Gladwell reveals writing strategies

New Yorker writer Malcolm Gladwell discussed his career and offered advice for aspiring journalists at a talk on Wednesday.
New Yorker writer Malcolm Gladwell discussed his career and offered advice for aspiring journalists at a talk on Wednesday. Photo by Jennifer Cheung.

Malcolm Gladwell, staff writer for the New Yorker and bestselling author, shared his inspirations for stories, offered advice for aspiring journalists and criticized the Ivy League Wednesday afternoon before a crowd of over 400 students in Sheffield-Sterling-Strathcona Hall Auditorium.

In the event, which was hosted by the Yale Politic, Gladwell called his entry into journalism “accidental,” having failed to find a job in advertising, but his journalistic interests stem from a passion for “telling stories.” Though his work has garnered widespread acclaim, he said he does not consider himself an original thinker. He does not “generate ideas” for his work, he said, but instead draws ideas from academic papers and finds ways to “make those ideas come alive.”

“I’m not doing the original work,” Gladwell said. “There’s that bird on the back of the elephant that picks off the ticks — I am the bird.”

Gladwell began his journalism career writing for the American Spectator, a conservative magazine, until the Washington Post hired him in 1987. He worked at the Post for 10 years before joining the staff of The New Yorker in 1996, where he wrote some of his best-known articles. He published his first book, “The Tipping Point,” in 2000, and since then has published three others.

The first step in looking for a story worth writing, Gladwell said, is to read. When he finds an interesting author, Gladwell said he reads the articles the author cites in his work. He follows this trail of articles until it leads him to a story that intrigues him. Gladwell compared the process to that of academic research, adding that he looks for a way to “connect [the ideas] to people outside” of academia.

Journalists, Gladwell said, often underestimate the importance of a good story. Gladwell said he tries to focus less on conveying important facts and more on using stories to convey information that people may otherwise disregard.

When asked to dispense advice for budding journalists, Gladwell was hesitant to direct them toward newspapers. Although he said his experiences at the Washington Post were fulfilling, he said positions at newspapers are now not often fruitful mostly because newspapers are less profitable than they once were. He suggested online media, even if unpaid, as a good starting point for aspiring journalists.

“Newspapers are kind of dreary, depressed places,” he said. “I would go the penniless Web route to get practice. You can enter the mainstream so much quicker there.”

Gladwell also discussed topics in his upcoming book, whose title has not been released, such as the lives of children of billionaires and the experiences of Ivy League students. He said he used to think of the Ivy League as a “pernicious force that perpetuated privilege in America,” but now believes it “doesn’t do anything at all.” He claims in the book that the career outcomes of Ivy League students and students of similar intellect at state schools do not vary greatly in prestige or wealth.

“I have an entire chapter on why you’d all have been better off if you’d gone to your second-choice school,” he said.

Tara Rajan ’15 said she thought Gladwell was an excellent speaker and tailored his talk to Yale students.

“It was an honest social science and behavioral economics view of things that pertain to us,” she said. “I don’t necessarily agree with all the things he said, but I do think it was important to hear them from an expert.”

Gladwell’s book is slated to be released in 2013.

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