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 4.
Attach character descriptions to narrative moments
Bring your subject to life — attach physical descriptions to narrative moments to make them more consequential.
Malcolm has a piece, “Something Borrowed”, about a playwright who plagiarised his work. The piece praises the playwright and questions how we think about plagiarism, so when Malcolm finally introduces her in the piece, he wants the reader to like her. In describing the playwright’s physical appearance, he mentions only two details, both of which complement the positive vibe he’s trying to create in the narrative.
Add tension to your titles
Titles are more powerful when they elicit a reaction. One way to do this is by putting two contradictory words alongside each other. This creates a tension that the reader will feel.
Think of your title as an ad
A title is a form of communication under severe time constraints. It’s the first thing readers will see about your piece, so you should think about it an enormous amount — as much as the content of the piece itself. On more than one occasion, Malcolm has come up with a title before the story.
Just get it down
Perfect is the enemy of good. You’ll never produce the perfect piece. Accept that your first couple of drafts will be bad, and just get things on the page. You don’t need to resolve everything immediately. The story will emerge as you tell it. Trust that process.
Just keep going
Don’t react to being stuck by stopping. Jump ahead. Write little pieces. A lot of problems are resolved in the doing. The important thing is to keep going. You can always rewrite — make use of that extraordinary freedom.
Write as you research
There are an infinite number of sources to read and people to talk to. If you do all the research first, you’ll have a recency bias when you write, and the other circumstances of your research will influence your writing unfairly.
On drafts and revisions
You can’t write a lot in a day. On a productive day, Malcolm writes one good page. To him, these 4-5 paragraphs represent a substantial achievement. It’s demanding creative work.
Work backward from your ending
It can be enormously clarifying to figure out how you want to end a piece, then work backwards. Once you know what the ending is, you can craft the rest of the emotional narrative around it. If you find a powerful moment, don’t let it dissipate. That’s your ending.
As you approach the end of the process, you lose perspective on what you’ve done — you become too close to it. So put it down and walk away. Don’t look at it for as long as possible. When you do return to it, you’ll instantly know what to change. Perspective is your friend.
Edit for clarity
The process of editing is all about simplification. Let your first draft be complicated and messy, then go back and polish the jewel.
Let go of your ideas
Once you’ve written something, it no longer belongs to you — it belongs to your readers. Don’t waste time and energy worrying about how readers use your ideas.
In Outliers, Malcolm writes that you have to practice for 10,000 hours to reach mastery in any field. Malcolm’s point was that to spend 10,000 hours on anything, you can’t do it alone — you need help from others around you. The public, however, saw the “10,000 hours” theory differently. Malcolm’s argument got simplified to “Gladwell thinks talent is unnecessary and that all you need is to practice for 10,000 hours”.
There was a period when Malcolm was irritated that his idea was being warped by others, and was constantly trying to correct the record. Eventually, he stopped. He realised that it wasn’t his job to police his readers, and that if he was being misinterpreted, it was because he didn’t write clearly enough.
Don’t mistake your critics for your audience
Reviews are an opportunity for you to introspect about your work and get better. But recognise that if someone criticises something, they are just one person. Criticism doesn’t signify a flaw in the piece, it signifies the opinion of the critic. If you feel that a critic is being unfair, then chances are that your audience will feel the same way and disregard their criticism.
As a writer, you’re in the business of creating a comparative advantage for yourself. Ask yourself what you’re doing that will make you stand out from others. Not necessarily by being better than others — that’s a very high bar — but by being different.
Malcolm’s lived in the US for 35 years, but hasn’t become an American citizen. This is symbolic. He feels it’s important to see himself as an outsider, and that part of why people read his work is in order to get a glimpse of a perspective different from their own.
Write interesting pieces
If you write something people find interesting, the system will find you. The system is pretty efficient.
Malcolm is friends with Bill Simmons, founder of The Ringer, a major sports site and podcast network. Simmons has hired people because he liked their Twitter, or because he stumbled across their personal blog and enjoyed it. Malcolm thinks this is the forefront of where journalism is headed.
