I confess: I love anecdotes.
These are basically when a writer shares a mini-story about a real-life moment or experience.
Usually, they are plucked out of the past, and presented without much introduction.
Their power is that they draw you into a story, or college application essay, by starting with a punch of drama.
Anecdotes make awesome introductions.
The key is to get as close to the action as possible.
I’ve written tips and advice on how to write anecdotes, but thought I would try to model an example.
They seem so simple when you read them, but they are harder than you might think to craft.
The trick is to practice, and study how other anecdotes are put together.
The most common place to find them is at the start of longer newspaper pieces or magazine stories, or of course, personal (narrative) essays.
I advise students to search their past for “times” or incidents or experiences that happened to them, which they can use to start their essays to illuminate something (quality, characteristic, talent, etc…) about themselves.
I thought about my defining qualities way back in high school, and one was that I wanted to be adventuresome.
So here is a “time” when I was trying to be adventuresome.
Like all good stories (including mini-stories like anecdotes), the best ones involve some type of problem.
My problem in this case was that we were about to get in trouble.
Here’s what happened if I just tell it to you straight, as in describe it to you.
Then you can compare how I re-wrote it in a more story-telling or fiction-like style to craft it into an anecdote.
I’m hoping this will help you learn to convert your real-life moments or experiences into anecdotes:
I had just spent the summer after graduating high school waiting tables at a lodge in a national park in Wyoming, and decided to hitchhike home with a friend to St. Louis, Missouri.
(This was in the late 70s, when people still hitchhiked–although it was pretty stupid even then.
So I do not advise this mode of travel.) Anyway, a guy who gave us a ride in Montana (we were up in Glacier Park) told us a hot tip: We should hop a freight train east.
It would be a lot easier and more direct, he said.
RELATED: My Video Tutorial on How to Write an Anecdote: Part One
At the time, all I thought about was how cool that sounded—and totally ignored how dangerous it could be.
He told us to meet a friend of his who tended a corner bar in a tiny town, called Havre, and that guy would help us figure out the trains. The bartender told us to go to the train yard early in the morning (like 4 a.m.) and pick one of the longer trains heading east, and to get in a car closer to the engine (less bumpy.)
So we did, and it was totally scary in the pitch dark around all these parked giant trains, and eventually climbed into an open freight car and tried to hide in the corner (There was no “hopping” involved.).
At one point, a train worker found us, but for some reason didn’t kick us out.
We road that train all the way to Fargo, North Dakota.
Ok, now I will extract an anecdote out of that “time,” and try to start as close to the “drama” or highlight of the action or tension or conflict or problem as possible.
(This “moment” is from the sentence in bold above.)
This is one way to write it:
Crouched in the far corner of the darkened freight car with my friend, I buried my head in my knees and waited. It had been almost an hour and the train had yet to budge. Then I heard the footsteps, which sounded like boots on gravel, that grew louder and louder. They stopped abruptly, apparently right outside the open door. I squeezed my eyes shut, but still could tell when something, a flashlight or lantern, was illuminating our car. I held my breath. To my relief, the footsteps started again.
“Evening folks,” said a deep, soft voice, before the footsteps faded into the distance.
(Back Story) That terrifying night last summer, when I hopped my first freight train on my way home after a summer waiting tables in the Rocky Mountains, was one of the most frightening times of my life, but at the same time, part of an adventure that taught me how much I was willing to risk for a free ride….We had started out hitching hiking, but then…
If you are trying to put together an anecdote about one of your experiences or a meaningful moment from your past, start by writing it out straight like I did, just recounting what happened.
Then you can extract the details that you need to tell it like a story.
Identify the moment closest to the action or excitement. Find the best details that describe the setting.
Where were you when it happened? Who were you with? What happened?
What did you hear, smell, touch, etc…
How did you feel?
Include a piece of dialogue–from someone else or even quote your own thoughts–to give it that narrative feeling.
One tip is to make sure to put yourself right in the middle of the action.
Notice how I started by describing myself “Crouched in a the far corner…”
Begin by saying where you were, or what you were doing, then go from there.
This is often a great way to get started. You want the anecdote to be from your point of view, right at the center of the action.
At first, your anecdote might run long.
If so, just go back and trim out anything that you don’t need, but leave the details to help it make sense.
You will flush out the “back story” or larger context later in the piece.
Like I said, these take practice.
But they are very powerful writing techniques.
There’s no better way to put the reader in your shoes, and feel your pain, or thoughts or emotions.
It’s the perfect way to help them care about you and what you have to say right off the bat.
And this is what you want with your college application essay!
My Video Tutorial on How to Write an Anecdote: Part One