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?

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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.

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