Writing is a learnt skill, not born. Even Benjamin Franklin both critically acclaimed as well as popular had poor writing skills. He worked on it to improve his writing skills.
Benjamin Franklin was “America’s first great man of letters” in the view of David Hume and many others, so we might naturally wonder how he came to be the extraordinary writer he was. His own account of it in his autobiography is well known – most of us read it in school – but in light of what we now know about how great performers develop, several elements of the story seem more significant and instructive than we may have realized.
As a teenager, Franklin seemed to think he wrote well enough, but then one day his father found an exchange of letters between Ben and a friend, John Collins, arguing a point back and forth. (The argument was whether women should be educated, Collins contending they were naturally unable to learn as much as men, Franklin taking the other side.) Ben’s father first told his son what was good about his letters; they were better than Collins’s in spelling and punctuation. Then he told him and showed him specifically how they were inferior: “in elegance of expression, in method and in perspicuity, of which he convinced me by several instances”, as Franklin recalled. We must note in passing that when it comes to giving people evaluations – offering praise first, then supporting criticisms with examples – old Josiah Franklin could be a model for us all.
Ben responded to his father’s observations in several ways. First, he found examples of prose clearly superior to anything he could produce a bound volume of the ‘Spectator’, the great English periodical written by Joseph Addison and Richard Steele. Any of us might have done something similar. But Franklin then embarked on a remarkable program that few of us would ever have thought of.
It began with his reading a Spectator article and making brief notes on the meaning of each sentence; a few days later he would take up the notes and try to express the meaning of each sentence in his own words. When done, he compared his essay with the original, “discovered some of my faults, and corrected them.”
One of the faults he noticed was his poor vocabulary. What could he do about that? He realized that writing poetry required an extensive “stock of words” because he might need to express any given meaning in many different ways depending on the demands of rhyme or meter. So he would rewrite Spectator essays in verse. Then, after he had forgotten them, he would take his versified essays and rewrite them in prose, again comparing his efforts with the original.
Franklin realized also that a key element of good essay is its organization, so he developed a method to work on that. He would again make short notes on each sentence in an essay, but would write each note on a separate slip of paper. He would then mix up the notes and set them aside for weeks, until he had forgotten the essay. At that point he would try to put the notes in their correct order, attempt to write the essay, and then compare it with the original; again, he “discovered many faults and amended them.”
He did not have a teacher to guide him, but his father was able to identify some specific faults in his writing; Ben in effect created his own teacher by finding examples of prose that were beyond his own abilities. He could scarcely have chosen better; Spectator essays were exactly the type of engaging, topical, innovative writing that Franklin wanted to produce, and they were so good that the volume he studied is still widely available almost three hundred years later. So, Franklin identified the aspects of his performance that needed to be improved and found a way to stretch himself, the essential core of deliberate practice.
Significantly, he did not try to become a better essay writer by sitting down and writing essays. Instead, like a top-ranked athlete or musician, he worked over and over on those specific aspects that needed improvement. First came sentence structure, which he attacked precisely. His method of summarizing and reformulating Spectator sentences one by one was designed ingeniously for that purpose. He repeated this routine at high volume, there being lots of sentences in an essay, and he got immediate feedback by on another element of performance, vocabulary, he again designed a brilliant practice structure, verification, with high volume and immediate feedback. Note also that since he eventually converted his rhyming essays back into prose, he was continuing to work on sentence structure. His approach to a third element, organization, was again extremely clever in allowing him to stretch himself repeatedly on that specific skill while also maintaining the others.
One further feature of Franklin’s approach to better writing is important to note. He pursued it diligently. When people today hear about what he did, they generally marvel not at the brilliance of his practice design but at his ability to carry it through. It seems like so much work. The truth is that in theory anyone could have followed his routine; any one still can, and it would be highly effective. But nobody does it, not even students who are studying writing. And Franklin was not a student. He was then an apprentice in his brother’s printing business a demanding job that left him little free time. He practiced writing before work in the morning, after work at night, and on Sundays.
Source: Talent is overrated by Geoff Colvin.
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