Thursday, June 10, 2010

How to write a "Malcolm Gladwell Bestseller" (an MGB)

If, like me, you've read Malcolm Gladwell's Blink, The Tipping Point and Outliers you may have come away with the impression that you had a fun read, learnt something interesting, but, perhaps, felt a little flat at the end.

I think this is because Gladwell's books actually contain very few ideas. But these few ideas are chosen to be interesting to a general reader, to be understandable by a layman, and Gladwell provides a large number of examples and, especially, stories to illustrate a technical point.

Now, of course, all of Gladwell's books are bestsellers, and if you're a writer you too might like to have Gladwell's success. So, suppose you wanted to write a Malcolm Gladwell bestseller. Here are my distilled features of such a book:

1. Your book is actually going to be a collection of essays drawn together by a loose thread. The thread really doesn't have to be drawn very tight. In all three of his books there's a vague connection between essays.

2. Each of your essays is going to revolve around a single idea; e.g. in Outliers there's a whole chapter about the fact that when athletes are picked based on a calendar this means that children born close to the cutoff date are favored or disfavored depending on whether their birthdate is before or after the date.

3. Illustrate the idea with stories about real people. In Outliers, Gladwell's 10,000-hour rule (basically to be good at something you have to do it a lot) is illustrated by talking about Bill Gates, The Beatles, and others you will have heard of.

4. Get a professor. If you are illustrating a complex point (such as the facial expressions in Blink) you'll want a professor to interview and quote from. You will need to spend quite a bit of time talking about the professor's background and establishing his long credibility to drive home the point you are making. This 'professor credibility' is a substitute for the idea actually being established scientific fact. For example, in Blink Gladwell reports on the micro-facial expressions of British double agent Kim Philby. It's hard to read that passage without thinking "confirmation bias", but Gladwell passes it off as fact.

5. Best to have some sad stories to illustrate your points well. The story of Christopher Langan, an autodidact that Gladwell portrays as a genius who has failed to succeed, appears in Outliers.

6. Give things names and remember Douglas Adams' rule of capital letters. Capital letters make things important. For example, in The Tipping Point, Gladwell conjures up the following important concepts: The Law of the Few, The Stickiness Factor, and The Power of Context. In Outliers, there's The Matthew Effect and The 10,000-Hour Rule.

7. Don't fret too much about accuracy, concentrate on telling a good story. In The Tipping Point, Gladwell makes much of Stanley Milgram's experiment sending letters across the country (which is where we get the six degrees of separation idea), and part of the book relies on the idea that certain people are 'hubs' (with many connections) through which messages are likely to pass. Unfortunately, more recent work suggests that this isn't true.

8. Don't worry about the new, new thing. Gladwell's books often talk about relatively ancient ideas. In Outliers there's a chapter about cockpit dynamics and how different cultures deal with respect within hierarchies differently. The result is that in some cultures the captain's decisions might be respected even when erroneous (leading to crashes). The critical paper for that chapter is Cultural Diversity and Crew Communication which dates to 1999.

The perfect Gladwell chapter is the section mentioned in 8: The Ethnic Theory of Plane Crashes. The stories are great (plane crashes, heroic pilots, cockpit transcripts) and set the scene for the idea. There are enough statistics to keep it looking grounded in hard facts. There's a simple idea: those Asians are too respectful of hierarchy. There's even the Qantas Effect: those unruly Australians don't have plane crashes because they don't respect hierarchy. Simple, easy to digest, grounded in some facts, illustrated by scary and heart-warming stories.

Hmm. I think I'm putting The Geek Atlas 2 on hold... got to get on the New York Times bestseller list. Now for a snappy title...

PS Have I missed any characteristics of an MGB?

Labels:

If you enjoyed this blog post, you might enjoy my travel book for people interested in science and technology: The Geek Atlas. Signed copies of The Geek Atlas are available.

21 Comments:

Blogger Richard said...

I too have read all of Gladwell's essay/articles in The New Yorker and each of his books of those same essays threaded together and I have to say, your note that the books leave you flat at the end is right on for me.

