A brief word of warning: this is a longer-than-usual episode. Instead of falling within the typical five- to eight-minute range, this episode clocks in at over 11 minutes.
Are you a carnivorous reader?
Francine Prose says in Reading Like a Writer:
I’ve heard the way a writer reads described as “reading carnivorously.” What I’ve always assumed that this means is not, as the expression might seem to imply, reading for what can be ingested, stolen, or borrowed, but rather for what can be admired, absorbed, and learned. It involves reading for sheer pleasure but also with an eye and a memory for which author happens to do which thing particularly well. (31)
When we learn from the best—the greats—they become mentors. We do this by reading with an analytical eye and carnivorous mind to gain insights into what works and apply principles and actual techniques to our own projects.
In Episode 104, we talked about interacting with texts by writing in a book’s margins, annotating as we go, which engages us at various levels with an analytical eye. It’s an excellent practice to begin and continue with books you own.
Another way to read analytically for the purpose of improving as writers is to follow Benjamin Franklin’s method, which aligns nicely with Francine Prose’s description of carnivorous reading, or reading for what can be admired, absorbed, and learned.
Realizing Your Writing Falls Short
Early on, Benjamin Franklin’s father noted his son’s “bookish inclination” and apprenticed him to Franklin’s brother, a printer, where Ben quickly learned the business.
This new situation gave Ben access to books he borrowed through a friend, exposing him to greater variety, including poetry, which he began to write. Benjamin’s father discouraged the poetry, warning that “verse makers were generally beggars.” Ben shifted to prose and explains in his autobiography how he improved his prose-writing skill.
He’d debate with a good friend of his and always found this other young man was “naturally more eloquent, had a ready plenty of words, and sometimes, as I thought, bore me down more by his fluency than by the strength of his reasons.”
They wrote each other when his friend couldn’t meet up in person for some reason, continuing to take sides on an unresolved argument, and Benjamin’s dad happened to find the letters and read them. Franklin reported that his father noted:
though I had the advantage of my antagonist in correct spelling and pointing (which I ow’d to the printing-house), 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 remarks, and thence grew more attentive to the manner in writing, and determined to endeavor at improvement.
The Ben Franklin Method
To expand his vocabulary, grow more eloquent, and express himself more fluently, Ben devised a method. He bought a magazine called the Spectator, read it, and enjoyed it. He explains:
I thought the writing excellent and wished, if possible, to imitate it. 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. Then I compared my Spectator with the original, discovered some of my faults, and corrected them.
This simple system is easy to follow. As you can see from his explanation, the first steps are to find writing you admire and make “short hints of the sentiment in each sentence.”
My kids followed a writing program geared for K-12 students that introduced Franklin’s method. It comes from the Institute for Excellence in Writing. Students read a source text, or “mentor text,” then return to the beginning of the piece and write out two or three keywords per sentence—like Ben Franklin’s “short hints of the sentiment in each sentence.”
The kids were then to recreate the piece from this keyword outline and whatever memory they retained of the original text. By doing this, and comparing their version with the original, they learned how that writer expressed himself on paper and learned to do the same through imitation.
I worked with my kids on the assignments, and Ben Franklin’s method seemed to give my kids a solid understanding of how to organize and express ideas. Looking back at the original, they could see how their version differed, for better or for worse.
Build Vocabulary to Find the Best Words
But for Ben (and my kids) there was the issue of vocabulary…or the lack thereof. When Ben tried to recreate a sentence, he realized his mental storehouse was lacking a “stock of words,” or at least he couldn’t call up effective words when he needed them.
He realized if he had continued making verses, even bad ones, he might have acquired a vaster vocabulary because poets need to play with words—lots of words—to find the best fit for a particular phrase or line. Verse-making might have locked in greater variety; unfortunately, thanks to his dad, he quit.
But that brief foray into poetry gave Ben an idea. He took some of the “tales,” as he called them, and turned them into verse, which required him to integrate totally different words in order to create appropriate rhythm and rhyme. “[A]fter a time, when I had pretty well forgotten the prose,” he explains, “ [I] turned them back again.”
The transition from prose to poetry and back again—leaving gaps of time in-between each stage—locked in new words he incorporated during the poetry stage.
Imitation: Fruitful Practice or Dangerous Plagiarism?
