The Benjamin Franklin Method: How to (Actually) Learn to Write

Cover of The Unix Programming Environment, 1984

Cover of The Unix Programming Environment, 1984
Well, that’s interesting.
I’m not sure I’ve ever learned that way.
I learned to program in C by taking a core dump of the UNIX kernel and reconstructing what the source code must have been with only the header files.  Yes I know about “The White Books”, but lets face it, everyone cheats by downloading the source files rather than typing in the code by hand. Yes, hand re-typing all that code would make you think about it.
The other part of learning C for me was doing maintenance programming.  Somewhere along the line I had to decide “this is abominably ugly code, do I dump it and do a re-write or do I patch it into further unintelligibility?”

Once, reading a book on the history of economics I came across a sentence that ran for a page and a half. Galbraith is an excellent writer, he made his living for a while writing intelligible papers for US politicians. That sentence made perfect sense. I kept meaning to go back, copy it down, de-construct it and see if I could break it up into shorter sentences while maintaining intelligibility. Sadly I never did and I’ve forgotten what book that was. Galbraith loved words.

These days I read between 2 and 5 books a week, way, way down from my youth.  I’m not as much an ‘experimental’ reader as I was in my youth, I seems to stick with ‘known names’ and good writers of various genres.

Yes, there’s ‘discernment’, yes I recognize ‘good writing’ and appreciate reading it. Can I describe it? I don’t think so. Which is why this article held my attention.

The idea of dissecting and reconstructing sentences, or paragraphs or pages rather boggles my mind. If I ever took a course where we discomposed sentences on the “noun clause”, “adjective clause” etc, I can’t recall it.

Lets face it, I’m not at ‘atomist’, I’m not a bottom up type.  If I were to ‘decompose’ a book I’d probably do it the way the author planned it, what each part of the story tells, down to the function of each of the ‘scenes’. The scenes may be chapters or a collection of scenes make up a chapter. Perhaps. Textbooks unfold in a similar progression.

I don’t think in terms of sentences, and the idea of decomposing each and every one in a page scares me off. I only mentioned that one of Galbraith’s because it was so outstanding — how often do you meet sentences like that? Its in the class of writing a book without using the letter ‘e’! No an every day occurrence.

I admit that some authors seem to develop a formula and over do it. We all know about the success of the romance novels by Harlequin and Mills & Boon and others. They work because they stick to a formula. Robert Ludlum did this

The Bourne Identity (novel)

The Bourne Identity (novel) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

with about a dozen novels before the great hit with “The Bourne Identity“. His novels all involved some ‘conspiracy’ or hidden players and a man and woman on the run. He’d been churning these out regularly, every year, for a decade before he wrote The Identity in 1980. He continued churning them out. They sold well because of the formula and he gained experience as a writer, but stuck to this successful formula. His work was readable but unspectacular.

The movie came out in 2002 and probably owed more to Matt Damon for its success than Robert Ludlum, Doug Liman, Tony Gilroy, or William Blake Herron. Following the movie, Ludlum[1] churned out another 11 Bourne novels, one a year, which is probably all the publisher’s marketing people thought the market could absorb, and there are more planned. Well no, he’s no fool. These were ghost[2] written for him but that other prolific formula-happy wordsmith, Eric Van Lustbader.
Perhaps that’s because Ludlum died in 2001 with “only” seven unpublished books waiting. The last of those was published in 2006[3].

So, I get to wonder if and how van Lustbader analyzed the first three Bourne books that Ludlum wrote and how much he actually imposed his own style on the 10 Bourne books he’s written so far? And with that, has he just followed the structure or is he capable of emulating the sentence style of Ludlum?

To be honest, I’m not curious enough to want to find out.

I’m told that a common exercise in English Literature classes is to give the class a short (a few paragraphs) of a work by one author and ask them to re-write it in the style of another. I’m sure that something like “E A Poe” or “H P Lovecraft” would be spectacular and obvious but “”Hemingway” or “Faulkner” (both Noble winners, both American) would have to be a lot more subtle. It occurs to me that this is the sort of thing computers might be good at.

Which gets back to the original article.

Do people actually do that outside of English Language classes?
How would one select such a work?

[1] Read “The Ludlum estate”
[2] Ha! Sorry for that

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