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Notes from Malcolm Gladwell's Writing Masterclass (taimur.me)
197 points by refrigerator on Feb 22, 2019 | hide | past | favorite | 87 comments

There’s a review[1] on Amazon that speaks to the kind of books Gladwell writes, and it's both funny and perhaps contains a shred of truth. It goes:

”There's a school of thought that runs something like this: the average US citizen isn't very bright, has a limited attention span, and has an appetite only for the superficial. So if you want to write a book about something you feel to be important, you have to sugar the pill - with lots and lots of sugar and make sure it's a very small pill indeed.

Hence the style "American-Folksy." In this genre the author leads the reader gently along by means of first-person narrative, tons of anecdote, and just the gentlest hint of new information here and there. The lexicon is undemanding and the pace is calculated to be just brisk enough to prevent the onset of catatonia while being leisurely enough not to require any strenuous intellectual activity on the part of the reader. It's basically DisneyWords.

This is a well-tried genre used across a wide variety of subjects. In Search of Excellence and The Omnivore's Dilemma both use the same style despite their contexts being very different. And Weiner uses American-Folksy here for precisely the same reasons and to precisely the same effect. The purpose of American-Folksy is to take something that could have made a somewhat interesting 6-page monograph and stretch it out into a book-length peregrination.”

[1] https://www.amazon.com/gp/customer-reviews/R3KMN29SZX9ZKS/re...

I used to fall into the camp of being frustrated at Gladwell's books.

I would buy them, read them, learn from them, but be frustrated I spent that time and only really got one nugget from the book.

Then I became an adjunct professor. Teaching in my first course, I noticed that even the brightest students would ask me to go over content again with additional examples and it brought me back to these debates about Gladwell's books.

I decided to split my class in half, into group A and group B and run an experiment (that wouldn't impact the student's marks).

For Group A, I would give a detailed two hour breakdown of "Topic #1" explaining each element of it carefully and slowly. For "Topic #2", I would give only a thirty minute breakdown of the topic comprised of three anecdotes applying the topic.

For Group B, I would give the detailed two hour breakdown on "Topic #2" and the thirty minute anecdote series on "Topic #1".

Then I quizzed them.

Both groups performed better on the anecdote topics by a fairly significant margin, and not only had the class average performed better, but, I found that many individuals who often struggled on tests were performing FAR above their averages.

When I look back to the business concepts I remember, it's never long convoluted blog posts, or books covering an array of concepts. It's ideas that can be expressed in a few words (Jelly Effect, Tipping Point, Purple Cow) and then are beaten to death with examples.

There seem two be two reasons, first and foremost, not every anecdote, example, or explanation resonates the same with each person. So by increasing the number of examples you give, you are increasing the likelihood of an individual reader being able to understand.

Second, just like we learned in elementary with spelling and times tables, to truly 'learn' something repetition and reinforcement are really important and increase the likelihood of people being able to recall and apply the concepts that are taught.

Gladwell and others present just one or two nuggets of brilliance across their books, but, I think most educators would agree with me, that it is because of that repetition and variety of example's that most of us understand and remember the concepts they were trying to teach.

Than you for this explanation - it helped me understand why I tend to enjoy and get more out of books of this nature. I've liked Gladwell's books, at least the ones I've read. Deep Work by Cal Newport is another book that is frequently characterized as being "an article unnecessarily expanded into a book by padding it out with redundant examples", but I really loved that book as well. Done properly, the repeated examples and stories help reinforce the idea and provide different contexts and viewpoints of the same core concept.

Thanks to you, I'll no longer feel nerd guilt for thinking highly of books like this :)

I agree, and further I think of books like Gladwell's as a kind of summary with pointers to deeper reading by following up with the references.

I don't really expect one book to be the final answer on a topic. In particular, if you do look up the references in a book (even just in a cursory manner) you may be surprised to find that you don't think they support the author's interpretation.

In short, if Gladwell did supply more density or detail, it wouldn't really make his interpretation more right. It might seem to strengthen it in some peoples eyes, but that is an illusion.

