Golf v. Gladwell — a sly writer at play

golf ball
Photo from https://golfible.com

Malcolm Gladwell’s Revisionist History podcast returned yesterday. Shorter than I remembered it (just over half an hour) but still packed with smarts and attitude and surprise. Season 2’s first episode takes its title from Winston Churchill’s remark that golf is a great way to spoil a good walk.

Of course, like most bons mots attributed to Churchill, this one’s not his—at least not originally. One of his predecessors as prime minister, the 19th century British politician William Gladstone, said something very much like it. But my favorite iteration comes from an early 20th century novelist, Harry Leon Wilson, who wrote:

Some of his friends have been trying to induce him to play golf, but he refused. He makes the following unique definition of golf:  “Golf has too much walking to be a good game, and just enough game to spoil a good walk.”

But I digress.

My point is that Gladwell uses this very famous description of golf as the title of the podcast. But unless I missed it, he never mentions Churchill, or Gladstone—or even the famous quote itself. That’s not exactly a “best practice” in writing. If you use a quote like that, you want to reference it.

But when I got to the end of the podcast, I realized where he’d been going with it. It’s sly commentary, so clever it made me grin. I won’t give it away, but my hat’s off to Malcolm Gladwell.

Like Gladstone and Gladwell, I hate golf. But I treasure great writing. And whether he’s writing for the page or for the podcast, Malcolm Gladwell delivers some of the best writing around. If you missed the first season of Revisionist History, catch up with it here. And enjoy.


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Facts and history: Lessons at the dawn of the Trump era

Unless something drastic (or “unpresidented,” to quote our PEOTUS) happens in the next few hours, we will soon enter what historians will call “the Trump era.”

Since the election—heck, since halfway through the endless nightmare of a campaign—professional pundits and even mere scribes like me have written about the old saying that “those who do not study history are doomed to repeat it.”

Who said it? It seems like Irish philosopher Edmund Burke may have been the first, way back in the 1700s:

“Those who don’t know history are doomed to repeat it.”

So welcome to our trip down Bad-Memory Lane.

The Trump era time machine

Have you ever wished you could climb into a time machine and spend an afternoon playing gallant knight to a maiden fair? Or sharing a turkey leg with Queen Elizabeth I (the Cate Blanchett version, please, though Glenda Jackson’s would do). Or trading writing tips with Winston Churchill?

Yeah, that’s not the kind of history we’re going to be revisiting.

Science in the Trump era

The closest we’ll get to the knights-and-ladies is our return to the Dark Ages, when scientists got sentenced to death for, um, running afoul of religious beliefs. Remember Galileo? As the Indigo Girls put it so concisely, his crime, back in the early 1600s, “was lookin’ up the truth.” For the record, the Catholic Church did apologize…350 years later.

Did the Trump transition team ask for the names of scientists working on global warming because those scientists were “lookin’ up the truth”? Their colleagues aren’t waiting to find out. They’re working with Canadian counterparts to secure copies of the climate data, fearing the Trumpsters will purge it. Or as Stephen Colbert put it, “Now even our facts are moving to Canada.”

Good Queen Bess?

And the closest we’ll get to Queen Elizabeth I is—well, just how “good” Queen Bess was depends a lot on what side of the Communion wafer you were on. Beginning with her father Henry VIII (and interrupted only briefly during the reign of her Catholic half-sister Mary I), England engaged in what one historian called “Catholic genocide.” For a more considered, less sensationalized (and slightly denser) explanation of this period, try this link.

At any rate, we do seem to be headed for a time when conforming to someone’s idea of religion will no longer be optional. The proposed “First Amendment Defense Act” would legalize bigotry based on the bigot’s perception of his or her religion’s requirements. Got a “deeply held religious belief”? You can discriminate indiscriminately.

Still, the Trump era differs from the Elizabethan era in one important respect: Catholics will be much farther down the list of genocide targets. Today, they’ll likely trail Atheists, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, and Mormons (sorry, Mitt). In fact, according to this Pew research, the only group evangelicals trust slightly more than Catholics is Jews. Though it doesn’t appear our country’s ersatz Nazis got that memo.

World War II: “Never give in”

“Never give in. Never give in. Never, never, never, never—in nothing, great or small, large or petty—never give in, except to convictions of honour and good sense. Never yield to force. Never yield to the apparently overwhelming might of the enemy.”

Winston Churchill’s orations provided much-needed transfusions of strength to his countrymen during their fight against the original Nazis. Although the spread of fascism in World War II may be the closest parallel to our situation today, I’m not sure anyone can pull off a similarly Churchillian feat.

Even if we had an orator as talented as Churchill—and we do, in Michelle Obama, Bill Clinton, the Rev. Dr. William J. Barber from North Carolina, to name just a few—our country is far more divided than Great Britain was during the war. Bombs falling on you nightly have a tendency to concentrate the mind. And it’s easier to unite against a foreign invader than against a perceived threat who’s “one of us.”

Plus, we have no way to reach a large number of Trump’s most ardent supporters. They have lost faith in the institutional media. They doubt facts, even when presented with evidence. As I’ve written before, many times, when words lose their meaning, how can we communicate?

