How to Find and Write Anecdotes

College Application Essays

In Search of an Anecdote


anecdotes

Just yesterday, one of my tutoring students, a high school junior, wanted help on her English assignment: To write a practice college application essay.

One tip from her teacher was to tell a story. (I first explained to my student the important difference between telling a story and using an anecdote.)

After a few minutes brainstorming, we honed in on the topic of how she values the relationship with her “little sister,” who was really the daughter of her mom’s boyfriend.

The mom and boyfriend had recently broken up, and my student was going to share how she intended to maintain this special friendship even though it would be very difficult from now on.

I asked her to think of some examples of her close friendship with her “little sister.”

She said they loved to laugh together.

I asked if she could think of an example of “a time” when they shared one of these silly moments. I was fishing for a “moment” or “time” that she could use as an anecdote to her essay.

This is how you find anecdotes: Look for real-life examples that illustrate or demonstrate a point you want to make.

RELATED: My Video Tutorial on How to Write an Anecdote: Part One

She told me about a recent visit to a restaurant where they shared a laugh together.

I asked her for details–where were they, what happened, how did they react, etc.

She needed to set the scene, and start the description of that moment right in the middle of the action, instead of building up to it.

 

 

Here’s the anecdote she crafted to use as the introduction to her essay:

While waiting for our blueberry pancakes and omelettes to arrive, my little sister decided to pick up one of her crayons and toss it at me. Instead of hitting me, it flew past the side of my head and hit a man sitting behind us at another table at our local IHOP.

My sister’s blue eyes flew open. “Oh my God,” she mouthed at me, her hand covering her mouth. Fortunately, the man didn’t seem to notice, but we both doubled over laughing. We had to bury our faces in our sleeves so no one would hear.

(After anecdote, she shared background) It was just one of the typical silly moments that we have shared together since I first met Molly Bowen almost six years ago. She is the daughter of my mom’s longtime boyfriend. Even though she is four years younger than me, we hit it off the first time we met. I even call her my sister.

In the rest of her essay, my student would go back to explain when she first met her “little sister” and talk about their friendship, other things they enjoyed doing together, the impact of their parent’s break-up, how she felt and thought about it, what she had learned from it, etc.

How To Craft an Anecdote

If you are going to try an anecdote in your essay, here are some of the common elements that my student used in hers—and you can use them in yours, too. My student:

  • told about one experience, which only lasted over the course of several minutes. Most anecdotes only capture a little moment in time.
  • chose a moment that was an example of the larger point of her essay. In this case, this moment showed us the type of silly interactions that seal their friendship.
  • set the scene using descriptive language and details (blueberry pancakes, IHOP, crayon); and told us the 5Ws (who, what, when, where, and why).
  • included a little snippet of dialogue to give it a fiction-like style.
  • described a moment that had some action, and involved a problem (the crayon hit a stranger) to create drama.
  • wrote in the first-person (I, we, us).
These are not easy to write. They take practice. The best way is to write out an account of the moment, and then go back and try to trim it down to a paragraph or two, leaving only the details that you need to recreate the moment. One of the best ways to learn how to write anecdotes is to read them. A great source are newspaper and magazine articles, especially feature stories, and other sample college essays.
RELATED: My Video Tutorial on How to Write an Anecdote: Part One
I tried to find a good example online and this little classic anecdote from a master humorist and memoir writer, David Sedaris, popped up. He wrote this as the introduction to a piece he wrote in The New Yorker magazine, called Turbulence.
I thought it was funny that it was similar to the little moment that my student used in her anecdote! (Note that this is how he starts his essay.)
On the flight to Raleigh, I sneezed, and the cough drop I’d been sucking on shot from my mouth, ricocheted off my folded tray table, and landed, as I remember it, in the lap of the woman beside me, who was asleep and had her arms folded across her chest. I’m surprised that the force didn’t wake her—that’s how hard it hit—but all she did was flutter her eyelids and let out a tiny sigh, the kind you might hear from a baby.

See how his anecdote uses all the same elements that my student’s did? Starts in the middle of the scene, lets us know the 5Ws, includes a little action, is an example of the larger point (if you read the entire piece you will see this), and describes a moment that only lasts a minute or so. And that they both were funny sure never hurts when you are trying to “grab” your reader!