So you're saying that reading notes from the MasterClass isn't a great use of time :)

It could be a great use of time to get the initial core nugget of info, but, unlike the Masterclass course itself you now have to find your own way to repeat and reinforce it. If you are the kind of person that can give yourself a structure of daily practice to implement a new concept more power to you!

>Then I became an adjunct professor. Teaching in my first course, I noticed that even the brightest students would ask me to go over content again with additional examples and it brought me back to these debates about Gladwell's books.

Perhaps because even 2018's brightest students are slow (at least in the reading comprehension, knowledge of literature, and attention department) compared to students of decades past?

I wonder if there's any popular non-fiction book which someone hasn't accused of being simplistic. The same criticism was levelled for "Sapiens." It seems a kind of gate-keeping, just like how an expert programmer would pounce on a simple explanation shouting, "hey this doesn't cover X, Y or Z." Sapiens might not be 100% accurate, but superbly covers tens of ideas that will gives you a fresh perspective to understand history and humans.

I haven't read Galdwell's books, but read most of his New Yorker articles. While I have observed that sometimes he cherry-picks data, his gift of communicating ideas effectively is un-ignorable. I have had trouble finding non-fiction writers that can match his ability. Gladwell might not be for you, but it's unfair to criticize him just because his writing lacks an academic treatment for the subject.

There are lots of popular nonfiction books that aren't simplistic. They just may be older than you would expect. For example, On the Origin of Species is a book packed with information, yet still approachable by most. You can find books in many fields - science, philosophy, history that are incredibly well written.

The last book I read that was written well was Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse In the Age of Show Business. (I've read Gladwell before and have mixed feeling about his writing)

You might enjoy any of Mike Dash's writing, also. He walks the line between vivid history and nonfiction novels, but he's also a diligent researcher who's pretty often covering material from unexamined primary sources.

Single-story history is of course easier to make vivid than thesis-based writing, but he still stands out to me as way above the usual mark for density * readability.

I don't think GP was criticising the books for not being academic, so much as stretching out 6 pages of worthwhile material to an entire book.

I've dipped into Sapiens - it does seems to contain more ideas per chapter than the Gladwell books I've read, though I'll reserve final judgement until I get around to reading it fully.

> I haven't read Gladwell's books, but read most of his New Yorker articles.

A significant part of what people (myself included) condemn about Gladwell is that you aren't losing anything at all by doing that.

How David Beats Goliath was a pretty interesting New Yorker article built around 2-3 very good stories, connected by some less-than-great history and dubious analysis. (Gladwell repeatedly implies that it's better to be David than Goliath, because Davids who use unusual strategies win more than half the time. He never manages to acknowledge that he's only looking at conventional-strategy Goliaths, and excluding cases where David looked for alternate approaches but found none.) Still, I'm glad I read it. The Eurisko strategy game story is superb, and the full-court press basketball narrative provides an interesting analogue to similar strategies in other sports like 'small ball'.

David and Goliath consisted of those 2-3 very good stories in a 300+ page book, filled out by tenuously-connected stories, ludicrously cherry-picked anecdotes, and confirmation bias filled blunders through sociological data.

Gladwell is definitely a talented storyteller, and turned loose on the right stories that's not to be underestimated. But his book-length works are scattered and heavy on filler at best. At worst, they're things like Outliers, which is focused and persuasively argued - at the cost of wildly misrepresenting the basic facts it relies on.

Yes, Gladwell's books are total nonsense that sounds good.

But... that means he has exactly the skill set you'd hope for in a writing instructor. He's not teaching you how to think or how to do research. He's teaching you how to sound good.

That book review could have been summed up in 8 words, but just writing out the facts as briefly as possible is not always the best way to convey information.

Me think, why waste time say lot word when few word do trick?

> Me think, why waste time say lot word when few word do trick?

Could have been more briefly stated as:

Avoid circumlocution.

A problem, for the author's perspective, in adopting this mentality is that it leaves a lot of room for dishonesty with oneself.

