Hi there– Nat Bennett here. You're reading Simpler Machines, a weekly-ish newsletter that I still don't have a great description for.

In theory this is a newsletter about software, but in theory this also goes out Monday evenings — oops — so I’m going to try to get out something quick and dirty on a topic I occasionally get asked about — how to write.

I’m a software engineer by trade, but I don’t have any formal training in software. Instead, I have a Bachelor of Arts degree in English, with a writing emphasis. (Vs. literature — basically I took slightly more classes on writing essays and poems, and slightly fewer on reading literature and writing about it.) I’ve also written a lot, read a lot, and read a lot about writing.

Mostly this was training in two things:

  • Raw output, especially on a schedule
  • The ability to take feedback

None of this, I think, will be news if you also write a lot — but if you have a different academic background and want a five minute overview on what you missed — here it is.

  • Write a lot
  • Just Write
  • Read a lot
  • Write every day
  • Walk
  • Have a time and a place for writing
  • Take it less seriously
  • Have an audience

Write a Lot

This is alpha and omega of writing advice, the beginning and the end, and it's that way for a reason– I don’t know anyone who’s good writing who hasn’t also put in serious hours. I don’t know if I believe in talent but I definitely believe that it’s easier for some people to put in raw hours writing than others, and it comes out to about the same thing.

What do I mean by “a lot?” 500 words a day, 5 days a week, for a couple of years is probably a good start — if you’re wondering how to get better at writing and you’re not sure if you’ve written, say, a quarter million words, just go do that first, don’t think about anything else.

In general, “500 words a day” should be significant but basically achievable for most people consistently. 2000 words a day is a lot for most writers. 5000-10000 or more is possible for some people under some conditions.

You’ll occasionally read about weirdos like James Joyce who would write like, 7 words a day, but if you're James Joyce, you'll know. The rest of us have to write a lot.

Just Write

“What should I write that half million words about?” It literally does not matter.

I talk to a lot of people who have a problem like this:

You have something you want to say. You don’t know exactly how to say it. You sit down and start writing and— it’s not quite right. You go back. You rewrite. You try again. You get frustrated, because it’s not coming out the way you think you mean — but you don’t know exactly what you mean, because you haven’t written it yet.

You don’t end up writing — not anything you could show someone, anyway.

If that sounds like you I have a prescription, and that prescription is: Freewriting.

Sit down with paper and pen, start writing, don’t stop. Don’t have anything to say?

Write “I have nothing to say.”

There’s lots of reasons that this works but I personally believe that writing is a mechanical skill as much as it is a mental one. Sometimes you just need to run a bunch of words through your writing engine — practice the whole process, from forming a sentence in your brain down to driving the motion of your fingers — to reduce the friction to a point where you can do “real” writing.

Read a Lot

Again — very, very standard advice. I don’t know why this works but it does. You’re probably looking for an hour or two a day.

It does not need to be anything in particular. Fiction, non-fiction, literature, pulp, whatever. Some people like to read stuff that’s similar to what they’re trying to write, other people like to read stuff that’s really different.

I do think it helps to read books, rather than social media or whatever — this is one of the things that I think is making it harder than it could be right now to write, is that I read a lot but it’s all in these tiny bursts of social media, and, like, articles. I’m not properly entering the word dimension for extended stretches.

Write Every Day

How do you write a lot? You write every day. Because writing is a volume game it’s a lot about maintaining the habit, and it’s hard to maintain habits if you don’t do it every day.

Plus— if you well and truly have the writing bug, you will feel better and think better when you’re writing daily.

This is one reason I’m a big fan of morning pages, from The Artist’s Way. If I write first thing when I up it’s easy to stay in habit. When I’m doing morning pages regularly it’s way easier for me to write any other kind of thing.

Have a time and place for writing

Occasionally people will comment about how admirable it is that I publish regularly on this thing. There’s one secret to that: I have a writing day. In addition to my regular writing practice, there’s a day when I Write The Newsletter.

When I have a writing day, this newsletter comes out regularly. When I don’t— it doesn’t. The last few weeks I’ve missed a couple of weeks because in theory my writing day is Monday but I haven’t well-and-truly committed to that being writing day.

In high school, when I wrote my first novel, I wrote for about an hour every day before I went to bed. Some people swear by “first thing in the morning” but I’ve never been able to make that stick.

It also helps to consistently have a place where you write — something that triggers your Super Saiyan transformation into writing mode. This doesn’t have to be a place where you only write but for me it needs to be separate from where I watch TV and play video games — I do write on the couch sometimes, but usually when I’m planning to write I sit down specifically at my desk. (It would be great if I had separate desks for writing and programming, but— alas.) Sometimes when it’s not coming together I can solve it by getting up and going to a coffee shop.

I also tend to make tea when I write, because “making tea” is a good transition activity — and then I sit down with the tea and I start to write.


You’ve got the time, you’ve got the place — but you’re not going there, and when you do get there, you’re not writing.

The solution? Take a walk.

A lot of writers are also walkers. I get a lot of “writing” done on commutes or errands, talking to myself.

It helps to have a note taking practice. These days I don’t usually have a paper notebook with me— that stays home— but I write a lot in Apple Notes, little bits and pieces. These notes— sometimes— eventually— find their way into Ulysses or Obsidian. Modern transcription software is wonderful for this — Craig Mod, for instance, “writes” into the tape recorder we all carry in our pockets constantly.

Some folks also swear by housework for writing. In general I think it’s a good policy to allow yourself to procrastinate on anything as long as it’s physical when you’re trying to write — keep your brain free.

Take it less seriously

A lot of people who don’t write have fancy notebooks, or spend a lot of time thinking about exactly the right software to use, or how to set it up. (Hi, guilty.)

A lot of people who do write, write on the backs of receipts.

Try writing somewhere dumber and less permanent, with worse tools. You can always type it up later. Index card, composition books, scrap paper, Google Slides — mix it up.

That said — a lot of serious writers have the One Way That They Write. If your typewriter or your fountain pen or your Leuchtterm1917 120 is what works for you, keep at it. The physical trigger helps a lot.

Have an audience

I haven’t really talked about how to write well, because I think that most people who think they need to write better actually just need to write more. But at a certain point you’re going to need to get other people to read your stuff and give you feedback — writer workshop type stuff.

I also find this makes it easier for me to maintain output. There are some people who can write tons with the door closed, shoving pages into a desk drawer, but I’m not really one of them. I run out of energy if I’m not showing things to people pretty regularly. Not everything — showing too much, too early, can also drain the energy out of large projects — but having an audience makes it easier to maintain the schedule, which makes it easier to write more, which makes it easier to write more.

Further Reading

I have mixed feelings about "reading about writing" as a way to get better at it – I fear it's too easy to procrastinate on actually writing – but there are some books I've found useful.

A note about Several Short Sentences: It advises against the "just write a lot and then revise" method of writing, and not without reason, but this is very much "professional driver on a closed course" advice. I'm all for the "write straight through and revise as you go" method – that's how I usually write – but if you don't already know how to "write for volume" don't jump straight to "write one perfect sentence a time."

How to write.

Write a lot. This is alpha and omega of writing advice, the beginning and the end, and it's that way for a reason– I don’t know anyone who’s good writing who hasn’t also put in serious hours.