me: whether I sit or stand, the biggest risk to my productivity is not my desk chair, but whether or not I show up to work.

There are some impressive patron saints of standing while scribing. Ernest Hemingway, while dressed in over-sized comfy loafers, was known to stand atop a cozy pad made of antelope hide as he pecked out words on his typewriter each morning. Same goes for Virginia Woolf, minus the loafers and animal hide. Add to the list of upright workers the composers Johannes Brahms and Richard Wagner, and philosophers Friedrich Nietzsche and Soren Kierkegaard. Journalist Edward Murrow also wrote while standing, saying he was inspired to do so by his hero, Winston Churchill, who did the same.

When I consider each of these productive luminaries’ respective biographies, however, the common denominator is not their proclivity for standing while working; it was that they used standing as a way to routinize their restlessness so that they could work.

It is hard for me to picture the bull-fighting, womanizing, sport fishing, pugilistic world-traveling Hemingway sitting for any length of time, not even an hour or two. Virginia Woolf is said to have written while standing because she didn’t want to seem less productive than her artist sister who stood at her easel. Isn’t competitiveness a restlessness of sorts?

The composers and philosophers on my list were known perambulators, often referring in their letters and papers to their compulsive need to wander around before they could get their thoughts straight. Kierkegaard even placed standing desks in nearly every room of his house so that as he walked about, should an idea come to him, he could nail it down without even having to bend his knees.

The exception might be Murrow, who apparently suffered from back pain. This makes sense; when my hip hurts, I am more apt to be antsy than still. Meanwhile, Murrow’s idol Churchill was an insomniac, often standing at his desk to write in the wee hours, which seems to me a sort of productivity borne of restlessness.

Standing while working seems to have been these writers and thinkers inventive way to accommodate a quirk, not promote a healthy habit. That’s ingenious! But it’s important to know the difference.

Some days it takes me a while to settle down and focus. I never know why exactly, but I suspect it’s this: writing is hard. On the more difficult days, it’s my regular routine that helps ensure I show up and gut through it.

It might be true some writers think better on their feet but they’re only productive if they’re not running from the work. The real causative factor between Hemingway and his greatness wasn’t his standing desk. It was that he made sure every day, he stood at his desk.


Whitney Fishburn is an award-winning health sciences reporter, writer, and author of several books. She lives in Chevy Chase. whitneyfishburn.com