Clunky writing writing can be explained away with "readers are dull and lazy." Whether that's the case or the author has not found a user-friendly & medium appropriate way to work through difficult material... Concluding the latter is likely to produce the best book.

Brian Greene wrote a fantastic walk through of special relativity. He used the "atomic pong on a moving training" that will take an ordinary reader from speed of light invariance to time travel. It was (iircc) a few pages, one picture (the atom bouncing on a train). Incredible bit of pop-science writing.

From there, you can grok what "time flips in a black hole."

Assuming readers (or users) are stupid is just a lot less likely to result in better writing. Concluding that your writing can be easier to understand is.

> fantastic walk through of special relativity

Do you have a link? It's not obvious which treatment you mean (have done a simple search).

I love reading one-star reviews of Gladwell, Nassim Taleb and other airport literature, I only wish there was a review site for TED talks, the real live equivalent.

See Ben Bratton’s TED talk: https://youtu.be/Yo5cKRmJaf0

How does it compare to Reggie Watts'?


A Ted talk about what is wrong with Ted talks. Amazing.

'The Naked And The TED' is the best criticism ever written about TED generally, and very much worth your time:


I thought Nassim Taleb’s books (Fooled by Randomness and Skin in the Game) were quite rigorous.

What makes his book airport literature?

Skin in the game was anything but rigorous. I wrote a longer review of the book here [1] but the gist is this - "skin in the game" is a framework for responding to people's ideas by attacking the people directly. He provides little or no evidence while making extraordinary claims.

> He makes the extraordinary claim that “10 percent of Americans will spend at least a year in the top 1 percent, and more than half of all Americans will spent a year in the top 10 percent”. You’d think he’d link to a source that proves this. He does not. He doesn’t even clarify if he’s talking about income or wealth. This isn’t an oversight, it’s deliberate. As he explains, “just a little bit of significant data is needed when one is right”. Of course Taleb is right, so he absolves himself of the need to prove his claims. He simply needs to state them for them to be true.

He actually derides Thomas Piketty for including data in Capital in the 21st Century!

[1] - https://blog.nindalf.com/posts/skin-in-the-game/

I ran into his last book while waiting in an airport (of course) and opened a few pages at random to get a feel of it, maybe it was bad luck but any page I opened read just like a straight transcript of his Twitter feed...

This is true. I’ve read a number of non fiction books lately, and this style of writing drives me crazy. I’ve started reading summaries on Scribd instead. All of the meat; none of the fluff. If I want to read for entertainment or inspiration, I’ll read poetry or fiction. Many modern non-fiction books could be written as a single blog post, and it would be an improvement.

You're not the target audience.

The target audience is exactly as described - curious but not too bright, easily distracted, and fond of a good narrative with simplistic predigested conclusions, which ideally include a self-improving or reassuring takeaway.

Most pop sci is a strange hybrid of business and personal self-help, with a few tech-ish and sciencey trimmings.

Most of the rest is rehashed biography made of stock anecdotes.

The remainder includes some real science, and is often written by real scientists.

I think you're being unnecessarily cynical here.

For the sake of argument, let's set aside whether Gladwell's conclusions are correct or not, and just focus on the structure and style of his writing. Not all brains process information the same way. Just like some people are visual learners, and some are auditory learners, some people react better to one type of anecdote versus another. Offering multiple anecdotes or stories around a given topic offers the opportunity for more people to "click" with the concept being presented.

I'll give an example from my own life. I enjoy reading about new technologies, whether programming languages, cloud services, databases, etc. Frequently over the years, I've heard of something, and read a couple of things about it, and then decided "That's not very interesting, I don't think I'd use that, so I can ignore it." Then some time passes and I read something else about it, written from a different point of view. Maybe it describes an application for it that I hadn't considered (and that wasn't presented in the previous things I'd read), or perhaps it relates it to something I already know in such a way that I understand where it fits into my world. I reconsider my position, and find that technology X is, in fact, interesting and worth paying attention to.

