When I was about twelve, my grandma gave my mother her Elsie Dins- more collection, a 19th-
century Christian fiction series written
by Martha Finley. 1 The books were yellowed antiques, and Elsie herself was
nauseatingly perfect, but I soon found
myself engrossed in the first two volumes. These concerned Elsie’s late childhood and spun such a woeful, melodramatic tale of trials and neglect that I was
captivated. Within a year or so, I had
read both books three times.
Considering that one could hardly
choose a more wholesome story than
that of a child who wept over the pages of
her Bible after committing a sin (I’m not
kidding!), it certainly did me no harm
to immerse myself in her world. Still, I
“Oh! Thank you, dear Aunt Adelaide,
how kind you are!” And “I shall be so
glad.” After a few embarrassingly close
calls, I decided I’d had enough of Elsie
and moved on to other books.
Of course, I was too young at the time
to understand what I had just experienced, but as I made my way into teaching and parenthood, my memory of the
effort I had to make to avoid talking like
Elsie made a deeper impression on me.
Words, I realized, do not merely commu-
nicate. They have power! They become
part of us and influence us. And if they
have such power, then the words that bur-
rowed their way into my mind made a real
difference in how I learned to communi-
cate. Of course, having a mentor was es-
sential for learning how to shape and im-
prove my writing. Where I learned most
deeply about language and style and the
essentials of communication, though, was
through my immersion with words. What
I read and what I watched on a regular ba-
sis really mattered.
One of our most cherished American
heroes understood this better than I did.
As a young man, Benjamin Franklin’s
writing was judged to be weak, and he
could have accepted that judgment. Yet,
because of his ambition and perseverance,
he became one of the most stylish writers
of his day. What was Franklin’s secret?
A good teacher? A well-researched text-
book? Nope, his secret was the practice
of close imitation, and it cost him only
by Cheri Blomquist
Secret to Elegant Writing
What was Franklin’s secret? A good teacher?
A well-researched textbook? Nope, his secret
was the practice of close imitation.
ABOVE: Declaration of Independence, draft with changes by Benjamin Franklin