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Anecdotes

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Anecdotes

You probably know someone who has told a tale or two. These short personal stories are called anecdotes and can provide a lot of context about a time, place, or group. When writing an essay, you will undoubtedly touch upon a time period, a setting, or a culture for yourself. While an anecdote is one way to explore these topics, it should only be used if it’s your best way to get the point across. Anecdotes themselves have a time and place!

Definition of an Anecdote

Like anecdotes themselves, the definition of an anecdote can be broken down.

An anecdote is a short, informal, and descriptive personal story.

Here's how to understand each part of that definition.

  • An anecdote is short compared to the text it resides in. For instance, a descriptive essay is not an anecdote because it is the entire essay. In an essay, an anecdote is usually a paragraph or less.
  • An anecdote is informal. It is not a piece of formal evidence. It utilizes casual wording to engage the reader at a personal level. It is not a direct appeal to logic.
  • An anecdote uses descriptive imagery. This imagery often takes the form of rich sensory descriptions: auditory descriptions, gustatory descriptions, olfactory descriptions, tactile descriptions, and visual descriptions.
  • An anecdote is personal. It is something that happened to you. It is usually about an event you experienced yourself, but it can also be about meeting someone who experienced an event. Either way, an anecdote draws upon something personal.
  • An anecdote is a story. It has a beginning, middle, and end, and has some kind of purpose. Like any story, an anecdote can be told well or told not-so-well. Writing and telling anecdotes is an art form, like any form of storytelling.

The Uses of Anecdotes

In writing an essay, paper, or article, anecdotes can be used in a number of ways. Here are four ways they are used, and four ways they should not be used.

Four Uses of Anecdotes

Consider if the anecdote you want to use falls under one of the following categories.

Use anecdotes to hook your reader

Anecdotes can be used right at the beginning of an essay to grab the reader’s attention.

Anecdotes Storytelling StudySmarterYou tell your story well, stranger, say more, flaticon.

These essay hooks should provide more than just an interesting way to begin, however. An anecdote should also give insight into your thesis before it is ever stated. For example, if your thesis claims that disposable plastic water bottles should be banned in the US, then your anecdote should describe a negative story about disposable plastic water bottles.

An anecdote should lead into the thesis, not merely describe a facet of the topic.

Use anecdotes to capture a moment

If your essay has a strong historical or social context, an anecdote can be used to capture a moment of time. For example, if your essay is about American jazz music, you could describe a time you or someone you interviewed was at a jazz club. Such a description might help to invite the audience “into the scene,” as it were. An anecdote might help a reader to understand the context of your thesis.

Use anecdotes to caution your reader

Anecdotes can be used to caution the readers about a way of thinking. For instance, if your essay deals with the dangers of misinformation, you could present a cautionary tale to help explain why this topic needs to be addressed. When using an anecdote to caution, you are trying to put your thesis in perspective. You are trying to establish what is wrong with the status quo, and why it needs to be changed.

Use anecdotes to persuade your reader

In your body paragraphs, you might use an anecdote to directly persuade your audience. If you had a very pertinent firsthand experience, or someone you interviewed did, you could use that anecdote as anecdotal evidence to support your thesis. For example, if you’ve interviewed a Vietnam War veteran, then their anecdotal testimony might provide a unique insight into your thesis regarding the ground situation in Vietnam.

Be wary. Research is almost always a better form of evidence than an anecdote. Anecdotes need to be very high quality in order to be used as evidence.

Four Ways Not to Use Anecdotes

There are some big ways to avoid using anecdotes. Using anecdotes in these ways will likely downgrade your paper!

Don’t use anecdotes to fill space in your introduction

If you are writing an essay on deforestation, your essay hook should not be about a time you climbed a tree as a child, for example. It should deal directly with the topic of deforestation. Your anecdote should not be a throwaway item to fill space at the start of your essay. It should very much be a part of it.

Don’t use anecdotes to provide critical evidence

Personal stories are not strong enough pieces of evidence to prove your thesis. They might help support it at points, but they cannot be something you rely on in order to make your point. To help you avoid this, don’t pencil in anecdotes as the primary support for any of your topic sentences.

For example, don’t use a time that you didn’t have enough money to pay for school lunch to support your argument that school lunches should be free. Use research instead.

The real flaw with anecdotes: When it comes right down to it, the real problem with anecdotes as evidence isn’t that they never contain valid evidence, because they often do. The problem is that an anecdotal piece of evidence is merely one example of valid evidence. On the other hand, when you cite a study, you are providing a large pool of data. The reason you don’t use anecdotes as critical evidence is not because they are invalid; it’s because you have better options 99% of the time.

Don’t use anecdotes to distract your reader

If you feel your essay isn’t as strong as it could be, don’t use a well-told story to distract your reader from your lack of evidence. Graders will not be fooled. Although great and funny stories have a way of distracting casual readers, they are not likely to distract a critical reader, who will mark you down for trying.

For example, don't tell an anecdote about a great firefighter you met when you've run out of ideas to support your thesis involving wildfires.

Anecdotes Firefighter StudySmarterStick to what matters! flaticon.

Don’t use anecdotes to conclude your essay

You should not use a new anecdote to segue between your body paragraphs and your conclusion. When writing your essay, you never want a weak piece of evidence to be at the end, because it might undercut your stronger points. You might reference your introductory anecdote to help add perspective, however.