I prefer Gladwell in essay form and given that I read The New Yorker, I think I'm going to skip the books in the future. My personal fav is 6 Degrees of Lois Weisberg which was in The Tipping Point:

http://www.gladwell.com/1999/1999_01_11_a_weisberg.htm

In it he covers all the major ideas expanded in the book and it's a much faster read.

Thanks for your post, and good luck with the bestseller.

4:00 PM  
Blogger RFinn said...

Actually, Step #1 should be to start with a more detailed, drier book, with a solid and concrete idea and then figure out how to rewrite it. For instance, Outliers presents the same ideas, and some of the same stories, as Talent is Overrated (by Geoffry Colvin). It's also worth noting that Talent Code followed both of these books and presents some additional research.

Gladwell isn't the first to use this model, obviously, but he's pretty good at it.

5:27 PM  
Blogger Joel said...

I wrote something similar a couple of years ago:

http://candid.livejournal.com/770034.html

5:54 PM  
Blogger J-Po said...

You have two Step #4s. :)

6:26 PM  
Blogger Andrew said...

Are the two #4s supposed to be a joke?

6:29 PM  
Blogger Rebecca said...

You might have forgotten one requirement - being male. Here is a 2008 post from Tomorrow Museum commenting on, among things, why women don't tend to write those types of books where one sweeping assumption describes the state of civilization: http://tomorrowmuseum.com/2008/10/27/where-are-the-renaissance-women/

6:32 PM  
Blogger John Graham-Cumming said...

Whoops. Sorry about the two number 4s.

7:09 PM  
Blogger Kyle said...

"Unfortunately, more recent work suggests that this isn't true."

I don't know if it's quite fair to fault him for describing the scientific consensus of the time, even if that consensus was later proven wrong.

Also, just because work was done a decade ago (as with the airline pilot study) doesn't mean it's wrong or uninteresting.

8:21 PM  
OpenID Diablevert said...

You did miss one thing: The idea must also be superficially contrarian. Eg, instinct is superior to analysis, hard work is more important to genius than talent, the whole world is connected together by relatively few people, perfection is different things to different people.

8:24 PM  
Blogger CAgirl said...

You've got to be kidding! MG's books don't leave me flat and I've learned interesting tidbits, which make me notice things differently.

Faulting him for using capital letters in "Law of the Few" is the only way to distinguish this concept from "law of the few." Don't you people read? This is Grammar 101.

This is pure sour grapes. If it's really this simple, go ahead and write a bestseller yourself!

11:19 PM  
Blogger work, love said...

It's not just that he builds his writing around theories that have been disproven, but that were never taken seriously by experts in the field -- Ekman's work on lie detection being a particularly glaring example. For more, see http://bit.ly/9Zw12w

11:50 PM  
Blogger Michael Moncur said...

Another thing you missed is that you need to add quite a bit of unnecessary detail any time you mention a person.

Interviewing a Professor is fine, but to be a Gladwell you have to say:

As one of the earliest researchers of the Blinking Point phenomenon, Professor Arnold Frink has studied hundreds of cases.

Professor Frink is six foot one and weighs 245 pounds. He has unruly brown hair, not dark brown but the color of half-roasted hazelnuts. He has a habit of drawing his slender fingers through his hair as he thinks about a problem. He has few friends, but knows just about everyone on the campus. He once placed second in the fifty-yard dash in the Princeton Junior Athletics division, and his preferred drink is the Dry Martini. Frink is taciturn and even shy at times, but gets almost unbearably loud if you argue a point with him.

When asked about my theory, he said, "Yes, that's true."

2:14 AM  
OpenID 1z1cw3 said...

