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The Benjamin Franklin Method: How to Be a Better Writer (marketmeditations.com)
295 points by _chu on Oct 31, 2016 | hide | past | web | favorite | 65 comments

> And the secret sauce is obsession.

Correct. Above all else, passion and continued perseverance are the hallmarks of anyone truly successful at their trade. There is an excellent quote from Saint Francis of Assisi that, quite honestly, explains the software engineering field about as well as it did masonry in the 13th century (or writing in the 18th century).

He who works with his hands is a laborer. He who works with his hands and his head is a craftsman. He who works with his hands and his head and his heart is an artist.

That quote appears to be misattributed. Should be Louis Nizer (1948).

https://en.wikiquote.org/wiki/Francis_of_Assisi#Misattribute... https://en.wikiquote.org/wiki/Louis_Nizer

It appears as early as 1923 but is not cited.


I climbed back out of bed just to upvote this. It's going in my little file of quotes that give me "the tingles". Thanks.

As an exercise to the reader, name:

1. He who works with his hands and heart, but not his head.

2. He who works with his head and heart, but not his hands.

1. yearning hobbyist

2. critic

1. Some Zen practitioners. 2. Philosophers.

Are both artists. He who can shut down his head when it gets in the way, is an artist. He who can produce astonishing things without the use of his hands is also an Artist - of a very special kind. As far as I can tell, Heart is at the heart of Art.

Also: with his head but neither hands nor heart, and with heart but neither hands nor head.

For completeness there's the null set.

For these cases:

Who is someone who works with...

...his heart, but neither hands nor head: A blood donor.

...his head, but neither hands nor heart: A brain in a jar.

...neither hands, heart, nor head: A pointy-haired boss.

I think this is the way it is commonly thought of in society, I don't think this is a particularly good way to look at it though. I think the implied assumption in this framework, is that a laborer is less than a craftsman, who is in turn less than an artist. I see this as ripe for abuse by people who wish to project an elitist view on the world.

Research has demonstrated that people who view their craft as a calling, take pride in it and view it as an important duty in society (even if it is menial) are happier and healthier. I remember watching an interview with a migrant farm worker who took pride in the speed and quality of his berry picking, and the fact that he could pick with two hands simultaneously. That was such an inspiring example for me.

The time involved is basically the same for laborer, craftsman and artist; they differ only in quality of and intention behind the effort. The laborer could be a craftsman or an artist by changing his perspective and approach to his work. From this perspective, the laborer is lesser because he does not fully apply himself, not as a result of his profession.

Yeah, I think that's how the GP meant it, ideally that would be the way it is thought of, but I could see it being used as a justification to look down on people like that farm worker.

I understand that criticism but i would urge people to focus on the contrast between working with just your hands vs head vs heart. That, and i think anyone who aspires to become an "artist" in a trade is on the right path.

I appreciate the sentiment, but what if striving for "artistry" turns out to just cause a nuisance for the user? I think the problem here is that everyone experiences "art" differently, and what may be an impactful experience for some may just be irritating for others. Is it always better for someone to strive with their heart?

What if striving for artistry delights the user, but frustrates the spouse and children or leads to the deterioration of the artist's physical health or mental wellbeing?

There are a lot of ways to deconstruct a one dimensional artists > craftsmen > laborers point of view because it is overly simplistic.

If people are elitists at work and they're snooty about it, why stop them?

It may be better if a person used that creative energy in a side project, if the product they work on has a large, varied user base.

I would not want to stop people being elitist, only for those who are to understand that their behaviour has a cost on at least some of those around them.

It surely helps, but is this true? I don't really see how something like that could be verified.

The implication is not a good one, either. What is one without passion do, just give up? Doesn't seem to be terribly helpful thinking, especially since it's not clear where passions come from or how they develop.

Passion comes from having interest. Interest comes from noticing particular facets about something that amuse you, perhaps because they are mysterious or perhaps because they give you pleasure. So if you want to become passionate about something, search for aspects about it that amuse you and focus on those things. That's not the whole story, but it's a start. It's worked for me at least.

Franklin was also a genius.

No, he didn't come from wealth or a highly-educated family or any of that. But he could think and learn, far more so than most. Something his biographers (though not TFA) frequently take pains to note.

Now that quote really makes my day! Thank you.

This article has some good information. Having worked hard to develop my writing process I suggest the following:

1. Writing poetry is good, but writing (and delivering) speeches is better. Nothing ferrets out difficult to follow, unnatural or confusing language better than getting up in front of a group and presenting it. Speeches also tend to be short-form, so they really force you to condense your ideas.

