Have you been wondering if Malcolm Gladwell’s Masterclass will improve your writing?
Up until a few weeks ago, I asked my self the same question.
Like you, I dream of becoming a better writer. And I invest a lot of time and money into books and courses that are going to help me in my professional writing career.
And also like you, I don’t like wasting time and money on books and courses that don’t deliver on their promises.
When I read a book or take a course on writing, I want to walk away with actionable advice and clear takeaways.
In other words: I don’t want fluff.
So check this out. In this post I’m going to review Malcolm Gladwell Teaches Writing based on my criteria above so you can stop wondering if dropping $90 on the course is worth the money.
Who is Malcolm Gladwell?
If you’re not familiar with Malcolm Gladwell, he’s a writer for the New Yorker and best-selling author who’s written:
- Outliers: The Story of Success
- Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking
- The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference
- David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits, and the Art of Battling Giants
- What the Dog Saw: And Other Adventures
What is Masterclass?
Masterclass is an online learning platform that produces courses on writing, acting, photography, and more with some of the best in the business.
What I’m Going to Review
Although I’m going to touch on all aspects of this course, I’d like to focus on the four most important elements of this course…
- lesson modules
- course materials
- community hub
- office hours
…and whether or not these elements will help you become a better writer.
Because let’s face it, unless you’re just a fan of Gladwell and want a sneak peak into how he works, you’re most likely taking this course because you want to become a better writer.
Before I get into the review, I just want to let you know where I’m coming from as well.
I would consider myself a novice writer. I’ve co-authored and published one memoir, wrote hundreds of articles off- and online (mostly online), and worked as an editor and copywriter.
“Daddy, is he talking to you?”
This was the question my daughter asked me when she walked up to my desk and saw what appeared to her to be Malcolm Gladwell addressing me as I sat attentively in front of my computer.
There’s no question the producers at Masterclass put a lot of effort into creating their courses. And Gladwell’s is no different. The course was shot in high definition from a variety of still and dynamic angles.
Why does this matter? You guessed it. The changing points of view help keep your attention on Gladwell. And the backdrop is pleasing to the eyes.
You get the feeling that you’re sitting in a New York City apartment with Gladwell, having a conversation with him about the craft of writing. It’s not until the end of the course that you learn where he really is.
The course also appears to be shot unscripted, which I loved. I’d rather hear Gladwell shoot off the hip than hear him read from a teleprompter.
This unscripted style of teaching gives you a chance to see Gladwell working through his thought process as a writer.
The 24 modules in this course run between 10 and 15 minutes each, on average. They cover a variety of topics for writing non-fiction. Some of my favorite modules were:
- Structuring Narrative: The Imperfect Puzzle
- Holding Readers: Tools for Engagement
- Holding Readers: Controlling Information
- Developing the Story: Analogous Worlds
- Characters: Descriptions
- Characters: World Building
- Who to Read
In the Structuring Narrative module Gladwell talks about how his love of jigsaw puzzles helps him piece together his stories.
I think on some level, writing, or at least my kind of writing, is about making the pieces fit. So I have my little shelf of objects, and I want to arrange them in a way that’s compelling to readers. – Malcolm Gladwell
And it’s after watching this module that you find out that there are more ways to put a story together than what you learned in your college writing classes.
But the takeaway for me in this module was how Gladwell uses a number system to help him organize his writing. It seems like such a simple idea, but an idea I overlooked until this course.
Let’s dig a little deeper.
The module on Character: Descriptions and Characters: World Building were also two of my favorites.
For the first time, it dawned on me that I’ve never really introduced my characters or built their worlds into my articles. I’ve written about them as if my readers already knew who I was talking about.
Here’s an example of me introducing my main character, a Muay Thai fighter named Komkit Chanawong, in one of my older articles:
Chanawong grew up the eldest of two children. His father worked construction and his mother cared for the elderly at a nursing home. He started Muay Thai at ten years old…
If you notice, I did a poor job of introducing my main subject. Nowhere in my article did I describe my subject or build the world around him.
After listening to Gladwell talk about how he introduces his main characters and builds their worlds, it changed the way I introduce mine.
Here’s a more recent piece where I applied what I learned from Gladwell’s Masterclass in a feature I did on a fight promoter in Thailand, Ohn Somila:
Ohn is a short, stocky man in his mid-fifties, with dark hair, olive skin, and a baby face. He is Thai. And his first language is Thai. And in his pronunciation of the word “fighter,” comes “fai-teeeer.”
And how I built my subject’s world:
But on most afternoons Ohn drives to MAX Muay Thai Stadium, which is only twenty minutes south of his gym. In a second floor office labeled PROMOTER ROOM he labors in front of one of many whiteboards that span the walls. In this room he works tirelessly with nine other promoters, all of whom busy themselves with separate tasks. Some of them scribble names onto whiteboards. Some of them erase names from whiteboards. Some of them argue. A promoter, who’s just lowered his phone down to his chest, yells a name at Ohn and Ohn scribbles it into a blank slot.
