Ben Franklin, Copywriter

How to Write Like Ben

“Either write something worth

reading or do something

worth writing.”

– Benjamin Franklin

At least twice, America nearly lost one of its early
political architects, Benjamin Franklin.

First, when he dangled a key on a kite.

He was nearly electrocuted. Instead, he survived to
invent the lightning rod.

Then we nearly lost him to an even more insidious
force… poetry. That’s right. He flirted with the
idea of becoming a poet as a boy. And his brother
egged him on. His father, however, told him “verse-
makers are generally beggars.”

So he picked another path. Not that he would have
flopped at it. In fact, he kept dabbling in it over
his lifetime.

But not full time.

Instead, he succeeded at a few other things. Like
inventing the Franklin stove… founding public
libraries, fire brigades, and the U.S. post office…
running his print shop…

Acting as statesman, and scientist… negotiating
treaties across Europe on America’s behalf…
reinventing underground journalism and American humor
and last but not least…

Becoming a master marketer.



Take the Franklin stove.

It’s a pot-bellied, wood-burning thing that we
remember for distributing heat better than any of its
day. Only… it didn’t.

First, another inventor had to improve the design.

But by then the Franklin stove was already a top-
seller. Why? Thanks in part to sales copy written by
Franklin himself.

Franklin’s sales pamphlet set the pace for many
modern ad techniques today.

It showed how heat transfer worked… it quoted
authorities to back up claims… it showed the
healthy benefits of even heating… it even showed a
graphic of the new technology and wrapped up the
close with a clever “jingle.”

Franklin didn’t stop there.

He also sold his political and social ideas in
editorials. He used his writing and personal selling
techniques to sell heads of state across Europe on
the idea of America. He did the selling that helped
get his own printing company off the ground.

One Franklin sales technique a lot of us already know
is the famous “Franklin Close,” where you draw a line
down the middle of a page.

On one side, you list the positives. On the other
side, you list the negatives. In a good offer, the
positives so outweigh the negatives, the prospect
can’t help but take you up on the deal.

It works.

But on a larger scale… and maybe less talked
about… was the powerful style Franklin developed in
his writing.

Franklin wrote thousands of persuasive letters during
his lifetime. And it was with the printed word that
he communicated some of his most successful ideas.

Including those ideas in his famous autobiography. An
essay, by the way, he originally wrote to convince
his son William to lead a virtuous and worthwhile

(William was a Loyalist; at one point, he even spied
on his father and reported his colonial activities to
the British crown. Can you imagine a dinner
conversation at the Franklin table?)

In the autobiography, Franklin explains step-by-step
how he developed that potent writing style…


First things first.

Before he wrote a word, Franklin read.

Often and a lot. But beyond voracious reading,
Franklin’s own method for teaching himself to write
also had a lot to do with his success.

It started when Ben’s own father found a stack of
Franklin’s letters to a friend. The letters had made
the argument in favor of educating women, something
the friend — and many of the people of the time —
were against.

Franklin’s father didn’t take up the issue. Instead,
he took Franklin to task for his writing style. It
lacked, he said, eloquence. And therefore failed to

Ben agreed.

Here’s what he did to fix the situation…

1) Role-Model Reading:

Ben picked out a piece of writing he admired and
actually wanted to imitate — The Spectator — and
studied it, front to back. He made notes on the
outline and structure of paragraphs. He memorized the
phrases. He noted the general themes in the piece.
That taught him the style used by the authors he

You can and should do the same with pieces of sales
copy. Is a half a day spent studying one very strong
sales piece a day well spent? Absolutely.

2) Flatter By Imitation:

I and other seasoned copywriters have often
recommended this trick. Take that piece of writing
you admire and copy it. Word for word. This is a
valuable exercise, even done as simply as this.

But Franklin took it even further…

“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.”

That is, not only did he study the original and copy
its techniques, he actually tried to reproduce its
key themes from memory… but in his own words.
Then he compared his work to the original.

Where he made mistakes, he fixed them. Sometimes he
found he’d even improved the original ideas. And of
course, this happened more often the more he wrote.

Again, you can do the same, if you’re willing. This
is one reason you study the past controls — to see
how they did what they did, then do them one better.

3) Organize Your Mental Toolbox:

More and more, we see that the real power of written
persuasion is the part you DON’T see — the
underlying outline.

Franklin saw that too.

He found, in his early rewrites of others’ works,
that his thoughts got jumbled and confusing. So he
took his paragraphs and copied them on pieces of
paper. Then he reassembled them in an order closer to
the original outline.

You can take an outline from a control package and
build new copy around it. You can also take notes,
while writing the package, in random order and then
reorganize when you’re finished.

I do this now.

I start with an outline. But as I write, ideas come
at random. So I use a feature in Microsoft Office
2004 for the Mac — Notebook Layout — that lets me
deal with themes on tabbed pages.

Then I reorganize the tabs to fit my original
outline. As more information pours in, I might resort
the tabs a dozen times. It helps the ideas pour out
freely, because I know I can safely organize them
later. It also gives me a fuller picture of the whole
prevailing theme of the promo.

I believe the PC version of Word now has this tabbed-
outline feature too (it didn’t when I first wrote
this article — search for the “Notebook” feature).

And if not, there plenty of other programs that do.
Mostly in the “outlining” or “idea organizing”
categories. Check freeware sites around the web.

Or you can pull off the same effect with — you’ve
guessed it — good old index cards. Give it a try.
Who knows how far it will take you?

John Forde, who aspires to write like Ben, can at least say he also hails from Philadelphia, not too far from Ben’s old stomping grounds. John has written direct mail copy these last 15 years, with more than a few million-dollar controls under his belt. You can read his musings every week, via his Copywriter’s Roundtable ezine: