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!

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Contents
Table of contents

    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 StudySmarterFig. 1 - You tell your story well, stranger, say more.

    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, you can use an anecdote to capture a moment in 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 or someone you interviewed had a very pertinent firsthand experience, 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 StudySmarterFig. 2 - Stick to what matters!

    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

    What is anecdote in writing?

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

    How do you write an anecdote in an essay?

    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.

    What is an example of an anecdote?

    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. 

    What are the four purposes of an anecdote?

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

    Can an anecdote be used an essay hook?

    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.

    Test your knowledge with multiple choice flashcards

    An anecdote is _____.

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

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

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