When I feel my writing getting a little stale, I start looking around for a teacher. Now, I don’t mean I’m looking for a class with an instructor, although that’s certainly another way to learn and grow as a writer.
I mean I start looking around for an author and text that has something to teach me. In this way, I can continually improve my skills as a writer.
Develop a Customized Course of Study
A lot of writers feel a strong urge to enter an MFA program to do this. If you feel compelled to pursue that, by all means, research it and see if that’s the best next step for you.
But you don’t have to embark on a pre-planned course of study. You can develop your own path to establish a writing foundation, to build on an existing set of skills and experience, or to refresh your techniques after falling into a writing rut.
Without spending a dime, you can invent an efficient, customized writing course using resources readily available online or at your local library to build your skills and style.
By including reading, study, analysis, and practice pertaining to your biggest areas of struggle or weakness, you can write to discover the skills and techniques you’re lacking and integrate them into your work.
Discover New Skills the Ben Franklin Way
Novelist James Scott Bell wrote an article about how to strengthen your fiction the Ben Franklin way.1
He explains how Ben Franklin came up with his own self-study course to grow in virtues.
Franklin made a grid and evaluated whether or not he was successful in his pursuit of a given virtue each week. In The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin, the Founding Father concluded he did not attain perfection, as he had hoped, but “was, by the endeavor, a better and happier man than I otherwise should have been if I had not attempted it.”2
James Scott Bell proposes the fiction writer identify key areas to develop into a stronger writer much as Franklin identified his list of virtues. Bell calls these key areas “critical success factors,” or CSFs.3
Business and sales folk have been using Franklin’s system for decades to improve their own performance. Not via Franklin’s virtues, but by determining their own areas of competence. These are called critical success factors.4
Bell goes through each CSF a fiction author would want to develop and points to related resources: if the reader wants to learn about scenes, voice, or other aspects of fiction, Bell provides links to articles or books that can address each of those. By tapping into these resources, the writer develops his own self-study course.5
You can do the same.
Discover Your Critical Success Factors
You can make a list of what you feel are your personal CSFs related to the writing you do. In this way, any of us can identify an area to improve in and find instruction and models pertaining to that exact skill or technique and we can learn from them.
For fiction, you could check out James Scott Bell’s list in that article, where he cites the seven key elements a fiction writer could focus on:
- meaning (theme).6
You could make a list of CSFs for nonfiction writers. This might include research, idea development and organization, sentence fluency and word choice, grammar skills, or something as focused as transitions.
Find Mentor Texts
Find some “mentors,” or more accurately, some “mentor texts” you can study and learn from—mentors who excel in the areas where you feel you’re weak.
Some of these mentor texts may be instructional, explaining how to do things. Others may simply serve as models. When you find a mentor text like that—that’s a model—it’s time for close reading. And I’ve found that close reading is achieved easily with a practice we normally think of for children: copy work.
Any adult ready to develop stronger skills can practice copy work. It forces close reading. It requires attentiveness to avoid skipping a word, missing a comma, or losing our place. That attentiveness is key to understanding a writer’s decisions. Francine Prose says in Reading Like a Writer:
Every page was once a blank page, just as every word that appears on it now was not always there, but instead reflects the final result of countless large and small deliberations. All the elements of good writing depend on the writer’s skill in choosing one word instead of another. And what grabs and keeps our interest has everything to do with those choices.7
As a writer, then, we’re making decisions with each word choice, each exclamation point, each series of three phrases that produces the rhythm we want to achieve. We can pick up some of this simply by reading, as Prose herself does. She says, “I read closely, word by word, sentence by sentence, pondering each deceptively minor decision the writer had made.”8
When we copy out someone’s work, it’s even better, closer—we don’t miss a thing. We see it all, each and every decision, as it emerges in our writing notebook. Copy work documents the work of another writer so that the copyist is naturally, organically mentored by the original author.
Prose points out that close attention to a text offers “the excitement of approaching, as nearly as you can hope to come, the hand and mind of the artist. It’s something like the way you experience a master painting, a Rembrandt or a Velasquez, by viewing it from not only far away but also up close, in order to see the brushstrokes.”9
Famous Writers Who Used Copy Work
You’ll be in good company if you write to discover new skills.
