Key to Great Writing


Malcolm Gladwell is one of the most prolific writers of our day. His advice to writers needs to be read by everyone;  whether you write a blog, radio copy, or non-profit donor appeals.

From Gladwell’s Masterclass, a key to great writing is to avoid “The First-Person Problem”: 

“Problem #1 – if you are going to write in the first-person, you have to understand that the bar is way higher than if you were writing about another person, another object, or another activity. Why? Because the reader’s expectations are higher. Nothing to do with you, it has to do with the reader. The reader has been educated on stories of great people. When you read an autobiography, who do you read the autobiography of? You read biographies and autobiographies of people who have done something extraordinary in the world. That’s what you’re thinking when you’re hearing someone tell their own story. You’re thinking, “oh, this guy, or this woman, was the one who cured cancer, who discovered a continent, or who broke the code of some famous puzzle.” So, when your expectation is that high, that’s what you have to deliver if you’re writing about yourself. You’re facing these sky-high expectations of what the story is going to be about. So that’s, sort of, problem number one.

Problem #2 –  When you write about yourself, you are engaging in a self-indulgent act. You are dealing with the contents of your own heart, mind, and experience. That raises people’s suspicions, so the first question we have is, ‘who is this person who thinks that they’re so interesting that I have to read what has gone on in their life?’ I think that expectation concerns me as a writer. I’m not sure I have a good answer to the question of why someone should care about my life so much. That means that I have written about my own life very sparingly. Now, not never, I’ve told a couple of stories of my own life. The number of things I can talk about from my own life, that I think justify the self-absorption, can compete with the grand stories that are told about people’s lives out there is very small. Right? It’s two, or three, and I can only tell them in a context where you will accept the kind of diminished dimensions of my own personal narrative.”


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