That's happened more than once. Probably closer to a dozen times over my career. It's the same thing with books of this nature. If you're the kind of person who can look at a summary of a concept or a new thing, and immediately take stock of what it is, how it works, and how it applies, that's great. You're exactly right, you're not the target audience. That doesn't mean that the people who are the target audience are simple-minded folks who are looking for the intellectual equivalent of junk food. It simply means they process information differently than you do.

I'm not sure why you were downvoted -- I think you're 100% correct.

I have read Outliers by him and kind of liked it at the time. But later on I realized that Outliers book, along with much of his work, is some kind of scam. I didn't how to express that feeling until I read OP comment mentioning Amazon review.

Indeed he has shilled for the tobacco industry and others throughout his career, if he did a course on making money this way it would be far more honest.


I'd like to add his article 'Is marijuana as safe as we think,' which uses his usual brand of correlation=causation and use of anecdotes to cast doubt on cannabis legalization.

If nothing else, it's strange behaviour. If I were accused of being a tobacco shill, I would avoid writing articles with conclusions that align with tobacco industry interests...

Disclaimer: I have a chip on my shoulder about this, and I cancelled my New Yorker subscription over that article.

At first I thought that the review you linked was of one of Gladwell's books. Actually it is of the book "The Geography of Genius: Lessons from the World's Most Creative Places" by Eric Weiner.

Isn't this all pop science bestsellers? Freakonomics etc.? I mean it's not for everyone, but if (big if) it's reasonably accurate what is the harm?

> Isn't this all pop science bestsellers? ... if (big if) it's reasonably accurate what is the harm?

IMO, a bag of truth and lies is more dangerous than anything else: there's enough truth that the lies sound more plausible making it pretty difficult to separate them. It's much better to just steer clear of unethical authors.

Freakonomics is a triumph of marketing and speculation over expertise. Its point was never to be “accurate”, but to be controversial, to which end it focused on ambitious “counter-intuitive” claims in far flung fields (in which the authors had no deep knowledge or experience), backed with sloppy data and analysis. Most of its claims have aged rather poorly as more grounded and meticulous scholars examined them.

On the flip side it got a lot of high school students interested in studying economics and statistics once they got to college.

The reasonably accurate is highly dubious. I have read several of Gladwell's books and as pointed out by the notes here, there is a lot of shortcuts taken and blatant contradictions if you avoid getting lost in the nicely written narrative.

It’s a cynical view.

The real root of this genre is that magazines are dead. There is a market for tweets and books. Everything else is a path to poverty.

In 1960, Gladwell stuff and Freakonomics, etc would be feature articles in Life or US News & World Report, or Fortune. Now feature writers are extinct.

“The average US citizen is not very bright..”

That’s pretty offensive. If we say that about Mexicans, Koreans or any other nationality, that wouldn’t be ok would it? Somehow it’s ok to insult an entire nationality and it’s “funny?”

I don’t consider reviews or statements that blanket-insult a nationality to be “funny and perhaps containing a shred of truth.” Replace “American” with any other ethnicity or nationality and such comments wouldn’t be allowed on HN or in an Amazon review. The average American has average intelligence, just like the average anything else. When I was living outside the US, there wasn’t any particular difference in terms of pop/superficial awareness. Koreans, Chinese, French, Mexicans — none of the nationalities I’ve lived amongst had above average intellectual fortitude as a culture. They have idiots and geniuses and normal people just like everywhere else. So the ideas behind “American Folksy” could be applied anywhere, but calling is American just makes the whole review offensive.

All communication is storytelling.

If you read that review in Malcolm Gladwell's voice it completely works.

Despite owning some of his books, I can't say that I am a fan of Gladwell's writing style. But his Revisionist History podcast (revisionisthistory.com) is, by far, one of my favourite things to listen to and I highly recommend to give it a shot.

I came to Revisionist History with a healthy skepticism of Gladwell. I echo your sentiments about its worth. The semi-connected episodes 4,5,6 from season 1 about education hooked me.

I also enjoyed Saigon 1965 (S01E02) and the one about McDonald's french fries but more importantly the beginning of the war on fat in America (S02E09).

