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How to write like Malcolm Gladwell
Prose style and structure in The Tipping Point
I wrote for The Critic about the way the British Museum keeps closing galleries at short notice because of staff shortages.
How to write like Malcolm Gladwell
Can you think of a more representative common reader book than The Tipping Point? Non-fiction, especially the sub-genre called Smart Thinking (a worse name I cannot imagine) is the main staple of the modern common reader. The common reader became a reality as money created audiences. As Virginia Woolf said, the common reader “is guided by an instinct to create for himself, out of whatever odds and ends he can come by, some kind of whole.” That used to mean a wide exploration of the classics; it is now more likely to mean a broad reading of popularised social science. We have no modern Dickens in fiction: Sally Rooney comes closest, perhaps. But we do have Malcolm Gladwell.
Gladwell is the epitome of the way non-fiction has replaced fiction as a transmission mechanism for important new ideas. Tyler Cowen once named The Tipping Point as the 2000s equivalent of The Great Gatsby. George Eliot put social science ideas to work in novels to make them more relatable by giving them context. Gladwell continues that tradition. We are perhaps at the end of the period when books can be dominant in this mode, as we leave the Gutenberg Parenthesis, but that is a discussion for another time.
Gladwell fits all of our criteria to be a modern Dickens. He makes a lot of money. He gives popular talks. His private life and childhood inform his writing and ideas. He allows his curiosity full and free range. He is performative. He talks to the ordinary educated reader, not the academic or the snob, but when he needs to, he can debate the expert. He travels, performs, promotes. Above all, he sells. The Tipping Point spent eight years on the bestseller list, selling three million copies. You could compare Gladwell to Thomas Carlyle, but he seems much nicer and less… erratic… than old Tom.
While English Literature academics are busy arguing about whether the common reader is real and important (as I wrote about recently), Malcolm Gladwell is busy selling them books. People refer to themselves and others as Connectors and Mavens the way previous generations would have called each other a Fezziwig or a Scrooge. When was the last time a literary character took hold the way Gladwell’s terminology does? Walter Mitty?
So how does Gladwell do it? Plenty of people praise his simplicity and his storytelling. But that’s a distraction. Storytelling is overrated in corporate life. Obviously, it’s important, and all stripes of author in this field, from Michael Lewis to David Epstein, use storytelling to some extent.
But the storytelling technique encourages fluff, the sort of padding people think novelists use, but which they don’t. When Elizabeth Bowen describes a character or sets a scene she is contributing to the overall mood but also pointing to an interpretation. Description to the literary novelist is a form of moral commentary. Every great novel is a thought experiment — the “storytelling” aspects are more than mere world building.
In Smart Thinking, though, storytelling can lead to empty paragraphs. Well written, amusing, detailed even, but not informational. In The Tipping Point, Gladwell is free of this. The real comparison with great novelists is compactness. Prose style is largely a question of information density. Let’s compare a paragraph of Dickens and a paragraph of Gladwell to see this at work.
The poulterers’ shops were still half open, and the fruiterers’ were radiant in their glory. There were great, round, pot-bellied baskets of chestnuts, shaped like the waistcoats of jolly old gentlemen, lolling at the doors, and tumbling out into the street in their apoplectic opulence. There were ruddy, brown-faced, broad-girthed Spanish Onions, shining in the fatness of their growth like Spanish Friars, and winking from their shelves in wanton slyness at the girls as they went by, and glanced demurely at the hung-up mistletoe. There were pears and apples, clustered high in blooming pyramids; there were bunches of grapes, made, in the shopkeepers’ benevolence to dangle from conspicuous hooks, that people’s mouths might water gratis as they passed; there were piles of filberts, mossy and brown, recalling, in their fragrance, ancient walks among the woods, and pleasant shufflings ankle deep through withered leaves; there were Norfolk Biffins, squat and swarthy, setting off the yellow of the oranges and lemons, and, in the great compactness of their juicy persons, urgently entreating and beseeching to be carried home in paper bags and eaten after dinner. The very gold and silver fish, set forth among these choice fruits in a bowl, though members of a dull and stagnant-blooded race, appeared to know that there was something going on; and, to a fish, went gasping round and round their little world in slow and passionless excitement.
You see how nothing here is simple decoration. Everything tells. The chestnuts reflect the customers, because markets are shaped by demand; the fat onions are compared to hypocritical friars, because Christmas is a feast day, and festivals are times of relaxing morals. Irony strikes in words like “apoplectic”, “benevolence”, “gratis”, “urgently” but Dickens is not a partisan moralist: he sees the customer’s appetite as much to account for the situation as the shopkeeper’s commercial interest. This is neither praise nor blame. The pears and apples are in “blooming” pyramids: that refers to their colours, as well as to the enticing appeal of fruit so arranged. Last week I quoted from The Age of the Infovore the Pessoa quote, “The buyers of useless things are wiser than is commonly supposed — they buy little dreams.” That is exactly what Dickens describes here: the buying of little dreams. (Scrooge is not evil for having money but for refusing to spend it.) This paragraph is Dickens as novelist as sociologist.
