Here are my notes from Malcolm Gladwell’s writing course on Masterclass. It has 6 hours of dense video content, so these notes will be split into 4 parts published over 4 weeks.
Misrepresentation, misunderstanding, and miscommunication are on me. The good stuff is on Malcolm Gladwell.
Here’s part 3.
Summon a character’s spirit
Find the things that capture your character’s spirit.
Malcolm gives the example of a profile he did on Nassim Taleb, who he thought had a magnificence of spirit. He tries to get this across by talking, amongst other things, about how Taleb calls one of his employees lazy but means it as a compliment. This gets closer to capturing Taleb’s spirit than any adjectives would.
Use other people to describe a character
In the, Malcolm juxtaposes Taleb’s personality with those of the people around him. By doing this, he ends up describing Taleb quite quickly. You don’t have to be Proust and write pages of description.
Establish character quickly
Describe people through their physical space
There’s as much value in describing a person’s physical space as there is describing the person themselves. If you were to write about your sibling, and you had a choice between directly describing them or just describing what’s in their bedroom, the latter would probably be better.
Practice character building
Athletes spend way more time practicing than playing. Practice your writing — try to write a profile of your friend just from what’s in their bedroom.
Write about a character through other people’s eyes
Friends describe you differently than you describe yourself. You get a much more telling portrait from friends than from the person themselves.
Set the stage for your subject
Malcolm once wrote a profile about Ron Popeil, a late night TV infomercial guy. The thing that’s interesting about Ron, and the thing that’s most significant about his story, is his family heritage. He’s the third generation of people in his family who pitch kitchen gadgets on TV.
To get this significance across, Malcolm gives the piece aa long introduction that describes everyone in Ron’s family, and only then does he introduce Ron Popeil himself.
The question is rarely how to tell the story, but how to make the audience appreciate it.
Write sophisticated ideas simply
By reading difficulty, Malcolm writes at an 8th grade level. Super short sentences. His writing is straightforward. Writing should be simple enough that it doesn’t defeat the reader. 8th-graders sometimes don’t understand Malcolm’s work, but it’s because of the complexity of the ideas, not the writing.
The other benefit of short sentences is that when you do write a long sentence, it pops. The audience will enjoy them if set up correctly. Use them sparingly.
Create feeling with form
In Malcolm’s profile on Ron Popeil, the introduction is full of long sentences, meant to invoke biblical language. To get us to take Ron and his lineage seriously, Malcolm is trying to create a sense of grandeur. The sentences are long because of how they feel, not in order to impart information.
Establish rhythm with punctuation
Read things aloud. When you hear writing, you get an insight that you don’t get when you read it. Writing has a musicality that comes from its rhythms.
When do you want the reader to pause? When do you want them to savour something? If you want to tell a joke, put the punchline at the end of the sentence. If you think a line is pithy and great, don’t bury it.
Malcolm is wary of semi-colons; he thinks they’re neither here nor there. If you want a sentence to be over, use a period. If you don’t want a sentence to be over, then use a comma — ”I don’t know what this middle period is, it’s very distressing to me.”
Practice rhythm and spacing in public speaking
In public speaking, you can tell when you’re losing the audience. You can feel the attention in the room going somewhere else.
The more you speak, the more adept you become at picking up group cues. Public speaking will teach you to be attentive to your audience, which will carry over to your writing.
Use jargon tactically
Jargon can give your audience a window into another world. But there’s jargon that makes complicated things simple, and there’s jargon that makes simple things complicated. Avoid the latter.
In a piece Malcolm wrote about a new Melanoma drug, he introduces one piece of jargon — the Kaplan-Meier curve. This is a single chart that shows, at different points in time, the survival rates for patients with and without a particular drug. When the “with” curve is higher than the “without” curve, the drug is saving lives.
You feel smart when you learn about Kaplan-Meier curves at the start of the piece. And for the rest of the piece, you just want to know one thing — what does the curve look like for this new Melanoma drug? This is revealed in the final paragraph. In Malcolm’s words, the whole article was just preamble preparing you for that moment.
This is the same feeling of suspense that oncologists get watching new drug trial presentations. For a few brief moments, the piece puts us in their seats. That’s the beauty of jargon.
Pay attention to your tone
When someone’s a jerk, you can pick it up in their writing. The listener isn’t just assessing what you’re saying, but who you are. Just as in a conversation, you can’t get away with being obnoxious or egotistical or self-indulgent. You can’t hide your personality when you write.
Mold your voice based on audience and subject
Your language should be a function of your audience and the subject.
Sports, for example, frees people up to be emotional in a way that they aren’t normally. He’d usually never call someone an idiot, but in his sports writing, Malcolm calls James Dolan the “dumbest person in sports”. It’s understood that with all the benefits it brings, working in the sports franchise comes with this downside. So it’s appropriate to say this.
Different voices are appropriate in different realms.
Move between different forms
Your writing style is an instrument that needs to be honed and framed. Do this by moving between forms. Try writing in a formal voice, and then writing in the most freeing voice imaginable. Practice taking the same story and writing it in many different ways.
Provoke deep, reflective emotion
We live in a society that fetishizes laughter. Joke-tellers have very high status. It’s an odd thing to take so seriously, since laughter isn’t rare. We laugh all the time. Laughter is a familiar emotion.
Genuine sadness is much more rare. There’s a reason you can remember the last time you were very sad, but can’t accurately remember the last time you laughed.
Producing sadness in your audience is a very different task than producing laughter. Malcolm is much more interested in sadness and melancholy than he is in laughter. He sees it as a great accomplishment if he manages to provoke deep, reflective emotion in someone.
Exercise restraint when writing sadness
While laughter often comes out of inauthenticity, sadness only comes out of authenticity. You can’t make someone cry by being out of character.
It’s really hard to write something that opens a genuine window into who you are and who someone else is.
In David and Goliath, Malcolm interviews a mother whose daughter was killed by a sexual predator. After the act, the mother chose to publicly forgive her daughter’s murderer. 10 years on, she relived this moment with Malcolm, who describes it as “unbearably heartbreaking”.
Writing about something like this, you can’t try too hard. Resist the impulse to overplay things — it’s not a soap opera. You don’t have to say “and as she told me this, her face was etched with sadness.” If you do your job and just describe the mother’s words, the reader will create a picture in their own mind. They’ll do the work for you. If you’re doing too much work, people will wonder why you’re trying so hard. Is it because you weren’t moved in the moment?
Don’t announce that you’re trying to be funny
Funny is hard when there’s an expectation that you’re going to be funny. It’s easier to be funny unexpectedly in the context of something else.
Part 4 of these notes will be published on 14 March. If you’d like a reminder, I’ll be sending a link out via Twitter and email 👇