How Ben Franklin Learned to Write

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, and North Africa, all during his lifetime.

It was Ben who discovered the Gulf Stream. He also invented swim fins, the odometer, and bifocals. And it was Ben who 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 U.S. 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 things worth the writing,” he once said. Well put. And he did both. Which is why I’m evoking the spirit of Ben Franklin in today’s article, so he can teach us what he learned.

See, before Ben became one of America’s best-known and most 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 his famous autobiography.

Here’s how it works…

1. Role-Model Reading

Before Ben wrote, he read. Often and a lot. He’d pick out a piece of writing he admired and actually wanted to imitate, and study it, front to back. He made notes on the outline and structure of paragraphs. He memorized 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 magazines and books you already like to read. Not reading them the way you once did, flipping the pages. But really reading. Study them for structure. How do they start? What’s common between one article or chapter and the next? And what’s not? Spend at least 30 minutes a day doing this. You’ll be shocked at how much better your writing will become.

2. Flattering 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. By hand. Word for word. You’ll pick up nuances you didn’t notice when you were reading it. And, except for a sore elbow, it’ll give you a painless education.

Of course, Ben 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, he not only studied the original and copied it, 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 upon them. And this happened more and more often as he wrote.

Again, you can do the same thing. Take a few short magazine articles. Study them until you’ve soaked up the core ideas. Then, on a blank sheet of paper, 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. Organizing a Mental Toolbox

The real power of a good solid piece of writing is the part you DON’T see – the underlying outline.

Ben saw that too.

He found, in his early rewrites of others’ works, that his thoughts got jumbled and confused. So he took his paragraphs and copied them on separate 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 one 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 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 you have a tool to help you sort them out and put everything into place.

If you don’t have a program to help you do this, try using a handwritten outline and index cards.

Ben 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 his success. It could be yours too.

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