If you do something that catches peoples’ attention, the world will find you. Not always, but the world is pretty good at finding talent.
Get a job to support your passion
Early on, Malcolm saw two separate things he needed to do in his career: establish himself as a writer, and make money. He accepted that they wouldn’t always overlap.
For much of his career, Malcolm had a day job that paid his bills, while freelancing on evenings and weekends (and sometimes at work). If he’d waited to find a writing job that paid his bills, Malcolm thinks he would’ve waited forever.
Freelancing gives you a lot of freedom if you’re making your living elsewhere. Malcolm was free to write for whoever he wanted, and could choose only assignments that would advance his career.
The best decision he made as a young writer, Malcolm says, was to have a day job that relieved the economic burden of writing.
Draw from your accumulated knowledge
When writing on assignment, you’re drawing from the mountain of knowledge that you’ve gathered over time, not just the short time that you have to write the story.
During one period in which Malcolm wrote a lot about pharmaceuticals, he says he could write an intelligent piece on the topic in 3 hours, because he was drawing on 3 years of knowledge.
The way to keep your reader in mind is to, first and foremost, be a reader. Reading is an act of equal importance to writing. Take it seriously.
Read to discover intent
Some book reviewers think about the question “How would I have written this book?”. And if the book deviates from their answer, they give it a bad review. This is being a bad reader.
A good reader thinks about the question “What did the author intend when they wrote this?”. This approach isn’t easy — it takes a lot of attention and work and thought. Pause every now and then and reflect on what you’ve read. Read it in pieces so you can chew on what you’ve learned.
Being critical is the easiest thing in the world. Malcolm claims that he could make War and Peace, one of the greatest novels ever written, seem like a piece of trash. You’ll sometimes need to point out things worthy of criticism, but what matters most is being able to point out things worthy of appreciation. This isn’t easy.
The job of a good critic is to appreciate. Dwight Garner, Malcolm’s favourite critic, looks for things that make him happy. The overwhelming sensation you get from his reviews is that he really enjoys reading books.
Read with context
Writing is situated in a time and a place. In order to understand To Kill a Mockingbird, you have to understand white liberals in Alabama in the 1940s — how did they think? Today we might read a lot of things from the present day into the story that don’t really belong. But the novel reads very differently when you understand what was going on racially in small-town Alabama at the time.
When you read Tipping Point, Gladwell says to remember that he wrote it in 1999, and that his beliefs have been updated since then. Feel free to walk away from things that you once believed but no longer believed.
Reconstruct a writer’s thought process
Find a book you really like, and look at its sources. Read some of them. Read the articles the author read. Put yourself in their mind. It’ll give you insight into how it was constructed, and you’ll see how the author used the sources to build a narrative.
Malcolm looks up to David Epstein for his depth of research. When you read Epstein’s work, you can tell how much went into it. He researches rigorously and covers all the bases, so you know he’s not pulling a fast one on you.
Malcolm is often anxious about not producing this same sense of certainty that Epstein does. He’s worried that a critic will say “You only interviewed 4 people when you should’ve interviewed 8”.
Address your shortcomings as a writer
Malcolm always looked up to Michael Lewis for his examination of character. When he read a Michael Lewis book, he felt like he was there alongside the characters, but he didn’t feel that with his own writing. Malcolm wanted his readers to have that, so to get better, he tried at one point to consciously start writing like Lewis.
He chose to address this shortcoming because it was tractable — he could actually learn it — and because it could significantly improve his writing.
A theory of other minds
We’re all fascinated by what goes on in other peoples’ heads. This drives Malcolm’s writing. He thinks it’s what almost all good non-fiction is about — creating a window into other people’s hearts and minds.
This is different to other art. You see a Picasso to get an insight into his own mind, but the non-fiction writer represents other peoples’ minds. It’s an act of service and empathy.
You can’t be fully human without trying to understand what goes on in other peoples’ heads. This is what writing is about.
Malcolm Gladwell: “I hope you’ve found this as fun as I have. And if you’re a reader or a writer, I wish you all the best in all your future work. Thank you.”