Thank God someone is speaking up and calling bullshit on the absurdity of the Gladwell books. I anxiously await someone - anyone! - to slay the biggest dragon of them all: Seth Godin. I actually enjoy Gladwell's New Yorker essays, and the occasional Godin blog post. But the overbearingly repetitive, worthless nonsense that metastasizes around their writings in long form is soul-crushing-ly empty. I cannot for the life of me understand the cult following that each has attained. Godin is considered a business and marketing guru, and yet he basically writes self-help books wrapped around cute anecdotes that promulgate the obvious ("To survive in this economic climate, you have to be an indispensable linchpin! Really!"). As for Gladwell, you (and @Joel) have summed it up perfectly. As for the legions of devotees of each, I think the best-seller/viral spread of their works ("You MUST read the new Gladwell/Godin!") creates a peculiar, vicious cycle: it's always "sour grapes" (rather than critical thinking) to the masses of followers like @CAgirl who have plunked down copious amounts of money to have every book these guys have written and to attend speaking engagements whenever possible. They have to cry "sour grapes" to justify their investment.

3:41 PM  
OpenID 1z1cw3 said...

Thank God someone is speaking up and calling bullshit on the absurdity of the Gladwell books. I anxiously await someone - anyone! - to slay the biggest dragon of them all: Seth Godin. I actually enjoy Gladwell's New Yorker essays, and the occasional Godin blog post. But the overbearingly repetitive, worthless nonsense that metastasizes around their writings in long form is soul-crushing-ly empty. I cannot for the life of me understand the cult following that each has attained. Godin is considered a business and marketing guru, and yet he basically writes self-help books wrapped around cute anecdotes that promulgate the obvious ("To survive in this economic climate, you have to be an indispensable linchpin! Really!"). As for Gladwell, you (and @Joel) have summed it up perfectly. As for the legions of devotees of each, I think the best-seller/viral spread of their works ("You MUST read the new Gladwell/Godin!") creates a peculiar, vicious cycle: it's always "sour grapes" (rather than critical thinking) to the masses of followers like @CAgirl who have plunked down copious amounts of money to have every book these guys have written and to attend speaking engagements whenever possible. They have to cry "sour grapes" to justify their investment.

3:44 PM  
Blogger SeanONeill said...

Amen!

4:37 PM  
Blogger Livia said...

Gladwell's not perfect, but I think you're a bit too hard on him. There's nothing inherently wrong with points 1, 2, 3, and 5. It's just a question of what kind of book you want to write, and he's sold enough books to prove that this style works for him.

Accuracy and novelty (7 and 8) are somewhat mutually exclusive. If you write about the new new thing, the chances are high that later research will contradict you. It's a constant balancing act and hard to get perfect. Even as a science blogger who works in the field, I constantly worry that something I write about has been or is in the process of being disproven.

Also, it's very rare that any scientific claim is completely supported by all other research. It's the nature of the process -- once a paper goes out, other people come along and try to prove you wrong. Debates go on for decades and the answer is almost never black or white (Although perhaps Gladwell is at fault for portraying it as such). Do you have references to the papers that contradict Milgrim's results? I'd be interested in reading them.

4:42 PM  
Blogger Rolodexter said...

I dig the premises of the other books this author's put out. And, he has a knack for writing for the masses, which is probably why he's on the NYT Bestsellers list so often (what with mechanics like "Or are they?"--dun, dun, dun!). You would've certainly have heard of this guy if you listen to NPR at a

6:18 PM  
Blogger Peter Gordon Mann said...

I think you've captured the essential ingredients. I expressed similar sentiments in a piece called, "Malcolm Gladwell polishes a turd." http://whenfallsthecoliseum.com/2010/07/13/malcolm-gladwell-polishes-a-turd/

9:06 AM  
OpenID TYECEDT said...

all of this YET he is on the list as #2 of the greatest 50 thinkers......and your name is where?

4:06 PM  
Blogger Esspweb said...

Its really difficult to comment on this post. You know why? Cause i could not express in words. And i really like this post. Thanks for sharing.

7:06 AM  
Blogger MzzCindy said...

I am writing a critical analysis on Gladwell's "Small Change" and in the process I somehow ended up here. Glad I did.

I can't remember the last time I read anything that made me laugh all by myself.
Thank you. Ur observations are right on point.

2:11 AM  

Post a Comment

Links to this post:

Create a Link

<< Home