Benjamin Franklin surely ranks as one of the most amazing self-made American success stories and his Autobiography is one of the first how-to guides ever written. Ben was not only self-made, he was also self-taught: He ignited his Yankee ingenuity to master subjects he had no knowledge of. In Talents Are Overrated: What Really Separates World-Class Performers from Everybody Else, author Geoff Colvin (see Deliberate Practice) describes the fascinating method Ben devised to teach himself to write.*
Ben was one of 17 children. After two years of school, his father sent him to live with his older brother to learn the printing trade. Enterprising and curious, Ben used books to teach himself to master skills he wanted to acquire. He taught himself to swim by reading a book and even built paddles that he strapped to his hands to help him swim faster! As a teenager, he decided he wanted to be more than just a printer, he wanted to be a writer — an excellent writer. Here’s the method he came up with to teach himself:
He found the best models available: He chose a book called The Spectator by Joseph Addison and Richard Steele and read it one article at a time, taking notes on the structure of each sentence. After doing this, he rewrote the sentences in his own words and compared them to those in the book. He’d identify his faults and work to improve until his sentences sounded as fluid as those of the authors he was imitating. He did this over and over again, always striving to make his sentences more graceful and polished.
He improved his vocabulary: After practicing his sentences, Ben knew he needed a better command of words. He realized that poetry used vivid language, so he decided to take the same sentences he was studying and rewrite them as poetry using more descriptive words freely. Then, after progressing with other exercises, he’d come back to his poems, turn them into prose, and compare what he’d written with The Spectator to see how close he came to the original.
He attacked another weak spot—organization: He took apart good sentences in an essay in the book, writing the content onto slips of paper; then he’d mix up the papers and set them aside. After he forgot the original essay, he’d rewrite the sentences and try to put them in order again. He’d then compare what he’d written to the original essay. This reinforced what he was learning about sentence structure and vivid vocabulary.
He started writing: After honing his sentences and style, Ben realized he needed feedback on his writing. So he cooked up the name “Silence Dogood” and slipped letters from her under his brother’s door. Delighted with them, his brother printed them in his paper, often on the front page. He’d also discuss them, which gave Ben all the feedback and praise he needed to keep on writing.
Ben showed true grit — he woke early and went to bed late to execute his improvement plan. Through his ingenious system and hours of diligent work, by age 16, he was a skilled writer — and went on to pen his famous Almanacs and Autobiography. So let’s take a leaf from Ben’s book — and cook up a system to improve our scrivening just as he did. If your dialogue needs work, for example, why not print out passages from writers known for their snappy speeches and recast yours using theirs as models? Or come up with ways to boost your colorful vocabulary? Who knows what might happen as you write on.
* This wonderful tale came to me via: http://www.storiesoffaithandcourage.blogspot.com