See the difference?
And there’s more. In the module on Who to Read, Gladwell explains why it’s important to read good writing, and gives four examples on who to read, and more importantly, why to read them.
In fact, whenever he mentioned himself and his peers, he always referred to himself as the lesser writer.
Gladwell had no problems referring students to other writers when he felt his shortcomings weren’t enough.
And I loved this about Gladwell. Never once did I ever get the feeling that he was talking down to me, or that he was somehow more special than me or any other writer.
He taught from a place of humility and his passion and enthusiasm for writing won me over from the very start.
When you join Malcolm Gladwell’s Masterclass you get a 76-page workbook to go along with your modules.
The workbook is meant to supplement your course.
But here’s the other thing. It guides you along an optional class project, which is writing “a 7,000 to 8,000 word reported, New Yorker-style article” which you can pitch to a publication of your choice.
Each module in the workbook has:
- chapter overviews
- learn more sections
The chapter overview summarizes the main points from each module. It’s helpful to get a summary in text after watching the videos.
For one, the summary further solidifies the key takeaways in each module. And two, you can go back and use it as a quick reference later on.
Learn More Sections
The learn more sections give you further readings to supplement what you learned in the module.
For example, in module 2 of this course, you’re given a link to read Gladwell’s article “The Ketchup Conundrum” and you’re given a few questions to consider while reading.
So what’s great about these learn more sections? You don’t get access to Gladwell’s articles unless you subscribe to the New Yorker.
But Masterclass must’ve paid for the rights to use Gladwell’s articles because they give you access to a bunch of his articles.
I suggest you read each and every one of them. You’ll get to see how Gladwell puts into practice the theories of what he’s teaching.
The assignments are also a great addition to the course. They help you practice what you learn in each module.
The assignment above is from the module on Holding Readers: Tools for Engagement.
It was one of my favorite assignments in the course because it asked me to read and deconstruct an article and look for the most important pieces of information that make a story entertaining.
The Community Hub
The Community Hub is an online forum where you can post topics about Gladwell’s course or writing in general and get feedback on your work.
Although I’ve never used the Hub, it looks like it’s an active community. Members post and comment quite frequently, about every few hours.
And if you spend enough time in the Hub, you can go down a rabbit hole of writing topics, prompts, and challenges.
The only thing I didn’t like about the Hub was the use of preset tags. For example, when I clicked the malcolm_gladwell tag, I expected to see topics about Gladwell’s Masterclass.
But in reality, anyone can use the tags as they see fit. And often times the malcolm_gladwell tags showed results that had nothing to do with his course.
I’m sure if you spend enough time learning how to use the Hub, you’ll get something fruitful from it. But if you’re expecting a dedicated Hub for Gladwell’s course—good luck. And if I missed it, please let me know.
To me, the Office Hours feature should be the strongest selling point for this course. With Office Hours, you can post a question in video or text and Gladwell will answer your question in the same format.
Sounds amazing, no?
Oddly enough, at the time of this writing no one has posted any questions for Gladwell to answer.
I don’t know if Gladwell’s course was that good that students were left without questions, or if students were afraid to put themselves out there, or if Masterclass didn’t promote this feature as much as they should’ve.
Either way, being able to ask questions to and get answers from Gladwell seems like a great benefit to taking this course.
Can Malcolm Gladwell’s Masterclass be Improved?
Now, are there any areas where the course could be improved? Sure.
My biggest problem with this course, as small as it may seem, was that at the end of most of the modules, the audio would cut out abruptly.
This made me think there was more Gladwell was going to say and that I might have been missing out on some important stuff.
For the amount of time and energy that went into producing this course, I wondered why the audio team overlooked this glitch in post-production.
If they could’ve faded the audio out at the end of each module, it definitely would’ve put the finishing touches on what was a great production.
And in module 5 of the course, Research, the Learn More section referred to “Life & Death on the Social Ladder” by Helen Epstein. I was supposed to read this article to learn to how important research could be for stories.
But when I clicked the link, I was only allowed to read the introduction before getting this message:
This was the only article I couldn’t read in the course.
The last thing I would’ve liked to see from Masterclass would’ve been a clearly stated suggested reading list.
Gladwell’s books are listed at the beginning of the workbook, and a side note to “study other examples of excellent nonfiction from Malcolm’s books and various magazines” has been added.
But if the workbook listed the books that were going to be referenced in the course, it would’ve made following along a bit more easier.
So it all boils down to 2 questions:
- Were my problems with the course deal breakers?
- Did the course offer actionable advice and clear takeaways?
To answer question 1: not at all.
And to answer question 2: most definitely.
If I had to take the course all over again, I would. Without question.
Funny thing is, I went into this course a skeptic, thinking I was going to watch all the modules, be unhappy with the content, and then email Masterclass asking for a refund.
But quite the opposite happened.
Now I’m considering signing up for the full membership so I can take more of their writing classes.
Sign up for Malcolm Gladwell’s Masterclass, Malcolm Gladwell Teaches Writing.