Writing, Arts & Entertainment

Structuring Language

Malcolm Gladwell

Lesson time 09:55 min

Learn how Malcolm uses sentence length and punctuation to guide readers through a sophisticated idea.

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Topics include: Write Sophisticated Ideas Using Short Sentences • Creating a Feeling With Form • Establish Rhythm With Punctuation • Practice Rhythm and Pacing in Public Speaking


There are these software programs that you run prose through them. So you download a couple thousand words of someone's prose and you run it through the program and the program will tell you what grade level the person is writing at, based on their choice of words and how long their sentences are. And I was enormously pleased to learn-- I actually have forgotten the exact grade, but it's something like, I'm writing at the eighth grade level, or maybe the ninth. And my sentences are super short compared to my peers. So the person who did it for me, this analysis, as was another writer who writes about similar things, and he observed that he was writing at three grades higher, and his sentences were way longer. And we didn't know what to make of this. But I was secretly pleased because my goal is to write at an eighth grade level, but with ideas that are super sophisticated. In other words, it doesn't mean that what I'm writing is dumb. It means that the way I'm writing is super simple and straightforward. An eighth grader can easily read one of my books. They may not understand every idea, but the writing is not going to defeat them. Writing should be simple enough that it does not defeat the reader. The reader should never say, wait a minute, where did this sentence start? I've lost track. Once a reader does that, it's not good. So I try and discipline myself. And when you have lots of short sentences, when you do want to do a long one, it pops. And it's like super fun. So in that passage that I was reading-- so I have all these short sentences. was blonde and from the Midwest and does yoga." You know, "In a bar, Taleb would pick a fight," period. would break it up", period. Then I have that sentence, "Polyp is very lazy, Taleb would remark to no one in particular, several times over the course of the day, although this is said with such affection that it suggests that laziness, in the Talebian nomenclature, is a synonym for genius." That's a super long sentence with all kinds of moving parts. But it's like the cherry on top, it's your reward-- it's what I can do because I have been rat-a-tat-tat, short sentence, short sentence, short sentence, and you're in the rhythm. And then the payoff is this one long, windy, super fun, with a little punch there at the end. So I think it's not that you should be scared of long sentences. Just use them sparingly. Your reader has a limited appetite for them, but they'll enjoy them if they've been set up appropriately. [MUSIC PLAYING] I begin with a very, very long sentence for a reason. And I'll read you the sentence and then I'll explain to you the reason. "The extraordinary story of the Ronco Showtime Rotisserie and Barbecue begins with Nathan Morris, the son of the shoemaker and cantor Kidders Morris, who came over from the old country in the 1880s and settled in Asbury Park, New Jersey." So that-- and then the next sentence is, I describe what Nathan Morris did a...

About the Instructor

Ketchup. Crime. Quarterbacks. Thanks to Malcolm Gladwell’s books, these ordinary subjects have helped millions of readers grasp complex ideas like behavioral economics and performance prediction. Now, the renowned storyteller and best-selling author of Blink and The Tipping Point is teaching his first online writing class. Craft stories that captivate by learning how Malcolm researches topics, crafts characters, and distills big ideas into simple, powerful narratives.

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Malcolm Gladwell

In 24 lessons, the author of Blink and The Tipping Point teaches you how to find, research, and write stories that capture big ideas.

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