Benjamin Franklin's method of theft

Last week we took a look at Hunter S. Thompson's one weird trick of typing out the entirety of The Great Gatsby as a way of reverse engineering Fitzgerald's writing.

Turns out he is not the only one.  Founding Father Benjamin Franklin did it too:

About this time I met with an odd volume of The Spectator – 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, tried to complete 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. [from The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin]

Here is Ben's strategy:

  1. Make some short notes on each sentence/paragraph in the essay you admire. [STEAL FROM THE BEST]
  2. Set your notes to the side for a few days. [ABANDONMENT]
  3. Looking only at your notes, recreate the essay from scratch, trying to express the "sentiments" in your notes.
  4. Check your work against the original.
  5. Where you failed, figure out why and fix it. [GESTALT, SUCCESSIVE APPROXIMATION]

This is an involved way to improve your writing: it requires you to be able to identify effective writing and to analyze why it's effective, and then you have to pay attention to your own writing to make it as effective as the original.  Not easy to do.

But what if you don't think you can identify effective writing?  Or pin down why it's effective?

Do it anyway.  ABORTIVE ATTEMPTS, baby.  Fake it till you make it.

Ben Franklin did: he did all this before he was sixteen.