For Hush Puppies—the classic American brushed-suede shoes with the lightweight crepe sole—the Tipping Point came somewhere between late 1994 and early 1995. The brand had been all but dead until that point. Sales were down to 30,000 pairs a year, mostly to backwoods outlets and small-town family stores. Wolverine, the company that makes Hush Puppies, was thinking of phasing out the shoes that made them famous. But then something strange happened. At a fashion shoot, two Hugh Puppies executives—Owen Baxter and Geoffrey Lewis—ran into a stylist from New York who told them that the classic Hush Puppies had suddenly become hip in the clubs and bars of downtown Manhattan. “We were being told,” Baxter recalls, “that there were resale shops in the Village, in Soho, where the shoes were being sold. People were going to the Ma and Pa stores that still carried them, and buying them up.” Baxter and Lewis were baffled at first. It made no sense to them that shoes that were so obviously out of fashion could make a comeback. “We were told that Isaac Mizrahi was wearing the shoes himself,” Lewis says. “I think it’s fair to say that at the time we had no idea who Isaac Mizrahi was.”
That’s the opening. You might call this storytelling. I think of it as the result of careful structure and syntax. Notice how late the first verb comes: the eighteenth word of the first sentence. Before that is a prepositional phrase and an eleven word parenthesis. Starting with a preposition is very novelistic. (Dickens does it in Our Mutual Friend and The Pickwick Papers.) Gladwell didn’t have to open like this. Try this re-arrangement.
Hush Puppies’ Tipping Point came somewhere between late 1994 and early 1995.
Isn’t that what a good sentence is supposed to look like? Start with the subject and move swiftly and smoothly to the object. Why the extraneous preposition? Why, oh why, the parenthesis? “For” is an association preposition: Gladwell’s whole point is that you don’t associate this sort of success with Hush Puppies. And it has the sort of effect you get by starting with a conjunction. This is not the only tipping point in the book: this is the one that happed for Hush Puppies. Right from the opening words, Gladwell is using suspense. “Brushed suede” and “lightweight crepe” are setting up the extent of the surprise that these shoes will be popular in Soho, not a very “lightweight crepe” kind of place. By the time you reach the first verb, the sentence is ready for its own tipping point. He is not just describing, he’s making a point. Suspenseful syntax relies on information density to be effective.
This opening is also a keynote of journalistic style. Like Tom Wolfe before him, Gladwell is not copying novelists but competing with them. You have read them a thousand times, sentences like, “For Nancy Pelosi, it started as an ordinary day in Congress.” Or, “For technical ingenuity alone, this book is praiseworthy.” For Malcolm Gladwell, however, this is no work-a-day sentence. Combined with the parenthesis, the length, the way he makes you wait for the verb, For… becomes the start of an enthralling story. It is not only journalists who write like this. Remember Proust’s opening: “For a long time, I went to bed early.”
The second sentence carries on the novelistic style. Hell, this is so novelistic, he could have written Hush Puppies were dead: to begin with. The statement is backed up with examples: numbers sold, types of store, the decision to phase out. The tone is factual, plain, and insistent, like mid-century American novelists documenting the decline of suburban men. Try comparing it to the opening of Revolutionary Road, for example, or a John Cheever story. At what point in this paragraph, exactly, do we realise that a tipping point is a good thing?
Then the scene shifts to a fashion shoot. Like a novelist, Gladwell keeps the ground unfamiliar. Every sentence adds detail: the executives’ dialogue gives us the contrasting knowledge of new locations, resale techniques, and the cliff-hanger close. No sentence can be removed without the information needing to be restored somehow. There is no mood or atmosphere without fact. All technique—long sentence followed by short, convoluted syntax, use of dialogue—is put in service to the arrangement of information.
The way information is structured is essential to the pattern of the whole book, not just the sentences and paragraphs. Hush Puppies are referenced in seven places through the book. Broken Window theory, which is introduced right after Hush Puppies, appears six times. Gladwell’s themes recur, as in music. The book has nine chapters: Introduction, Epidemics, Law of the Few, Stickiness, Context I, Context II, Case Study I, Case Study II, Conclusion. This looks simple. It’s a classic of the tell-them-what-you-are-going-to-tell-them, tell them, tell-them-what-you-told-them genre. Within each chapter are a series of smaller sections. The book undulates from long-to-short, complex-to-simple, all the way through, just like the sentences of that opening paragraph.
Under this essay you can see my summary of the sections. It shows that ideas and themes recur, weaved through. Note the way section lengths vary so much. There is a basic overall structure that outlines the four main components of the idea: but in the weeds of laying that out, the structure is not at all simplistic or templated. The material gets the space it requires. Uniform chapter lengths are the enemy of clear exposition. Sections start with short stories and expand into social science expositions, but then revert back to explaining the story in light of the research. He gives the example before the explanation. The story catches your attention: the science persuades you of its relevance. “Once the advice became practical and memorable,” Gladwell writes at one point, “it became persuasive.” Quite so.
