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:
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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.”