2. Writing is a multi-phase process, and each phase should be approached separately. Specifically:

2a.) The first step in good writing is to create a logical structure of your document - figure out what you want to talk about, then arrange the ideas you are going to cover into an ordered tree structure. Include questions you want to answer, any relevant research, and examples or analogies you want to cover. Personal opinions aside, Ayn Rand's The Art of Nonfiction is actually a very good guide to logical document structure.

2b.) The next step is to convert this structured document tree into prose. For this step, I suggest getting a pen and lined paper and getting away from the computer. Have a printed copy of your document tree to reference, and try to flesh it out without worrying too much about style.

2c.) Finally, transcribe your handwritten prose onto your word processor of choice, and edit for style. The basic tenets from The Element of Style are good. Favor short, direct, positive, active sentences. Focus on descriptive verbs and nouns rather than loading up on adverbs and adjectives. Try to trim unnecessary words. Beyond that, try to inject metaphor into your writing as much as possible. If you use a metaphor, try to stick with the same one for the entire paragraph. Use wordplay such as rhymes and alliterations to make important sentences more memorable.

Thank you for the tip on speeches! I suspect that will help my writing sound more natural too.

As for (2c), I've come up with a similar idea for doing multiple edits. I try to focus on a different writing "axiom" for each iteration. For example, I can cut out adverbs on the first run-through, add metaphor next, etc.

StackExchange has a nice collection of writing rules here: http://writers.stackexchange.com/questions/761/the-rules-of-...

Writing speeches is fantastic practice.

More than anything, it teaches you to write the way you talk. That's generally a good thing. Most forms of writing education tell you to communicate clearly, as though you're speaking your words -- but they don't show you how. Writing a speech forces you to confront the way you sound. When great writers talk about writing "by ear," this is what they mean.

The problem with looking at how Ben Franklin developed his skills is that he had relatively fewer books to read and he had many fewer demands on his attention. For example, I read a piece a while ago discussing how Franklin learned Italian: he and some friends make a competition of memorizing an Italian grammar book.

This is a terrible way to learn Italian, by modern thinking; because almost nobody is actually going to do it, and it won't actually get you speaking Italian. It's incredibly demanding for little reward. But if you know nobody who speaks Italian, have an Italian grammar book and immense dedication, and no TV or video games to fill the long, lonely, candlelit hours, I suppose you might as well?

Similarly, hand-copying and re-writing Spectator articles multiple times in multiple forms is probably a (labor-intensive) way to improve your prose. But today we have word processors with copy and paste and blogs. Why not just write there and practice rewriting that?

I don't think the main takeaway is about writing by hand. A word processor is fine too. What's important here is the act of "active writing" vs "passive writing".

Franklin's method forces you to create writing (instead of just ingesting it) and then gives you specific feedback on whether you succeeded or failed (through comparison to the original).

The dissect-chunking-integrate-feedback model works everywhere, and what fascinates me is that Franklin figured it out through his own experiments.

For distraction-free writing, instead of a word processor I recommend Draft[0].


I don't mind the concept of a third party hosted document editor, after all I use google docs.

But what does irritate is that the site has dozens of third party scripts, including passing on your email to "intercom" and a bunch of other trackers without hashing it or using a different tracker Id.

So you not only have to trust the content to Draft, you have to trust it to a dozen third parties with which you have no relationship.

And to achieve nothing you can't achieve by setting your preferred text editor to full screen.

Heck set your taskbar to "auto-hide" and notepad.exe can replicate what you've got there.

Hmm interesting, I hadn't thought of looking at the scripts and such, thanks for the heads up. I do like the interface (the distraction-free and Hemingway modes as someone else mentioned) but I don't like the idea of my data being leaked. A desktop-based approach for drafts might make more sense as you say.

Pandoc is also a easy way to write markdown in a distraction-free editor and compile to docx, PDF, or latex

I dig Ulysses for the Mac[0]. Its distraction-free mode is very nice, but the organizational tools are there once you need to start stringing together larger pieces of text.

I do wish someone would make a non-OSX version that was as nice.


Have you heard of Scrivener? It's available for both OSX and PC, and I believe there's an iOS version, too. It's really wonderful. The organizational tools are just incredible, and are only as complicated and involved as you want them to be.

Whoa, missed this. Sorry for the late reply.

I have! I like Scrivener as well and it's very powerful but its "does everything" functionality has led to some bloat in the UI department. Ulysses seems more thoughtfully designed but doesn't have the same breadth of features.

Ulysses really bothers me because it's not "real" Markdown, so simple stuff like copy-pasting something with a link in it breaks.

Draftin is a great. I often use the Hemingway writing mode (no backspace or delete). I make the browser full screen, switch off the spell checker, and just write.

My main point was about how Franklin's methods used a lot of tedious overwork. Hand-copying is an illustrative aspect of that, yes, but memorizing the text of an Italian grammar book is of similarly limited value even if you are using Anki and distration-free writing software to do it.

