12 Uncommon Writing Lessons From Malcolm Gladwell

Corey McComb



I wasn’t sure what to expect when I enrolled in Malcolm Gladwell’s Masterclass on writing. Online writing courses often the same writing advice we’ve heard over and over. Show, don’t tell. Avoid the passive voice. Kill your darlings.

By the end of this class, however, I was overwhelmed with the number of gold nuggets M.G. shared during the lectures. He spills the beans on everything from how to research, the true job of the writer, and the most important question a writer can ever ask.

Here’s a list of my favorite pieces of uncommon writing advice from Malcolm Gladwell’s Masterclass.

1- “Amateur storytellers withhold valuable information because they are oblivious. Pros withhold information for suspense, surprise, or humor.”

You can withhold key pieces of information throughout an article or story, however, you want to make sure the reader has everything they need to solve the puzzle by the end. And it's even more powerful if you can let the reader know something that one of the characters doesn't realize yet. That's one way to have a reader develop sympathy and feel superior to a character.

Withhold information from the reader for suspense. Withhold information from a character but tell the reader to create tension.

2- Surprise vs Suspense:

A surprise is when you learn something you didn’t know or know you needed to know. Suspense is knowing there’s something you need to know, but haven’t got it yet. The best kind of suspense is when the reader knows vital information is coming but is being held. That’s what keeps them reading.

Good writers use a mix of surprise and suspense throughout their stories.

3- Google is BAD for research.

Research is not about finding answers that lead to conclusions. Proper research should always bring up more questions. Google is bad for research because it ranks answers by the level of popularity, so you’re finding information that everyone else is already looking at. Good research should do the opposite.

Go interview people. Read books on topics that subject adjacent. Pull on the threads of your questions in an effort to find answers you would have never thought of asking in the first place.

4- “One thing leads to another.”

When doing research, pull on the threads you’ve already found. An interesting person belongs to an interesting group. There is an interconnectedness in ideas and curiosity that doesn’t require starting over at every turn. Use the serendipity that comes from pulling the threads already in front of you.

5 “The best ideas come from other people.”

You don’t need to wait for something interesting to happen to you. You don’t have to come up with your own ideas. Other people can and should be the best resource for stories and ideas. Stay out of your own head for a while and listen up. This is something all top-level creatives know: The best ideas come from other people.

6- “Create the world to describe the person.”

Instead of describing your sibling’s physical features, tell us about their bedroom. World-building gives readers a better idea of the type of person a character is than describing how they look. What is the color of the furniture? What kind of art is on the wall? It’s those details that give insight to characters' hopes, fears, and ticks.

7- “Writing is an instrument and you need to play in different styles to get better.”

Write a story the way you would for a serious, high-brow magazine. Then, write the same story the way you would email a friend after a few drinks. Move between tones and styles and learn from each one. Writing is a chance to speak in accents and to be a chameleon.

It can take a long time before you can sound like yourself. All the great writers copped styles and tried on other people's voices before settling into their own. Being a chameleon is an important part of being a writer. Many of the greats, like Hunter S. Thompson, used to type out whole passages from the Great Gatsby just to feel what it felt like to type those passages.

8- “You don’t know what is really interesting until you give it a fair shot on the page.”

Don’t wait until your research is done before you start writing. That forces you to pick and choose what you think is interesting before giving everything a fair shot at coming alive on the page. Often times, it’s the little details that don’t seem important in your notes that become the key to the whole story.

9- “Critics and editors are the same. One helps you now, the other helps you in the long run.”

With editors, you get to use their feedback before you publish. With critics, you have to wait until next time. Both give you a chance at introspection and the chance to learn.

10- “How can I be different? Not ‘better’ but different?”

This is the big question every writer must continuously ask themself. And once you can answer the question, "How can I be different?" that you're free to ask the question, "How can I be different AND better?"

This is difficult to answer, but it's a great question to keep in your back pocket as you grow and change and discover.

11- “Read the resources authors used to write the books you like.”

Reading the resources of a book puts you inside the mind of the writer. It gives you the chance to reverse engineer how they used someone else’s research to craft a new narrative. This is the best way to learn how to research and then write based on what you find.

Dig into the reading lists of your favorite writers not only to learn how to research but to also see how who else influenced their style.

12- “Writing doesn’t always have to fit together nice and neat in the end.”

People love jigsaw puzzles. We are naturally drawn to the idea that thousands of separate pieces have the potential to come together and make one beautiful statement. But the writer doesn’t always need to be the one who solves the problem they introduce to a reader. The writer’s job is to introduce a problem, offer hints, and make the reader think and question.

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Best-selling author of 'Productivity Is For Robots' | I sprinkle a dose of humanity into overly-optimized brains with stories on life, business, and what it means to be human. Visit coreymccomb.substack.com to see my best work. Follow me on Twitter @coreymccomb

San Diego, CA

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