Your conclusion should contain non-generalized information that helps your reader see how your essay relates to broader topics and future study.

Your conclusion shouldn’t fade away with a mediocre story; your conclusion should be important.

How to Write an Anecdote

Telling an anecdote is really an art form. It takes time and effort to craft a great anecdote, no differently than it takes time and effort to write a great story. If you include an anecdote, don’t skimp on the writing process. In fact, because anecdotes can be so flawed and distracting, it is all the more important that your anecdote is spot on when you use it.

Here’s a checklist for writing an anecdote:

  • Does my anecdote use informal language? Does it sound natural and not stilted? Does it fit the tone of my essay?

  • Is my anecdote a good length? It should be a paragraph at the absolute most, and that’s only in a longer paper or essay.

  • Does my anecdote tell a story? Does it begin somewhere and end somewhere different? Does this change illuminate an aspect of my thesis?

  • Does my anecdote continuously engage the reader? Does it keep the reader guessing what will happen next? If the anecdote isn’t surprising or interesting, it will feel like a waste of time to the reader.

  • Is the purpose of my anecdote crystal clear? Do I know exactly why I included it, and does my audience know exactly why it’s important to my claim as well?

If you follow this checklist, you should be able to avoid a weak anecdote in your essay.

Anecdotes: Synonyms and Antonyms

An anecdote is a kind of description that you might hear in other terms. The terms “personal story” and “reminiscence” are sometimes used instead.

Be aware that an anecdote is not the same thing as a short story. An anecdote is a kind of short story that is personal. A short story can be fictional, and is usually longer than an anecdote.

There is no direct antonym for “anecdote.” However, anything impersonal such as a set of anonymized data, is very different from an anecdote. An anecdote is a kind of rhetorical art form that is often subjective; it is not a kind of rhetorical science or logic that is always objective.

Anecdotes - Key Takeaways

  • Anecdotes are short, informal, descriptive, personal stories.
  • Use anecdotes to hook your reader, capture a moment, caution your reader, and persuade your reader.
  • Do not use anecdotes to fill space in your introduction, provide critical evidence, distract your reader, or conclude your essay.
  • Because anecdotes can be so flawed and distracting, it is important that your anecdote is spot on when you use it.
  • Use a checklist to be sure your anecdote is the best it can be.

Frequently Asked Questions about Anecdotes

An anecdote is a short, informal, and descriptive personal story.

Telling an anecdote is really an art form. Getting good at telling anecdotes is to get good at telling a kind of story. It takes time and effort to craft a great anecdote, no differently than it takes time and effort to write a great novel. If you include an anecdote, don’t skimp on the writing process. In fact, because anecdotes can be so flawed and distracting, it is all the more important that your anecdote is spot on when you use it.

If your essay is about American jazz music, you could describe a time you or someone you interviewed was at a jazz club. Such a description might help to invite the audience “into the scene,” as it were. An anecdote might help a reader to understand the context of your thesis. 

Use anecdotes to hook your reader, capture a moment, caution your reader, or persuade your reader.

Yes. Anecdotal essay hooks should provide more than just an interesting way to begin, however. An anecdote should also give insight into your thesis before it is ever stated.

Final Anecdotes Quiz

Question

An anecdote is _____.

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Answer

Short, informal, descriptive, personal, and a story.

Show question

Question

An anecdote should be short. What does that mean?

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Answer

An anecdote is short compared to the text it resides in. In an essay, it is usually a paragraph or less.

Show question

Question

Is an anecdote a direct appeal to logic?

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Answer

No, it is informal. 

Show question

Question

Should an anecdote use only formal wording?

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Answer

No, it can and should be more casual. 

Show question

Question

What sort of descriptive imagery might an anecdote use?

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Answer

Sensory descriptions: auditory descriptions, gustatory descriptions, olfactory descriptions, tactile descriptions, and visual descriptions.

Show question

Question

Can a personal story be an interview you gave?

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Answer

Yes. This is still a personal account. This kind of anecdote recollects a time you met someone who did something remarkable. It is almost like anecdote containing an anecdote!

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Question

"An anecdote does not require a distinct beginning and end." 

True or false?

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Answer

False. An anecdote is like a story and should contain a beginning, middle, and end.

Show question

Question

Can you use an anecdote to hook your reader?

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Answer

Yes.

Show question

Question

What it does it mean to say that an anecdote "captures a moment"?

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Answer

If your essay has a strong historical or social context, an anecdote can be used to capture a moment of time. For example, if your essay is about American jazz music, you could describe a time you or someone you interviewed was at a jazz club.

Show question

Question

How should a cautionary anecdote relate to your thesis?

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Answer

When using an anecdote to caution, you are trying to put your thesis in perspective. You are trying to establish what is wrong with the status quo, and why it needs to be changed. 

Show question

Question

In your body paragraphs you might use an anecdote to directly _____ your audience.

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Answer

Persuade

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Question

_____ is almost always a better form of evidence than an anecdote.

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Answer

Research

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Question

Don't use an anecdote to _____ in your introduction.

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Answer

Fill space

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Question

Should your argument hinge upon an anecdote?

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Answer

No, personal stories are not strong enough pieces of evidence to prove your thesis. 

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Question

If your anecdote has helped guide your reader away from a flaw in your essay, is this good?

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Answer

No. An anecdote might distract a casual reader, but not a trained reader.

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