I believe the idea behind "rewrite a well-written article in another form" is to focus your mind upon analyzing, breaking down, and emulating Good Writing. You'll be closely reading the work of someone better than you, rather than taking your own writing and trying to improve it without any real models of what would be better.

Which would a novice programmer learn more from: blindly using whatever sort function their standard library provides; flailing around until they invent something like bubble sort and trying to optimize it; or reading about a few sort algorithms, picking one, and implementing it in their language of choice?

(A pro, of course, would probably either use stdlib's sort, or know where to find a library of multiple sorts that someone spent days tweaking for amazing performance within various constraints.)

Benjamin Franklin's entire story is really inspirational. He certainly had work ethic in abundance.

If you need an excuse to practice your writing, you may want to try National Novel Writing Month[1], which coincidentally, starts tomorrow.

[1] http://nanowrimo.org

Slightly related, if you want to practise your text generation, there's National Novel Generation Month[0].

[0] https://github.com/NaNoGenMo/2016

Many of these methods could be adapted to cleaning up your programming-writing style.

E.g: Take existing good code written by others, make notes on what it does, then write it yourself and compare to the original.

Franklin was full of interesting ideas (I think if Tim Ferriss could go back in time to interview one person, it should probably be Franklin) and I really like the idea of trying to reconstruct/emulate good writing. If you have the time, this is a great technique.

For most of us, who need to write for work, we probably don't have (or think we have the time to do that). I've found it helpful to think of the story I'm trying to tell, as a story, with a beginning, middle, and end, and a hero(es), villian(s), etc. Then, everything is about the story, not about showing how smart you are by using a lot of big words, not about hiding complexity where it's a key part of the story, etc.

> If I'm a storyteller, it's because I listen

Becoming good at anything, especially writing, is a practice in developing your attention.

1) Listen and Notice what's going on around you every day. Keep a daily journal of your observations. No one creates out of nothing. We only combine details we've seen elsewhere.

2) Focus on the smallest possible detail that still captures the meaning of the whole.

3) Do this every day. Create a practice of awareness. Life is full of meaning. We just have to learn to see it.

These are good exercises, but you'd think that Franklin would have figured out some principles to writing beyond just trial and error.

If there's one thing which can vastly improve writing, it's knowing how to write in simple manner. And by "simple", I mean "keeping your parse trees[0] short". I don't know how computationally intensive parsing is on an universal computer. But I know from experience that trying to read a text with long run-on sentences or with obnoxious grammatical features (like an overuse of subordinate clauses) can feel like pure suffering.

And I think this advice largely emcompasses those recommendations like "keep it short", "be direct" or "always use a period, never a semicolon". Because if you keep away from baroque parse trees, at least you won't be a bad writer.

In the popular sense, at least. If you're writing literature, you can do it freestyle. You can do a whole page of flow of consciousness, have footnotes on footnotes on footnotes, whatever.

[0] : https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Parse_tree

On a deeper level, good writing is like mind control. You are trying to create a specific mental state in the reader. Rules like the ones you stated are good guides for a beginning writer, but they shouldn't be viewed as gospel. For example, indirection is necessary if you're trying to surprise the reader, and semicolons highlight the connection between clauses that might be missed with a period. Keeping sentences short (i.e. maximizing information content of your words) is the right thing to do, unless you're trying to confuse your reader.

Well, good writing is unlike mind control in that it's an actual thing. But I get the point: in the end, you've got to question yourself about what you're really trying to do here. What is it that you're trying to convey with your writing.

Which is why I've mentioned literature: if you do try to keep it all short and avoid anything but periods, all you'll manage is to sound like Hemingway. And there's more to literature than Hemingway.

>But I know from experience that trying to read a text with long run-on sentences or with obnoxious grammatical features (like an overuse of subordinate clauses) can feel like pure suffering.

It seems to me that until the 20th century, this was considered the "fashionable" and proper way to write. Most of the intellectuals of the time seemed to write this way. I wonder why?

B.R. Myers had a theory on that (in A Reader's Manifesto, not The Cleanest Race): a less literate people are more fond of word games. The common people like to be awed by a skill they don't have; the elites, who can read, like to show off their ability to read and write. Thus flowery prose before mass education, and again at present.

However, I'm not sure if this is true or not; I'd have to look at how many copies of various books sold in the 19th century US, which was not known for its mass illiteracy. Knowing that the Ku Klux Klan got their burning crosses from Sir Walter Scott, I'm suspecting that Myers' theory isn't as comprehensive as it looks; Scott, at least, enjoyed a mass market. (And then there's the steamers from London greeted with the question, "How is Little Nell?")