Some people worry that this imitation process might tempt us to tumble into some form of plagiarism, or they’re afraid copying another writer’s style and voice will keep us developing our own.
L.L. Barkat writes in her book Rumors of Water that a lot of writers she used to work with would go through what she calls the “Ann Voskamp” phase (48). Bestselling author Ann Voskamp has a distinctive style, so when another writer finds herself influenced by it, the reader can easily spot the similarity to Voskamp’s pacing and sentence structure. Barkat advised her editors to point this out to any writer who was sounding a little too Voskamp-y and encourage the writer to try, instead, to develop her own voice and style.
But others believe that emulation or imitation can be one path that leads us to our voice, especially when we’re in the early stages of our writing lives. Even Francine Prose, as experienced and skilled as she is, feels the influence of greats can be a good thing. In her book Reading Like a Writer, she says:
After I’ve written an essay in which I’ve quoted at length from great writers, so that I’ve had to copy out long passages of their work, I’ve noticed that my own work becomes, however briefly, just a little more fluent. (3)
In a 99U article, Todd Henry claims artists go through four stages, one of those being emulation. He says “mimicking the work of their influences, [these artists] were able to build a basic platform of skills necessary to eventually branch out and explore new territory.”
He quotes Stephen King from On Writing: “Imitation preceded creation; I would copy Combat Casey comics word for word in my Blue Horse tablet, sometimes adding my own descriptions where they seemed appropriate.”
In that same article, Henry let Ursula K. Le Guin caution the reader, “When imitating it’s necessary to remember the work, however successful, is practice, not an end in itself, but a mean[s] [toward] the end of writing with skill and freedom in one’s own voice.”*
So, as a learning exercise—as you “endeavor at improvement,” to borrow Ben Franklin’s phrase as well as his method—emulate the voices of others insofar as they aid you in expressing yourself in your own voice. It’s practice, not an end in itself.
Reorganize to Find the Best Order
To review, Franklin used keywords to recall sentences from the original mentor text. He’d compare his version with the original and correct mistakes as part of the learning process. And in hopes of increasing vocabulary, he turned prose into poetry and back again.
He added one more level of challenge to improve his flow and organization of ideas: he mixed up his keywords, or those “hints of sentiment,” so they were no longer ordered the same as the original. Then he reworked, reordered, and rephrased them as he composed complete sentences. When he had a final version, he read the piece in its entirety to see how well he arranged his thoughts. And he says this:
By comparing my work afterwards with the original, I discovered many faults and amended them; but I sometimes had the pleasure of fancying that, in certain particulars of small import, I had been lucky enough to improve the method of the language, and this encouraged me to think I might possibly in time come to be a tolerable English writer, of which I was extremely ambitious.
We’ll, I’d say it worked. In time, Benjamin Franklin, one of America’s Founding Fathers, did indeed come to be a “tolerable English writer,” thanks to his ambition and his method.
Choose Your Mentor
Who would you choose to mentor you? What author’s text could school you on word choice, clarity, organization, and “elegance of expression”? Could Ben Franklin’s method help you advance your vocabulary and increase the storehouse of words to wield as you work?
Try it. Find mentor texts to read, set aside, and attempt to recreate from the two or three keywords you note from each sentence—those sentiment hints.
Like Benjamin Franklin, through carnivorous reading and emulation, you’ll learn from the best and doubtless grow to become, in time, a more than tolerable English writer.
- Ep 102: Grow as a Writer – Surround Yourself with Excellence
- Ep 104: Learn from the Best – The Book Is Yours When You Write in Its Margins
- Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin, Project Gutenberg (the version I drew from for excerpts)
- The Four Phases of Developing Your Creative Voice, by Todd Henry (via 99U)
- Institute for Excellence in Writing (K-12 writing program that incorporates Franklin’s approach)
- Writing without Tears, by Andrew Pudewa (article written for IEW that describes how the program teaches keyword outlines and revisions, Ben Franklin-style)
- Francine Prose, Reading Like a Writer (Affiliate Link)
- L.L. Barkat, Rumors of Water (Affiliate Link)
* The Le Guin quote provided via 99U is slightly off Le Guin’s original found in Steering the Craft (Affiliate Link), so the brackets indicate the changes needed to revert to her original wording.
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