On Monday, I spoke about the elements of deliberate practice. Today I want to talk about an extraordinary technique Benjamin Franklin used to become an exceptional writer (explained more deeply in Geoffrey Colvin’s book Talent Is Overrated).
Ben Franklin was one of the most exceptional and influential writers of the 18th Century. But how did he get so good?
Apparently through intense practice designed to shore up his weaknesses. His story is awesome.
When Franklin was a teenager, he would write letters and send them back and forth with a friend from school. His father looked at one particular letter—the topic was whether woman should be educated—and pointed out his son’s strengths and weaknesses.
Young, studious Franklin thought about his father’s constructive criticism—it smacked him in the gut. He took it seriously and did something pretty extraordinary. First, he gathered a series of superbly written essays. Then he’d scrutinize an article and make notes on the meaning of each sentence.
A week later, after he’d forgotten the essay, he’d look at the notes and try to reconstruct their meaning in his own words. When finished, Franklin compared his writing with the original essay. He’d analyzed each sentence, find errors in his writing and fix them. He’d repeat this process relentlessly, trying to match his own mediocre writing to his superiors’.
Vocabulary, organization, sentence structure—Franklin was determined to improve his areas of weakness.
Looking back, it’s hard to believe he put himself through such rigorous training—but it’s equally hard to ignore his outstanding results. The results came because of the valuable feedback he was getting, the kind of feedback that’s sometimes hard to get.
Writing is a solitary sport. Unlike dancers, for example, writers aren’t apart of a tightly-knit group. They don’t always get instant feedback. But Franklin surpassed these limits and created a feedback-generating system that would slowly nurture his writing. The best part is that his prose would eventually transform into the style of writing he had admired.
Applying the Method
Franklin’s method can apply to any creative person. First, study your craft’s essential elements. For writing, it’s elements like clarity, brevity, simplicity, and humanity that make for good prose. For painting, it might be elements like colour, composition, form, line, and symbol that comprise a breathtaking piece.
Then determine your area of weakness and find somebody who is strong in that particular skill.
If you sing for a rock band and your voice is great, but your elemental weakness is ‘song writing’, track down an artist who writes outstanding lyrics.
Analyze the lyrics in a Bob Dylan song. Make notes on the meaning of each line, bridge, and chorus. After you’ve forgotten everything, look at your notes and try to reconstruct your own version. Of course, it’d help to blast the song’s instrumental to get a feel for the beat.
Compare your lyrics with Dylan’s. How does your quality match his? What techniques does he use that you’re not? How is Dylan’s word choice, metaphor use, or rhyming scheme different from yours?
Identify weaknesses and repeat the process over and over until you can write better.
The Ben Frank method of deliberate practice is undeniable.
You won’t see instant progress, you probably won’t have a blast doing it, but train yourself this way once or twice a week and soon you’ll internalize Dylan’s legendary writing scheme. Not a bad spice to add to your creative soup. 🙂
I Vow to Take the Plunge
To get my feet wet, I’m gonna do this exercise once a week. Then I’ll ramp it up once I get comfortable. I want my writing to be terser, pithier—like Steve Pressfield’s rock em’ sock em’ style or Hemmingway’s punchy prose. By constantly comparing my writing to these guys’, I hope to pick up on some tricks of the trade—how Pressfield crams his sentences with meaning or how Hemingway uses short, simple words.
What will you do?