How Ben Franklin Learned to WriteOctober 14, 2008
Eight times, Ben Franklin crossed the Atlantic.
France, Spain, England, Ireland, the Netherlands, Germany — he hit them all. And his fame reached even further. His ideas were talked about in Sweden, Russia, China, even North Africa, all during his lifetime.
It was Franklin who discovered the Gulf Stream. He also invented swim fins, the odometer, and bifocals. And it was Franklin who also came up with Daylight Savings Time, as a joke for a Paris newspaper.
(He never realized it would catch on).
But for all his accomplishments, there’s one thread that’s common to all of them. The man could write like a dream.
His writing is what helped pass on his legacy as a founding father. It’s what made him one of the most persuasive diplomats in US history. And it’s one of the main reasons we remember so much of what he did today.
”Either write something worth reading or do something worth writing,” he once said. Well put. And he did both. Which is why I’m evoking the spirit of Ben in today’s article, so he can teach us what he learned.
See, before Ben became one of America’s best known and influential writers, he wasn’t much of a writer at all.
Or at least that’s what his father thought.
At one point, he scolded Ben for what he felt was the low quality of writing in letters written to a friend. The letters, he told Ben, “lacked eloquence.”
So Ben set out to make a change. He invented a precise system for teaching himself to write better, which you can find outlined in Ben’s famous autobiography.
Here’s how it works…
1) Role-Model Reading: Before Ben wrote, he read. Often and a lot. Ben picked out a piece of writing he admired and actually wanted to imitate — The Spectator — and studied it, front to back. He made notes on the outline and structure of paragraphs. He memorized the phrases. He noted the general themes in the piece. That taught him the style used by the authors he admired.
You can do this just by digging into the travel magazines and books you already like to read. Not the way you once did, flipping the pages. But really read. Study them for structure. How do they start? What’s common between one article and the next? And what’s not? Spend at least 30 minutes a day studying travel pieces this way. You’ll be shocked at how much better your writing will become.
2) Flatter By Imitation: This was one of Ben’s favorite tricks. I’m predicting it’s the one you’ll talk about one day when you’re teaching someone else how to write. It’s simple. Just take one of those pieces of writing you admire and copy it. Literally. Word for word. You’ll pick up nuances you never knew were there. And, except for a sore elbow, it’s some of the most painless education you’ll ever undergo.
Of course, Franklin took this exercise even further:
”I took some of the papers, and, making short hints of the sentiment in each sentence, laid them by a few days, and then, without looking at the book, try’d to compleat the papers again.”
That is, not only studied the original and copied its techniques, he actually tried to reproduce its key themes from memory… in his own words.
Where he made mistakes, he’d fix them. But sometimes he found that just by rethinking the original ideas, he found ways to improve on them. And this happened more and more often as he wrote.
Again, you can do the same. Take a few short travel articles, study them until you’ve soaked up the core ideas. Then on a blank sheet, try to write out the same ideas from memory, but in your own words. You’ll be surprised by what you remember. You’ll be even more surprised by the new ideas that pop into your head as you write.
3) Organize Your Mental Toolbox: The real power of a good solid piece of writing is the part you DON’T see — the underlying outline.
Franklin saw that too.
He found, in his early rewrites of others’ works, that his thoughts got jumbled and confusing. So he took his paragraphs and copied them on pieces of paper. Then he reassembled them in an order closer to the original outline.
You can take an outline from an article you like and use that to build a new article, even about a completely unrelated idea. It’s amazing how facts and details come together when you have a structure to hang them on.
I do this all the time.
When I’m researching, my notes come at random. The more I research, the more the framework takes shape. When I understand the idea I’m writing about, I stop to actually sketch out the outline. I actually have a program on my Mac that helps me do this — a feature in the Mac version of Microsoft Office called “Notebook Layout.”
It looks exactly like a school notebook with tabbed pages. I type in my notes as they come. When I’m done, I drag and drop the tabs to reorganize the pieces according to my outline.
Having an outline in advance lets you focus on gathering up ideas and details freely, because you know that later you have a tool to help you sort everything out and to put everything into place.
Plenty of programs do this. Or you try using a handwritten outline and index cards.
Franklin put his writing self-improvement system to good use. In his lifetime, he wrote thousands of articles, letters, and persuasive pitches for his ideas. Some helped sell Franklin stoves. Others helped sell the leaders of Europe on supporting young America. Mastering the printed word was the key to Franklin’s success.
It could be yours too.