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How Benjamin Franklin Learned to Write

Benjamin Franklin is praised as an autodidact and polymath – a Renaissance man. There is a lot we could learn from his spirit – his will to continue learning and trying new things, and his independent nature – not needing to be taught, but willing to figure things out on  his own, with the tools he had on hand.

Benjamin Franklin didn’t get the 13 years of compulsory education that we’re used to these days. He started grammar-school at age eight, and he spent just two years in schools. Then he was back home with his father, learning to be a tallow-chandler and soap-boiler.

So Ben’s formal instruction in writing was short lived. He learned a portion of his skills through informal means, and some through an apprenticeship. But when he felt compelled to really polish his style, he developed a method that anyone can imitate with just a pen, some paper and a library card. Here’s Ben’s story of learning the art verbal expression.

franklin pressOn-the-Job Training

Ben did not like making candles with his father. What he really longed for was the sea. His father, not able to bear the idea, took Ben along with him on walks past workers in various trades to see what he liked. After observing Ben’s “bookish inclinations,” he sent him – at the age of 12 – to apprentice his brother as a printer. From this he developed  his skills in spelling and punctuation.

Reading

It’s common advice to read in order to improve your writing, and Ben’s life provides anecdotal evidence for the efficacy of that method. In his autobiography, Ben claims he must have learned to read early because he can’t remember not knowing how, and he professes a love of books.

“From a child I was fond of reading, and all the little money that ever came into my hands was ever laid out in books.”

franklinbooks1 He read books by John Bunyan, Samuel Richardson and Defoe. When he worked as a printer, he met some men who loaned him their books. From some of these he grew to like poetry, and he tried his hand at it a little. Before that, he read most of his father’s books on polemic divinity.  And it is to these religious books that he credits his next habit.

Discussion

Not prattle or small talk, but friendly debate. While he admits that being contrary is a good way to squelch friendships, he was able to find a friend – John Collins – who shared his love of books and debate. They’d meet and argue, and Ben would sometimes disagree with his friend just for the sake of arguing. When one of their arguments continued on paper through letters back and forth, Ben’s father had a look at the writing and advised Ben to work on his writing style – clarity, elegance and method. Ben knew how to take criticism and make it truly constructive, so he began a self-directed and focused study of writing.

drawing of hand with a feather penWriting: Imitation, Outlining and Poetry

Imitation and Outlining Ben found a writing style he liked and respected in volume three of The Spectator. After reading it several times, he set about to imitate it. He did this in 5 steps.

1. Read through an article, and while reading it, make notes about the content of each sentence. This gave him a sort of expanded outline.

2. Leave it alone for a few days.

3. Use the outline to rewrite the article.

4. Compare his own article to the original and make corrections.

And as a separate exercise -

5. Mix up the order of his notes on a particular piece and put them back into the best order.

Poetry  When he compared his work to the original articles, he found his vocabulary was limited, and he regretted having given up poetry because he believed the need for a variety of synonyms of different lengths and structures (to meet meter and rhyme constraints) would have encouraged him to grow his vocabulary. So he took it up again, but a little differently. He took prose pieces and rewrote them in verse. Then he took his new versions and reworked them back into prose. That’s it! He found out where his writing needed improvement and created a personalized learning plan for himself using basic tools – writing tools and articles he already owned. Now we can use his system, too, or tweak it to make it work better for ourselves.

Franklin, Benjamin. Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin. 1793. Simon & Brown. 2010. Print.

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