The real dynamic might be elitism -- a desire to be reading text that the populace wouldn't understand, if they encountered it. That would explain why academic prose has gotten more opaque over time, regardless of what popular fiction is doing -- and would explain why postmodern floweriness is mostly confined to the sort of books that get reviewed in the New Yorker, the New York Times, and the like.

Writing from the 19th century United States tends to be relatively complex, but grammatically so, rather than the sort of existentialist run-on nonsense with which we're latterly so often abused. Here, as a reasonably representative example, is the first paragraph of The Last of the Mohicans [1]:

> It was a feature peculiar to the colonial wars of North America, that the toils and dangers of the wilderness were to be encountered before the adverse hosts could meet. A wide and apparently an impervious boundary of forests severed the possessions of the hostile provinces of France and England. The hardy colonist, and the trained European who fought at his side, frequently expended months in struggling against the rapids of the streams, or in effecting the rugged passes of the mountains, in quest of an opportunity to exhibit their courage in a more martial conflict. But, emulating the patience and self-denial of the practiced native warriors, they learned to overcome every difficulty; and it would seem that, in time, there was no recess of the woods so dark, nor any secret place so lovely, that it might claim exemption from the inroads of those who had pledged their blood to satiate their vengeance, or to uphold the cold and selfish policy of the distant monarchs of Europe.

This was an extremely popular novel in its day, in the literal sense of "popular" - by no means was it read exclusively among the elite, and indeed the literary elite of the time tended to regard it despite occasional equivocation as generally of good quality - although Twain, with his usual inimitable style, quite rightly suggests [2] that Fenimore's work in general should have been considerably less well regarded than it was. Nonetheless, that it was so regarded, and so widely read, can hardly be brought into question.

[1] http://www.gutenberg.org/files/940/940-h/940-h.htm

[2] http://twain.lib.virginia.edu/projects/rissetto/offense.html

Well, some think it was to show off their writing. Personally, I think it was feature of a more oral age, because run-on sentences and otherwise odd gramatical structure are way more tolerable when read out loud.

And if you're dictating to a scribe, or writing something which is intended to be a long spoken exposition of some subject (like a sermon or a lecture), then it's less likely that you'll pick on how odd they seem when read. More even, if the majority of readers does read things out loud (which might have been the case) then it won't seem as strange to them too.

> But I know from experience that trying to read a text with long run-on sentences or with obnoxious grammatical features (like an overuse of subordinate clauses) can feel like pure suffering

David Foster Wallace certainly pulls this off in Infinite Jest

For those not familiar with 18th century literature, a little context might be in order.

The Spectator that Franklin made a model of is no relation of the modern magazine. This Spectator was an "essay series", a peculiarly 18th century genre, something like an editorial column without a magazine -- or a blog, for that matter.

At the time, the Spectator essays were considered the high-water mark of good style and clear expression in English.

You can read them for yourself on Project Gutenberg:


I imagine writing like this in the present century would read rather strange. Is there a modern equivalent?

If you're interested in doing these techniques practically, Arthur Whimbey's materials on writing could be very helpful. They give you a more systematic and practical approach than is presented here.

Do you have a recommended starting point?

I came across Franklin's method years go while reading "Talent is Overrated" and modified his strategy by coupling Anki, a digital SRS—spaced repetition system—with books and articles by my favorite authors. It goes like this: read a sentence, rewrite it in my own words on one side of the "card", copy down the original sentence on the other side of the card. Practice. Rinse and repeat.

Is it possible for you to share your deck? I read Talent is Overrated and I use Anki too.

My deck is highly tailored to authors that I aspire to emulate, however, shoot me an e-mail and send you my deck. matt@itsmemattchung.com

The mechanism of introducing an information bottleneck, e.g. by changing from prose to poetry and trying to recover the prose, seems similar to autoencoder techniques that are popular in machine learning.

I decided not to read this after the page scrolled back to the top twice while I was reading, and then threw a popup demanding an email address when I dared move the mouse. That's when I closed the window.

I've had about enough bullshit "engagement" today, and marketmedications.com won't be getting visits from me until I forget how rude they are.

I'm pretty sure that if Ben Franklin were writing today, he'd want to publish somewhere that wasn't so annoying it chased readers away.

If you like this article, I highly recommend checking out https://www.farnamstreetblog.com/. It drops a lot of wisdom around making better decisions, recognizing and working towards reducing the effect of cognitive biases, and getting to know our rational and irrational selves better.

How do you take notes on a sentence?

I took it to mean "put the sentence in your own words in a shorter way"

He printed a local newspaper and invented the farmer's almanac, but is Benjamin Franklin actually a paragon of prose style?

They could have stamped a caveat just before the descriptions of the writing exercises:

"If you're already better at writing than Benjamin Franklin, feel free to disregard"



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