He unearths some good perspectives in the podcast and it doesn't have the pop-sci feel that his books do that get my BS detector going.

I find Gladwell very entertaining and enjoy his podcasts, even his most recent one about the music industry (Broken Record) despite not even really caring all that much about the topic (He makes even boring stuff interesting!) However I have to agree that he doesn't strike me as a writer that deserves to have a masterclass named for him. I also have some serious skepticism about the quality of his insights and his journalism. I'm under the impression that he is "often wrong but never in doubt" as they say.

I had a really hard time with the podcast (season 1), but I'll queue up one of the newer episodes. I felt like I could have had 10 podcasts worth of observation combined into a one hour slot.

I feel that his podcast, like his books, promise more than they deliver. That said I had to actually buy/read/listen to them to arrive at that conclusion, so I am sure that Gladwell will be happy enough.

Slightly off topic, but I was thinking of doing Neil Gaiman's storytelling course [1] on masterclass.com. Wondering if anyone here has done it and found it useful (or otherwise)?

[1] https://www.masterclass.com/classes/neil-gaiman-teaches-the-...

I'm only on the fourth video so far in his class but already I'm finding it useful, if for nothing other than having validation that it's okay to write the kind of stories you want to write. It's also quite interesting to hear the backstory to some of his books. If the first four videos are any indication, I suspect the rest of the course will be well worth it.

It was lovely! I really enjoyed it. But I'm mostly interested in writing technical docs, so some of the advice is hard to implement for me.

Whatever you think about the content, you have to admit Gladwell is a remarkably engaging writer.

I can’t believe marketing culture has gotten to the point where someone is pre-announcing Part 2 of his notes and offers to notify you if you subscribe.

hey, didn't mean for it to be subscribe-bait — I'd originally planned to do it all in one, but it took me a fair bit of time just to go through the first chunk of the course and write up coherent notes. Breaking it up into parts made it a lot manageable!

Don't listen to OP. You did good. Thanks for allowing me to get a notification when it's ready, instead of just making me rely on my memory.

It’s 100% ok to do this.

You can always unsubscribe at any time. It's probably just a click away. I like the idea of being reminded about continuing parts of an article I'm interested in. Getting a reminder is easier than making a note, remembering to check the note, checking the website to see if the next part has been posted, etc.

What’s the problem?

"I could tell you, but then I would have to [...]" - subscribe you to my newsletter.

More like "I am telling you, and I could not offer to remind you, but then you would have to rely on your own means of remembering."

No problem there.

The best way to read Gladwell is his articles in the New Yorker. His books are just a magazine article’s worth of ideas in book length.

I feel like many if not most books are that. They turn into the same idea stretched thin so they can fill a book.

What’s the ketchup conundrum? Is he saying that there is only one tomato based condiment? Or one maker of ketchup? Neither is true.

Heinz ketchup has 80% market share in Europe and 60% in the US. Anybody can make ketchup, it's one of the simplest condiments, like mayonnaise or maybe even salt. Yet it seems only Heinz can sell ketchup; the question is why.

The thing is, different ketchups taste vastly different. There are actually several other best-selling brands of tomato ketchup in Germany but they all taste very different from Heinz, and, in one case, objectively worse (bland). I used to think that Heinz’ taste is simply due to the ridiculous amount of sugar they pack into it but it turns out that the low-sugar Heinz variety is almost indistinguishable, taste-wise.

So I’m not convinced that it’s as simple as all that. I’m not saying marketing doesn’t play a role but it’s definitely not the only thing.

Heinz may have a market lock on ketchup in the U.S., but outside North America there are dozens of varieties. To play catch up, Heinz makes Tabasco ketchup, Siracha ketchup, garlic ketchup, plain old spicy ketchup and others.

Mr. Moskowitz should revisit his research. Heinz did their preparation before capturing the market. This involved taste testers and a close examination of how ketchup flows and adheres to bread. Then there is the small item of federal regulation on the viscosity of ketchup. If you dig through the archives you will find the diagram of the test fixture for performing the test. Perhaps a friendly congressman bent some arms at the FDA. It has been known to happen.

