What Makes Malcolm Gladwell Such a Wonderful Writer?

Consider this passage from Gladwell’s book Outliers:

The “achievement gap” is a phenomenon that has been observed over and over again, and it typically provokes one of two responses. The first response is that disadvantaged kids simply don’t have the same ability to learn as children from more privileged backgrounds. They’re not as smart. The second, slightly more optimistic conclusion is that, in some ways, our schools are failing poor children: we simply aren’t doing a good enough job of teaching them the skills they need. But here’s where Alexander’s study gets interesting, because it turns out neither of those explanations rings true.

As English professor Rob Jenkins points out, in less than 100 words, Gladwell accomplishes four major feats of writing that make you want to continue reading:

1. He varies sentence length to create a subtle sense of pace.

2. He smoothes out the rough edges of the sentences through liberal use of contractions (generally considered a no-no in academic prose).

3. He only addresses readers directly, but also includes us in the discussion (“our schools,” “we … aren’t”).

4. He uses simple, everyday words when such words carry the desired meaning, while not altogether avoiding longer words (like “phenomenon”) when needed. (“Simple,” in this case, does not mean “simplistic.”)

“Granted, Gladwell is one of the very best writers working today,” Jenkins concludes. “But isn’t that exactly what we ought to be teaching our students—what the best writers do?”

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