Copywork: How Benjamin Franklin Taught Himself to Write Well

Benjamin Franklin, 1767, by David Martin

Benjamin Franklin, 1767, by David Martin

Although copywork is often seen as an exercise for young students, it’s a classic tool that is useful for almost anything you want to learn to do well. Artists copy the works of great masters in order to study their techniques, musicians play the works of great composers, and writers copy masterworks they hope to learn from.

In The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin, Franklin relates how, after his father pointed out his lack of “elegance of expression,” he taught himself to write more elegantly and expressively. Although this is not exactly like the copywork method used by Charlotte Mason for younger children, it is a related method of learning from the masters. Here is his technique in his own words. I have added paragraph breaks to make the paragraph a bit easier to scan online, and have extracted his steps and listed them below the quoted passage.

“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, 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 hand. Then I compared my Spectator with the original, discovered some of my faults, and corrected them.

But I found I wanted a stock of words, or a readiness in recollecting and using them. Therefore I took some of the tales and turned then into verse; and, after a time, when I had pretty well forgotten the prose, turned them back again.

I also sometimes jumbled my collections of hints into confusion, and after some weeks endeavored to reduce them into the best order, before I began to form the full sentences and compleat the paper. This was to teach me method in the arrangement of thoughts. 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 or the language.”

Franklin apparently pursued his lessons in writing during his early teens, which is a reasonable age for students with a strong foundation in reading to begin working with more challenging assignments.

 Ben Franklin’s Writing Lessons

  1. Read an article.
  2. Write short hints about each sentence (you could also outline the piece) and set it aside for awhile.
  3. Rewrite the article in his own words.
  4. Compare with the original.
  5. Revise and improve your essay.

Additional things he did:

  1. Turn prose to poetry
  2. Turn poetry to prose
  3. Jumble hints; wait; reorganize; rewrite

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More Benjamin Franklin EIL resources

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