Initially the book is composed of shorter sections. Once we are comfortable with the idea, the sections expand and become more complex, more detailed, messier. Notice also how the final section of the final case study looks at the central idea inversely: preventing, not creating, a tipping point.
When I first read The Tipping Point, it was electric. “Look at the world around you.” Gladwell says in his closing lines. “It may seem like an immovable, implacable place. It is not. With the slightest push—in just the right place—it can be tipped.” Zing! The effect was somewhat less exciting this time around, over a dozen years later. After all, it is not the “slightest” push that is required: the case studies make that abundantly clear. People criticise Gladwell for allowing rhetoric to triumph over precision. But he knows what the literalists do not. Readers only respond to something large and exciting. The Tipping Point is more than factual reportage: like a great novel, it is a moral vision of the world, and how things could be were we to act a little differently.
The Tipping Point Summary
I assume you either know what things like the Milgram experiment are or can google it. Things like “Micronesian suicide epidemic” I leave unelaborated because it is inherently interesting but also somewhat self-explanatory. Think of it as an enticement to read the book! Also, if I explain it all, we will lose sight of our aim: to see how the book is structured. (For reference: S=short section, M=medium section, L=long section.) For the first few sections, I have noted when the main idea is to give an example, show an idea, or give an exposition of the idea, such as through the discussion of social science.
Hush Puppies (S) — example
Brownsville crime and broken windows (S) — example
Definition of “epidemic” (S) — idea
Qualities of epidemics (M) — exposition of idea
The Three Rules of Epidemics
Baltimore syphilis and agents of change (M) — example
The Law of the Few: “some people matter more” (S) — idea
The Stickiness Factor: “changing virus becomes more deadly” (S) — idea
The Power of Context: seasonal effect of syphilis (S) — idea
The Law of the Few
Paul Revere a Connector (S) — example
Milgram experiment (S) — exposition
Connectors and phone book experiment (M) — exposition
“Types of people” who become Connectors (M) — example/exposition
Granovetter and weak ties (S) — exposition
Paul Revere and weak ties (S) — example/exposition
Revere also a Maven (S) — example/exposition
MBA Mavens (S) — example
Mavens can start epidemics (S) — idea
Mavens “educate” rather than “persaude” (S) — exposition
What makes someone persuasive, Reagan and Mondale (M) — exposition
“Super reflexes” for conversational pace, persuadability, etc. (M) — exposition
Paul Revere: Connectors and Mavens at Lexington (S) —example/idea
The Stickiness Factor
Sesame Street and literary epidemic (S)
Persuasion != stickiness. “Once the advice became practical and memorable, it became persuasive.” (M)
Blue’s Clues, improving on Sesame Street (M/L)
Structure and format of show improves stickiness. Sesame Street too distracting (L)
Blue’s Clues involved repetition, participation, pauses, etc. Creates stickiness. (L)
The Power of Context: I
NYC train shooting, Bernhard Goetz (S)
1980s NYC crime was an epidemic that tipped (S)
“Epidemics are sensitive to the conditions and circumstances of the times and places in which they occur.” c.f. Syphilis, Hush Puppies, Paul Revere… (S)
Broken Window Theory = Power of Context (L)
Persuasion and Law of the Few: small, unseen things persuade us. Same is true of context. Hartshorne honesty tests. (L)
Good Samaritan study. Theology students only stopped to help if they were not in a rush. Ends with Goetz shooting. (M)
The Power of Context: II
Ya-Ya Sisterhood the word of mouth bestseller. Salesman + Context (S)
Groups create peer pressure. Author travelled 4k miles to various groups. c.f. John Wesley, a classic Connector (S)
Social capacity limits. Dunbar’s number. (M)
When a community gets too large, it reaches a tipping point. “Peer pressure is a more powerful concept than a boss.” One big movement = many small movements. c.f. Ya-Ya Sisterhood. (L)
Case Study: Sneakers
Airwalk skater shoes. Epidemic advertising. (M)
Diffusion model from sociology. Early adopters, etc. Chasm between different groups in the model is crossed by Connectors, Mavens, etc. (M)
Baltimore syphilis epidemic. Needle exchange epidemiology and role of Connectors. (M)
That’s how Airwalk did it. Made product accessible. Piggybacked on an epidemic b observing trends. (S)
Case Study: Smoking
Micronesian suicide epidemic. Suicide “trivialised” (S)
Smoking not susceptible to rational argument (S)
Suicide is contagious. Other people’s actions “persuade” us (M)
Smoking is like suicide: it has a shared language. Smokers are cool, not smoking. The Law of the Few… (M)
Smoking has Stickiness. Habit acquired from salesman. (M)
Behavioural genetics and parental influence (not much!). Peers spread smoking and suicide (S)
How to make smoking less sticky? Nicotine is an antidepressant… Treat the depression to make smoking unsticky! Manage tipping points to prevent epidemics… (M)
“The world… does not accord with out intuition.” Call to action. (S)
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