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Structuring Language

Malcolm Gladwell

Lesson time 9:56 min

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

Malcolm Gladwell
Teaches Writing
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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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...

Transform the ordinary

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.


Students give MasterClass an average rating of 4.7 out of 5 stars.

Great insights and not-so-secret secrets from a master storyteller. Very satisfied to have spent hours listening to him.

Very thought provoking and interesting! Good insights into how to improve my writing and to Gladwell's process of thinking through how to tell a story

I took away from this lesson about how the perspective of writing is really a service to others and understanding the dynamics of how to write may influence others in their lives.

How to empathize, how to be funny, how to make sentences and titles that are captivating. . . so many things (at least in theory!)


Brian H.

7:20 Two of my favorite writers, Malcolm Gladwell and Kurt Vonnegut, hate semi-colons, but I like them. I am a musician, and tend to think of writing in musical terms. Short sentences separated by periods are staccato. Long Dickensian sentences are legato (and as a trombonist, I have a special fondness for legato!) The semi-colon is tenuto. This is a rather ambiguous musical marking that in theory means simply to hold a note for its full value, but in practice it can mean to accent a note, to make it louder, or even to play slightly rubato. Because of a trombone’s slide, playing a legato passage often means you still have to tongue some of the notes so you don’t get smears, but almost imperceptibly. For a trombonist, a series of notes marked tenuto can mean to tongue every note ever so slightly, even ones you wouldn’t necessarily have to. Semi-colons are subtle like that. They are neither staccato nor legato; they can be smooth but they still need a bit of tongue.

Donn H.

Malcolm is endlessly interesting. He operates at such a high level, though, that I would like a little more insight into the origin of his ideas. His entire worldview seems unique and esoteric, so I'm curious what his early editors thought of his work.

Ekin Ö.

Malcolm's tip for looking at the person in the front row when speaking to a public audience sounds funny and helpful. :-) I also think that writing for an 8th grader is something that can help adults as well. We don't read everything at a superb level of consciousness. If you write something that can be easily understood, then you create a chance for your reader to follow your lines after a long day of work. Let's do the hard work to simplify the text as authors so that many readers don't have to decipher.

Stan B.

Malcolm's description of the public speaking experience is yet another insight to his ability to operate outside himself. Most speakers, until and unless they accumulate many hours in front of audiences, are primarily concerned about themselves. First and foremost is whether they might be making an ass of themselves or undermining their ego or argument in some yet to be exposed manner. Noticing the expressions and behaviors of folks in the first couple rows, understanding what those signs indicate and then using that information to adjust the presentation is an ability that mirrors a journalist's capacity to observe, listen and discover.


There is a couple of ideas that come to mind. I remember a while back listening Robbert Greene being interviewed and the interviewer brought up Mr.Gladwell and the interviewer asked, “What do you think of Malcolm Gladwell?” His reaction was really odd. He nervously dismissed him and it was weighted with ego. Per this assignment, I’m wondering what Mr. Gladwell’s reaction would have been if he was in the interview. Personally, I think Mr.Gladwell’s more artistic and more Merv Griffin like. When Merv Griffin interviewed a subject it was all about them. He functioned more in complementary role. I haven’t seen Mr.Gladwell interview someone, but I think he’s more Merv Griffin like with the addition of calculous . “The two most engaging powers of a good author are to make new things familiar and familiar things new.” ― William M. Thackeray

Laura K.

I was a little disappointed with my feedback from the writing assessment. I love a long, poetic sentence. Big words make me euphoric. Semi-colons are my favorite punctuation-marks; I feel smarter every time I use one. But the assessment tool told me that I overuse all three. Then I entered an excerpt from Hemingway's Immovable Feast; he got the same feedback with a lower letter grade. If I'm overly verbose and consistently long-winded, at least I'm in good company...

Terry T.

Our Shakespeare Readers group hit a point where we had a few weeks to spare between plays so we opted to read a bit of Faulkner. Reading it aloud opens it up!

Mauro F.

I can't believe how much of a help reading your work out loud is. It's quite amazing, albeit simple. You'll fix flowing and pacing and wording right away. Pretty crazy how different it is from reading in your head.

Al Argo

I was very surprised, and pleased, that my brand new kids book, Chris Drops a Bomb, received an A on the website we were guided to in this lesson. It also showed a grade level between grade 2-3 while I intended it to be for K-2. It's not that far off, is it? That might become a useful tool going forward. Did any of you find value in it?

Lora P.

I confess to feeling sad when Malcolm dismissed the semicolon. I like the way it sets off a comparison of two ideas. Or, it helps build an idea. The semicolon makes a little salute from to first clause to the second.