>I’m not saying marketing doesn’t play a role but it’s definitely not the only thing.

The 'bliss point' might play a major role, amongst various other factors.


This is literally just responding to someone saying "people buy more Heinz ketchup because it's tastier" by saying "perhaps it's because they made it as tasty as they could".

That’s not what he talks about in the article. He talks about why ketchup only has one variety, compared to all the different kinds of mustard or spaghetti sauces.

It’s ridiculously wrong though. Ketchup has tons of varieties, even if you only talk about tomato ketchup (which is not the only kind, although the vast majority). I can easily name more common varieties of tomato ketchup than of mustard. This seems kind of symptomatic of Gladwell’s writing, to be honest: fancy, convincing, but divorced from facts and true only in a limited, cherry-picked niche.

In the context of evolutionary anthropology this is known as “just-so” stories. Fitting then, that Gladwell’s ketchup essay also contains a just-so stories. He just couldn’t resist.

Only one variety, in what way? Obviously all ketchup will have something in common, by definition, but the difference between different brands is huge. From the disgusting sweet smooth childrens variety at mcdonalds to chunky, spicy artisan catsups.

Those artisan catsups weren’t around when he wrote the article 14 years ago.

> Yet it seems only Heinz can sell ketchup

60% marketshare in the US rather strongly indicates other people can, in fact, sell ketchup.

> the question is why.

I suspect their continued dominance is a result of marketing plus the effect of expectations of consistency leveraging past dominance.

I once read some marketing advice that said a brand should fasten onto a word and make it theirs, e.g. in cars "safety" used to be owned by Volvo.

That seems to have occurred with "ketchup" ...

I confuses me, too, since even from a young age I remember making the choice at the supermarket whether to get Heinz or another variety. We picked Heinz because it tastes better.

But they're not perfect, because recently we had ketchup at a restaurant that made their own. It was very, very good, and we preferred it to Heinz. It's clearly possible to do better.

Also, mushroom ketchup is amazing. (Also locally made for that restaurant, apparently.)

To me, there's no more a 'ketchup conundrum' than one for mustard. Until I was an adult, regular yellow mustard was the only real choice. (Yes, there were Grey Poupon commercials. Nobody I knew actually ate it. They did make fun of it, though.)

They forgot all about Brown Sauce!

Step 1: take a bunch of research out of context and spin a nice bedtime tale that the data doesn't really support.

As a wise man[2] once said, "the plural of anecdote is Gladwell"[1]

[1] https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=12861468 [2] Ok, me

I thought [1] was going to be a link to itself (https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=19224648).

This might have been interesting, but, as a source of truths, it did not age well. https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2010/10/04/small-change-m...

For those leveling the criticism that Gladwell's style is too simplistic and unacademic, is this stylistic form simply a product of the author or a product of a publishing industry that knows their audience will choose digestible prose over dense manuscripts (and sponsors authors and their books accordingly)?

Those two possibilities are not mutually exclusive, nor is either exclusive with other notions like reader expectations and capabilities being guided to some extent by the most popular and/or readily available material.

In the few times I've read (or started to read) one of Gladwell's books I always think "This book would make a great article".

If you haven’t heard this before, listen to Gladwell’s unhinged thoughts on which race/nationality/region (he seems to use the 3 interchangeably) is best at basketball:


Absolutely wild and the host is just along for the uncomfortable ride. I still have no clue what he was thinking.

There are hits, there are misses, and then there are whatever that was.

For those who prefer skimmable text, it's summed up here: https://deadspin.com/malcolm-gladwell-goes-on-bill-simmonss-...

Well that was ludicrous, but this is an off-topic post. You can have the kookiest ideas in the world, but still be a master of writing.

He likes to construct scenarios with specific dimensions and then make wild claims about them. He also likes to assertively make proclamations about things he admits he knows nothing about, and at times seems to enjoy being patronizing or insulting. He's an ass, and also a pretty good writer and speaker.

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