How Ben Franklin Learned to Write Persuasively

Ben Franklin was an incredible writer. In addition to his role in writing the United States Constitution, he was also a bestselling author, with his Poor Richard’s Almanac selling in the tens of thousands per year.

Writing and changing minds being so important to his success in life, it’s worth asking how he managed to develop the skill of persuasive writing. Here, I found an interesting tidbit from his autobiography, when he had written a letter debating a childhood friend, his father critiqued his rhetoric:

“I fell far short in elegance of expression, in method and in perspicuity, of which he convinced me by several instances. I saw the justice of his remark, and thence grew more attentive to the manner in writing, and determined to endeavor at improvement.”

Following this, he set upon a plan to improve his writing:

“With this view, 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, by expressing each hinted sentiment at length, and as fully as it had been expressed before, in any suitable words that should come to hand.”

In other words, he used active recall to practice the skill of persuasive writing. By providing himself the hint of the ideas and then rewriting without looking at the source material, he could check not only his memory of the original argument, but also see how his words matched up with the persuasiveness of his model.

Other Famous Minds Who Copied as a Step to Mastery

It strikes me that Franklin’s method for improving writing would likely not be taught today, as it doesn’t fall within the current fashions of Western education. Copying down, or trying to recopy someone else’s arguments, are considered a poor substitute for own’s own creativity and thinking.

Nowhere is this more true than in art. I can remember my own high-school art classes where our teacher was reluctant to really teach us any techniques, for fear it might stifle our creative spirits. While art teachers do range in the prescriptiveness of their teaching style, it’s far more common to lean towards inspiring original ideas, rather than the focus on craft and apprenticeship that was common in earlier time periods.

With this, it was interesting to me, reading Vincent van Gogh’s biography how much he relied on copying the works of old masters in the initial phase of his own artistic career. He copied and recopied one of his favorite images by Jean-François Millet, The Sower, dozens of times:

Left: Millet’s The Sower , Right: Practice drawing by Van Gogh

I find this particularly striking because Vincent van Gogh is renowned for his immediately recognizable artistic style. The idea that learning via copying, is detrimental to crafting a unique vision, is therefore a questionable assumption.

I think the educational pendulum has swung slightly too far. In a bid to overcome the era of rote memorization, without understanding or creativity, the emphasis has switched too quickly to creating original ideas, without first mastering the fundamental techniques. As both Van Gogh and Franklin show, copying as a practice method doesn’t deserve the scorn it often receives.

Advice on Learning Difficult, Creative Skills

Yesterday, I overheard two friends talking about painting. Both trained as architects, they’re familiar with creative and design work. Yet, one of them was commenting on the difficulty of it all. “You have an idea in your head, but it doesn’t turn out right,” he remarked, “by the end, you can’t even look at it.”

I think this sentiment is common across creative fields: writing, design, art, music and more. The expectation that one should start doing original work immediately, and that to copy or emulate, is the sign of an inferior talent, pushes people away from learning the skills that make up the craft.

With that in mind, I have a few suggestions for implementing this method used by Franklin, Van Gogh and many others:

  1. Consider outright copying. Obviously don’t present it as your own work, that would be unethical. But imitating directly is a way you can focus on underlying technique without worrying about the bigger complexities of composition and idea.
  2. Consider copying without looking. For writing, programming or any skill where it is possible, in theory, to copy something perfectly just by looking at it, copying directly probably won’t have the intended effect. Instead you need to move up a level and try to reconstruct the arguments and algorithms from memory, to see that you understand them and then compare your results.
  3. Emulating, borrowing and integrating. Another method is to rework parts of ideas into a new whole. This is a level at which, even creative masters, frequently operate on, with ideas borrowed or inspired by different sources.

Copying and emulating are valid learning tools that deserve respect. Truthfully, in most pursuits, we do want to end up with original work. However, trying to both master original ideas and their execution, uses up a lot of mental bandwidth, so that it might not be possible to do both well, in an early phase of learning.

Breaking down a skill into parts, in this case, a creative and a technical component, allows you to work on each in turn, developing proficiency before the burden of creativity is required. Technical mastery can foster its own creativity, as old ideas interpreted with a unique and well-developed skill-set can appear completely new. As Pablo Picasso was thought to have said, “Good artists borrow, great artists steal.”

  • Jeff

    Great post Scott. The line “I think the educational pendulum has swung slightly too far. In a bid to overcome the era of rote memorization, without understanding or creativity, the emphasis has switched too quickly to creating original ideas, without first mastering the fundamental techniques” really resonated with me.