I’ll leave you with the analysis of Hannah Arendt, who stared totalitarianism in the face behind the bars of a Gestapo jail cell and wrote about it so clearly after the war. Arendt will be an invaluable, if depressing, guide to us through the Trump era:

Hannah Arendt offers a warning fit for the Trump Era

Check your facts. Check other people’s facts. Fight for the truth. And pray we come out of the Trump era relatively intact.


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What makes “white papers” white?: Frequent Questions

Q: Why are they called “white papers”?

A: Blame Winston Churchill.

Clients love them, and I’ve written several. But inevitably someone will ask, Why a “white paper”?

It’s a fair question. I mean, any visitor to Staples can see we have a veritable rainbow of paper colors to choose from. Still, unless you’re promoting a bake sale or a PTA meeting, chances are you’ll never buy a package of non-white paper.

And, anyway, as the world goes digital will the “paper” half of that phrase become as inscrutable as the “white” part is to us?

But I digress. Let’s get back to blaming Winston Churchill.

White versus Blue

Wikipedia tells me that the phrase may have entered popular discourse courtesy of a page-turner written when Winston Churchill was serving as Foreign Secretary of Great Britain. The actual title of this historic document was (try to stay awake): British White Paper of June 1922.

Despite its plain brown wrapper of a title, the paper was—and remains—a controversial moment in Middle Eastern diplomacy. But that’s for someone else to blog about. Why did they call it a “white paper”?

The reason is so simple, dear readers, that I fear you’ll think I’m mocking you. They called it a white paper because it was not blue.

Most government communications arrived in “blue books.” Presumably a higher-end version of the blue book than the ones I used for exam answers in high school and college, but blue books nonetheless.

White papers serve a specific purpose

Like many things in our language, we have co-opted and corrupted the meaning of the phrase “white paper.” It originally referred only to government communications; one pair of Canadian researchers described white papers as a

“… tool of participatory democracy … not [an] unalterable policy commitment.”

This “tool of participatory democracy” has now become a tool of participatory capitalism, as businesses issue white papers that are little more than overly wordy brochures, often with—gasp!—no photographs! And with footnotes; can’t forget the footnotes—at least all in the white papers I’ve written.

The delightful Wikipedia entry on the subject ends its first paragraph by introducing yet another color:

“White papers may be considered grey literature.”

Grey literature? I  had honestly never heard that phrase before. Yet apparently it’s—well, it’s what I’ve spent my career producing. Go figure.

Perhaps I’ll write more about that another day. Maybe we can go right around the color wheel of writing.

Winston Churchill, standup comedian

“A good speech should be like a woman’s skirt; long enough to cover the subject and short enough to create interest.”

For the record—no, Winston Churchill was not actually a standup comedian. He was Prime Minister of the United Kingdom during World War II and again in the 1950s. A great writer as well as a great leader, his stirring oratory helped insWinston Churchill, not a standup comedianpire his people to survive the darkest days of the war. Later, he won the Nobel Prize for Literature.

In other words, Sir Winston Churchill knew his way around a sentence. I don’t know when he said the sentence at the beginning of this post—some sources suggest it’s a false attribution—but he died in 1965, so it’s at least half a century old.

Old Winnie probably got a big laugh when he compared a speech to a woman’s skirt. His listeners probably enjoyed the opportunity to think, even for a moment, about the delights of the “subject” a skirt covers.

Oh, those jolly Mad Men days. They didn’t have a monopoly on sexist behavior in the 1960s, but at least they had the decency to veil it in innuendo. Makes today’s political discourse seem like teatime at the convent. But I digress.

Winston Churchill in the 21st Century

Churchill’s quip came to my attention recently when someone I know wrote about it. She’d heard it delivered from the stage (without attribution) last week.

Do I need to add that this happened at a tech conference?

Or that the person writing about it was one of the very few women at the event?

Churchill’s audience probably had a similar composition. Back then, society hadn’t yet embraced the presence or the talents of its female members. (Although one of its female members became Queen during Churchill’s second stint as Prime Minister.) But today is different. Or should be different.

Yet when I Googled the quotation, I found that many editors and aggregators still think it’s relevant and useful. You can find it on a site called “coolfunnyquotes.com” and in an article called “5 of the Smartest Things Ever Said About Public Speaking.” The author of that article? A woman!

[Shaking my head.]

[Nope, still shaking my head.]

Do I need to explain “humor” to you?

Humor remains an important element for any speech. But make sure it’s relevant to the topic. No one-liners. And do not insult, stereotype, or objectify anyone or any group. Ever. Whether or not you think your audience is 100% free of members of that group. Because speakers should lift people up, not pull them down.

During World War II, Churchill rallied his country not by trash-talking the Nazis, but by celebrating the great, courageous character of his people. That’s the kind of stuff that won him the Nobel Prize, folks—not his sexist “joke” about short skirts.

And one other thing: Speeches only need to be short if they’re boring. Write a good one, deliver it well, and you can keep your audience’s attention. Even without making them think about sex.