 

David Sedaris
RELATED: My Video Tutorial on How to Write an Anecdote: Part One

 

Essay Topics That Worked–And Why

College Application Essays

How Anecdotes Make Them Work

 

One of the best ways to learn what types of topics make the most interesting essays is to check out what other students wrote about. Especially if those students had the right guidance and came up with unique, compelling ideas. Like, say, my students!

If you are new to this blog, I always encourage writers to find mini-stories (anecdotes) that they can relate in their essays to reveal and share their broader ideas, passions and values. I also advise them that everyday (mundane) topics work the best.

The idea is that an anecdote is a perfect “grabber” for an introduction, since it hooks the reader’s attention with a compelling mini-story.

It usually shares one moment or focused image, event or experience, using a fiction-like writing style.

Here are five topics that my students came up with last year. I tried to sum up their anecdote and then how they expanded that moment or experience into an essay.

RELATED: How to Write a College Application Essay in 3 Steps

See if you find these helpful in understanding how you can use this format:

Anecdote: The writer described “the time” he hoisted himself up in a tree using ropes and his knot-tying skills, but got stuck.

Larger theme: He then wrote about how his passion for knot-tying reflected his ability to solve problems, using logic, patience and imagination.

 

college application essay

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Essay Rocket Fuel: The Anecdote

College Admissions Essays

How to Write an Anecdote

For Your College Application Essay, Personal Statement or other Essays

If you can write an anecdote, you can write a powerful essay.

But a lot of students don’t know what an anecdote is, let alone how to write one.

It’s really just a weird word for a little story or animated description of something that happened.

Usually they are very short.

If done well, they make excellent introductions for all essays since they grab the reader’s attention.

In essays, an anecdote is an example of a point you want to make that uses a little story or animated description.

Example: You want to make the point in your essay that you are a creative person.

So you write an anecdote to illustrate your point: You could describe something creative that you made, or you could describe yourself making something interesting.

Like this:

During a walk near my home, I found a long stick that looked like the letter “Y.” I smoothed the surface with sandpaper and covered it with blueberry blue paint I found in the garage, then wrapped it with twine and colored yarn. From my junk drawer, I tied seashells, a couple old keys and a bent fork to the ends and hung it in my room.

“What’s that?” my little sister asked.

“Art,” I said, even though I wasn’t even sure what I had made.

(Then background your interest in art, how you think about it, why you value it, how it has affected you, changed you, and what your plans are for it in the future…)

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How to Write an Anecdote

College Application Essays

How to Tell a Story

In journalism, writers often use “anecdotal leads,” that is, starting a news or feature story with a mini-story about a real-life event, one that puts the reader in the middle of the action.

Usually, the anecdote only describes a single moment or incident.

But it’s usually a highlight.

Something happened.

Anecdotes make great introductions for college essays. (I believe there’s no better way to “grab” your reader than to start a story–or your essay–at the most exciting part!) So how do you write an anecdote? Here are some tips.

  • Start at the peak of the drama or excitement or conflict. Jump right in! (You will just back up and explain it later.)
  • Set the scene: Describe what you see, what you hear, what you feel (both literally and figuratively), what you smell and taste, if relevant. These are called sensory details.
  • Use the 5 Ws—Who was involved? What happened. Where did it happen? When did it happen? Why did it happen? ( “H”: How did it happen?)
  • Paint a picture with your words, or even better, describe a snippet of video. Zoom in on the action.
  • Usually the “action” in your anecdote takes place in a matter of a few minutes.
  • Throw in a line or two of dialogue to add drama or move the action forward.
  • Use “concrete details.” Be specific! Instead of saying, “The dog ran up to me.” Say, “the neighbor’s bull terrier, Brutus, charged me…”
  • In general, use short sentences or mix up the short and long.
  • Don’t worry about the background or explaining the larger context of the moment. You can back up and explain that in the next paragraph.
  • Borrow techniques you find in fiction writing: concrete details, dialogue, proper nouns, descriptive language, emotion, strong characters, etc.
  • Use simple language (avoid SAT vocab. words). Write with nouns and action verbs. Go easy on the adjectives.
  • If your mini-story (anecdote) takes three paragraphs to relate, try to go back and see if you can cut it down to two or even one paragraph by keeping only what you need to re-create the moment. You will be surprised how you can shorten them, and actually make them better!

“Writing is easy. All you have to do is cut out all the wrong words.”  Mark Twain

Here is another post about how to write anecdotes that you will find very helpful, too!

Check out my new video tutorial on How to Write an Anecdote: Part One!