Jack London copied Rudyard Kipling’s work word for word in hopes that Kipling’s techniques and energy would teach London how to improve as a writer.10
Robert Louis Stevenson would read a passage twice and try to recreate it perfectly, word for word. In this way, he’d understand the intricacies of his mentor text to understand his choices and seeing how he might achieve a similar effect.11
An Open Culture article says Hunter Thompson typed out The Great Gatsby, Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms, and some of Faulkner’s stories in order to learn as a writer.12
And we’ve already mentioned Ben Franklin, who approached his mentor texts in a few different ways. First, he’d read the text and make a few notes, then set aside the original. After a few days, he’d attempt to recreate the original from only his notes.13
Another technique of his was to turn a story into verse and then convert it back into prose again. This helped him play with the ideas and incorporate novel vocabulary to make the piece work as poetry. One of his critical success factors was vocabulary, and this approach locked in new words he could use in his everyday communication.14
Try It Yourself
Getting up close and personal with the text, you’ll notice details in that writer’s technique. You’ll see how they used a literary device in a way you’d never realized.
Try it yourself. Copy someone’s work to learn from them, and then apply what you learn. Give it a go.
You can practice copy work or any of Ben Franklin’s variations in a practice notebook. As you grow more comfortable and confident, try writing a micro-essay employing some of these techniques. If you like the result, post it on social media or anywhere you feel free to write without feeling judged.
That way you can apply these devices and techniques freely as you practice, writing to discover new skills that address your critical success factors. As you play around, your writing will naturally evolve and improve because you’re stretching yourself by studying master texts.
Mentor Texts Don’t Need to Be Classic Texts
The work you select for inspiration—the mentors you choose to learn from—don’t have to be Hemingway, Kipling, or Fitzgerald. You can select modern writers whose work you admire and learn from them.
Ben Franklin often chose contemporaries who wrote articles in the local newspaper that he admired. We can do that, too.
Avoid Plagiarism: Track Sources and Make It Your Own
Remember, too, that your copy work must be done in private for learning purposes only. I recommend, in fact, you clearly label the source and the author, so you know the original source. That way if you ever find yourself drawing from an actual phrase that author used, you can credit the source. Otherwise, you risk plagiarism.
But as you learn from a mentor text a literary device like allusion, metaphor, imagery, or foreshadowing, you apply it in your own way with your own ideas and your own phrasing, so you won’t be at risk of plagiarism. You’re simply practicing new techniques.
Discover New Skills
You’re looking to improve—to discover new skills.
Read, analyze, and then write. Write to discover the skills, techniques, and devices, and write to lock them in as your own.
- Learn from the Best: Imitate But Don’t Plagiarize [Ep 106] (explains Ben Franklin’s copy work techniques)
- Learn from the Best: Copywork for Grownups [Ep 107]
- How to Develop Your Own Self-Study Writing Course [Ep 88]
- Strengthening Your Fiction the Ben Franklin Way, by James Scott Bell via Kill Zone
- Write to Discover series
- All podcast episodes
You can subscribe to this podcast using your podcast player or find it through Apple podcasts, Stitcher, or Spotify.
- Bell, James Scott. “Strengthening Your Fiction the Ben Franklin Way.” Kill Zone. https://killzoneblog.com/2017/01/strengthening-your-fiction-ben-franklin.html
- Franklin, Benjamin. Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin. Henry Holt and Company, 1916, 1922, The Quinn & Boden Co. Press. Digital version available through Project Gutenberg. https://www.gutenberg.org/files/20203/20203-h/20203-h.htm
- Bell, “Strengthening Your Fiction the Ben Franklin Way.”
- Prose, Francine. Reading like a Writer: a Guide for People Who Love Books and for Those Who Want to Write Them. Harper Perennial, 2007. (16)
- ibid (3)
- ibid (30)
- McKay, Kate, and Brett McKay. “How to Become a Better Writer: Copy the Work of Others!” The Art of Manliness, originally published 26 March, 2014; updated 31 Jan. 2019, www.artofmanliness.com/articles/want-to-become-a-better-writer-copy-the-work-of-others/.
- Jones, Josh. “Hunter S. Thompson Typed Out The Great Gatsby & A Farewell to Arms Word for Word: A Method for Learning How to Write Like the Masters.” Open Culture, Open Culture, LLC, 5 June 2017, www.openculture.com/2017/06/hunter-s-thompson-typed-out-the-great-gatsby-farewell-to-arms.html.
- Kroeker, Ann. “Learn from the Best – Use the Ben Franklin Method to Imitate without Plagiarizing.” Ann Kroeker, Writing Coach, 20 June 2017, annkroeker.com/2017/06/20/ep-106-learn-from-the-best-imitate-but-dont-plagiarize/.