    That’s why I actually think that memorization is an underrated skill, now that we’ve pounded into our brains that we shouldn’t “memorize.” Of course, don’t memorize without understanding, but I believe that memorizing a piece of information actually gives you more avenues to make creative connections rather than relying on Google. Seth Godin repeatedly says that “memorization is obsolete” which I completely disagree with. Genuinely internalizing a “copied” concept, is the threshold to “making it your own.”

    The reality is, that mostly all time great borrowed ideas and concepts from others, they just mixed it up in their own way to create something “unique.” I feel like there’s probably a threshold where the amount of creative work an artist does transitions from original to “copied.” Perhaps, it’s 20%, 50% etc. Seems like the key is to find the right mixture of copied work to make it “original.”

  • I characterize techniques like this as ‘reverse ventriloquism’:

    https://rulerstothesky.com/2014/05/11/reverse-engineer-your-favorite-writing/

  • Dave Giancaspro

    Jazz trumpeter Clark Terry said there were three steps to learning improvisation:
    1. Imitate
    2. Assimilate
    3. Innovate

    Another good example of what you outlined above Scott. Great post I shared it with my wife and daughter who are both artists.

    Dave Giancaspro

  • Jacob S.

    I recently studied the habits that enabled Benjamin Franklin to master skills such as writing (despite being a dropout). Here are the lessons that I learned about his habit;

    1. Track and Measure Progress Against Your Habits
    2. Schedule out your Day and Stick to It
    3. Making decisions with a “smart” pro/con list

    Here is a good article for those who are interested: https://jawwad.me/journal-tips-benjamin-franklin/

  • Bjarke Tan

    could you please do something like this on franz liszt? 🙂

  • Yes, I copy those who are successful when first starting, but then quickly make things my own with my own unique style and voice. One the wheels start turning the creativity flows. Thanks!

  • Jamal

    Excellent post. I have questioned the way that the programming classes I have taken are taught in which the professors give very limited guidance and expect students to somehow and some way come up with their own solutions. In my own case that means that I end up learning a lot through time consuming trial and error and my programs are often unnecessarily convoluted.

  • Exactly! Many of the greatest jazz musicians learned by imitating a mentor. Louis Armstrong, considered by many to be the greatest, learned by imitating Joe Oliver.

  • Jonathan Vieker

    Great post, Scott! Copying (transcribing solos by ear) is also the backbone of jazz pedagogy–it’s quite simply how you learn to play jazz. And for what it’s worth, Johann Sebastian Bach spent many nights secretly copying out scores by hand while living with his older brother, a church musician. He continued such copying throughout his life.

  • Aakash Gupta

    What an awesome link. Thank you Jacob

  • aldiper

    An excellent post Scott. As a child, I was advised by a relative to “copy, but never trace” as I used dinosaur stencils to create images. I took their advice and spent years casually copying images I liked (never presenting them as my own work of course).

    (Tracing would rest on the first, and lowest, level of copying)

    Having never undertaken formal art training, people were surprised at the quality of images I could produce. Frequently, I was much better than people who had been “taught” art, for the reasons you have described.

    Rome wasn’t built in a day and expecting people to be creative geniuses from the start, long before they have the technical ability to express their creativity, is just setting them up for failure.

  • Stefan

    Thank you for this great post. It’s not the first time you hinted on the importance of copying in contrast to the (“Western”) imperative of being genuine. However, that article reminded me on the problem of defining creativity.

    Ask ten people and you get twelve definitions (just see Boden’s types of creativity). Present a creative solution that satisfies two criteria of creativity and a single critic will stab you in the back with five criteria for non-creativity. It’s a mess.

    I hear the term “creativity” is difficult to translate into some other cultures (read: cultures, not languages). So sometimes I’m wondering whether we (Westerners) would be better off by avoiding that squishy designator of “creativity” at all. In that sense I wonder how our communication would change, like your article above.

    One stance on creativity is that a creative product is just a witty recombination of building blocks. Building blocks then are results of techniques, that “just have to be learned”. In that sense, without building blocks there is no creative product, which justifies learning of a variety of techniques. (Like learning a language to express yourself.) And as you mentioned often, the easiest solution is repetition, which is the action resulting in a copy. And so copying as basis for creativity could be justified for the layman.

    Side note: I remember your claims, that rereading as exam preparation is an inferior learning practice. Learning a technique by copying seems to share similar qualities, but somehow seems more ok. Possibly because exam preparation is a complex task and e.g. practising an arpeggio cannot be divided into sub-tasks any more.

    On the same stance as mentioned above, copying also might make sense as way of acquiring “taste”, which ultimately is a passive skill. Some researchers say the predicate “creative” emerges from the balanced composition of building blocks. (Like properly spaced text, images and headlines on a printed document.) By just copying very easy building blocks, I might not improve my technique very much, but I learn about how those building blocks are put together to achieve a certain emerging effect.

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