Malcolm Gladwell's Writing Masterclass - Review + 6 Key Takeaways
Malcolm Gladwell is a staff writer at The New Yorker and the author of five New York Times bestsellers. He’s an expert in conveying complex, thought-provoking, often counterintuitive ideas to the masses.
His subject of choice? People. How we think and interact (social psychology, cognition), how we are shaped by our circumstances and upbringing (personality, developmental psychology, learning), and how we screw up (criminology, politics, and more).
He popularized the “10,000 hour rule” concept, explored the difference between choking and panicking, dove into unconscious decision-making (and all it’s features and flaws), analyzed how a disproportionate few influence the masses, and much more. He’s an extremely thoughtful writer — the concepts are designed to be digested, discussed, and shared.
Masterclass is an online education platform that plucks professors from the top .1% of their craft. Malcolm Gladwell was invited to host an online class on nonfiction writing, and he knocks it out of the park. Other A-list courses include Neil Gaiman on fiction writing (the next on my list), Natalie Portman on acting, Gordon Ramsey on cooking, and Usher on "The Art of Performance."
While I can't speak to what exactly you'll take away from Usher's class, I can assure you that Gladwell drops some high-impact nonfiction writing tips and provides deep insight into his style, tricks, and techniques. The lessons and delivery will leave you inspired, with a renewed love and appreciation for our favorite craft.
When Malcolm Gladwell hits you with some writing knowledge, you drop everything and listen. That’s why it’s such a gift to have him host a Masterclass on writing, where, in his characteristically thoughtful, compelling, and quirky manner, he takes you to nonfiction writing school. Here are 6 of my biggest takeaways:
1.) “Writing should be simple enough that it does not defeat the reader.”
Like Gladwell's books, from the beginning you'll find the Masterclass hard to put down. Almost immediately he hits you with this lesson.
Whether you’re working on an ad, content, a blog post, long-form articles, or a book, you should avoid the urge to sound uber-smart and sophisticated in your writing. Like Donald Miller says, if you confuse, you lose.
Just because your writing is simple does not mean it’s dumb. It means it’s legible. Don't sacrifice clarity for flourish and garishness. Remember this: The ideas can be complex, but the writing should be simple!
2.) "I often find myself mulling over something just in my head for ten times longer than I would actually spend writing that section"
With modern word processing programs we have the luxury (or curse) of being able to immediately translate our thoughts onto the page. This is great for capturing any and every thought, ensuring nothing is left unexplored, but it also means half-baked ideas creep into your work. You'll then need to invest time in extensive editing to hone the work.
Writing was done longhand for centuries, and then the typewriters rose to prominence. Authors had to dwell on and digest an idea before ever putting it to paper. Gladwell is an advocate of mulling over a thought and honing it in the mind before actually writing. It's a minor paradigm shift that can pay serious dividends in your writing.
3.) "I never react to being stuck by stopping… the important thing is just to keep going. A lot of problems are resolved in the doing."
Funny enough, pro authors almost universally deny the existence of "writers block," and have foolproof methods of plowing through moments of being "stuck." (It almost always means rolling up your sleeves, or doing more research, or not striving for perfection.)
Gladwell specifically recommends plowing through the writing — just get something down on the page. A bit later in the lesson, he articulates it beautifully:
"It's the great luxury of being a writer — we're not surgeons; the world does not hold us to our first pass."
For Gladwell, in addition to doing further research to reinvigorate your enthusiasm for the subject, the best way around being "stuck" is a regular writing practice, and the discipline to keep grinding through the awkward, muddy, or exhausting segments.
4.) “A title frames something quickly in someone's mind, and once you own the frame, you have a huge advantage in capturing someone's attention.”
It’s impressive how perfectly Gladwell's nonfiction writing lessons translate to other mediums, like marketing and advertising. The author, who admits he almost went into advertising, is obsessed with titles and headlines. He recognizes that a title is your chance to capture attention, and frame the subject (or product, or story) in the reader’s mind. Attention, of course, is not free. It's incredibly hard to obtain, and even harder to keep.
With a powerful, emotion-rich title, you own the frame, sink in the hooks, and command your reader’s attention. Whatever medium you're writing, draft a ton of titles or headlines, iterate, and edit until you get the perfect one (and whenever possible, split test your best ones!).
5.) “There is as much value in describing the world someone inhabits — the physical space they inhabit — as the person themselves”
In writing nonfiction, content marketing, or a blog post, oftentimes there’s more value in describing a character’s surroundings (whether it’s physical space, the people they surround themselves with, where they were brought up) than in simply describing them, how they look, or how they act.
Remember this and give it a try if you’re writing an interview or profile of a company or founder. It’s one thing to say “founder XYZ cares about her customers,” and another to describe how their desk is strewn with hand-written thank you cards to customers, how passionately they discuss customer satisfaction in team meetings. This is an opportunity to really flex your creativity.
6.) “Give them little digressions that can be represented in the elevator that will help them sell the piece to their friends”
Content marketing is the act of creating free media (often blog posts and other written content) in exchange for attention. Like any marketing effort, you want the broadest possible reach to relevant readers.
It’s not enough to be a great writer, and a great storyteller, and to bake in sales elements and SEO keywords into the content. If it isn’t read, it doesn’t matter.
Content attracts readers when it’s shareable, i.e. when a reader (or influencer, or curator) tells others about a post or shares a snippit on social media. And the best way to facilitate the sharing process is to purposefully feed readers little, interesting, creative digressions that they can reiterate to others. Gladwell calls this "candy." It's the part that comes after "hey, I'm reading this great book right now..."
Whether it's for products or content, word of mouth is often the best marketing! Don’t just hope these key points, talking points, and takeaways exist in your writing. Purposefully include bite-sized “candy” that satisfies readers and makes them want to go out and tell someone.
I found Gladwell's lessons absolutely invaluable as a content writer and blogger. This was an easy one to rate:
Rating: ☆☆☆☆☆ (5/5 stars!)
You can check out Gladwell's Masterclass on writing here. If you're a Malcolm Gladwell fan, or you enjoy studying the best of the best nonfiction writing, you should grab one of his books. Here are a few I'd recommend:
Talking to Strangers: What We Should Know about the People We Don't Know - his latest book (which I've just finished - awesome read!)
Outliers: The Story of Success - My favorite of his books
The Tipping Point - Another favorite, and arguably the book that thrust Gladwell into the public eye
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