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.”

Book Club: Predictably Irrational (September 2017)

Vat Jaiswal and I discuss Predictably Irrational by Dan Ariely.

In this newly revised and expanded edition of the groundbreaking New York Times bestseller, Dan Ariely refutes the common assumption that we behave in fundamentally rational ways. From drinking coffee to losing weight, from buying a car to choosing a romantic partner, we consistently overpay, underestimate, and procrastinate. Yet these misguided behaviors are neither random nor senseless. They’re systematic and predictable—making us predictably irrational.

If you would rather read the full transcript, click here.

Below are some of the highlights:

…some tactics for self-imposed restrictions…

Scott: The first [tactic] I want to talk about which I thought was very interesting is something that you have deliberately designed your environment to try to overcome is the one on self-control and procrastination. 

In this chapter he talked about one of the deviations from rationality is that if you give people more constraints, in particular you give them the ability to hinder their own progress, in they might actually do better. I wanted to talk about this in the context of what you do, Vat.

You are somewhat interesting in our group of friends because you have a lot of self-imposed constraints that a lot of others would be like, why are you doing that!? But they are really effective so maybe you can talk about your own experience with that.

Vat: Just before I talk about my own experience, I remember, a book I was reading about psychology and they were saying that putting restrictions are self-imposed they are much more effective because you’re the one who set the limits, you feel more responsible and in control when you set your own restrictions as opposed to someone else telling you what to do. That can lead to a feeling of like someone is trying to get you to do something.

In my experience, when it comes to productivity, I use applications on my computer that block electricity.

It starts at 8:00am and it ends at 5:00pm and during that time all the social media sites and all the time wasting sites are all blocked. Now, this is a restriction I’ve set for myself. This occurred through observation; I was looking at how I was wasting time and how much more productive I am after not using those sites.

After implementing these restrictions on myself I find my productivity is much better and I’ve been doing it for years now.

We all know we shouldn’t be wasting time if we’re trying to study or work but we all do it. So, there are applications that can help you with that and I’ve been using that with a lot of success.

On the cost of “free”…

Scott: I want to talk about some of the other biases that are talked about. One of them is about the cost of “free”.

When something is free, when it goes from one cent or one dollar to costing nothing, suddenly our brains stop working. We become irrational. We pursue it with vigor and we want more, more and more of it.

One of the reasons this is irrational is that we fail to include the other costs that are involved. We are more likely to pursue something when it’s free but we don’t consider opportunity costs. 

Vat: Yes, I have an idea on this where this idea of opportunity cost — you should always been optimizing and saving the most amount of time and using your money efficiently — but this is a purely logical way of thinking and we are emotional creatures.

On health, lifestyle and irrational choices….

Scott: This happens with health products. Some aren’t actually that healthy for you meaning that they have extra calories and they also taste bad, so I can think of some things, well, no offense to anyone who likes kale but I’ve seen some kale salads and you know, kale tastes worse than lettuce. I’m sorry, it just does!

I saw a kale salad once that was covered in some kind of dressing so the calories weren’t actually that great. I can imagine people buying it and maybe it’s not that healthy but it gives you this feeling of aestheticism. This feeling that, “oh I’m saving myself with this healthy item!”

I think we need to weigh that into our calculation. Why am I trying to lose weight? Am I trying to be healthy? Think about do you actually get some kind of pleasurable feeling from eating that kale salad because you’re doing something that’s quote, unquote, good for you?

As you said, emotional calculus is important.

Vat: One last example before we move on to the next section, studying. I’ve wasted a lot of time as a student sitting in the library but not actually studying. It gives you the feeling that you’re studying even if you’re not.

That’s another one of those things that gives you the feeling of studying but really, if you actually wanted to study, you can study anywhere, you don’t need to go to the library. Again, emotions come into play when we’re looking at these biases.

For those of you who want to read the book, it is available here. If you want to participate in the group discussions and join our book club, click here.

Special thanks to Vat Jaiswal for joining me for this month’s book club discussion. 

The book for October will be Don’t Sleep, There are Snakes: Life and Language in the Amazonian Jungle, by Daniel Everett.

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