Anecdotal Essay Writing

I love anecdotes.

Especially for starting narrative essays for college application essays.

They can take a little practice to compose, but what a deceptively powerful writing tool.

Actually, if you start almost any type of writing with an anecdote–from a college essay to a book report to a press release–your message will instantly rise and shine above other written messages competing for readers’ attention.

They are engaging, accessible and they have a wow factor. Even though you don’t mean to be impressive, people often think you are so creative and accomplished when you wield them.

I just think readers are grateful for writing that includes little real-life stories. I know I always am. It’s simple: You want to read them. Who doesn’t want to know what happened next?

Crash Course in How to Write an Anecdote

Here’s a handy list of my posts on anecdotes. Read them all and you should be an expert in no time:

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

How to Write an Anecdote. This post lists the basics of writing an anecdote–from starting at the peak of the action to using sensory details and dialouge.

How to Turn a Real-Life Moment into an Anecdote. Learn how to take something that happened to you and tell it like a story using literary writing techniques.

Find Your “Problems” for Great Anecdotes. Learn how to include something “that happened” in your essays as anecdotes to make them exciting and engaging.

Essay Rocket Fuel: The Anecdote: This post gives an example of an anecdote and how to find the topic for an anecdote to use as an introduction for a narrative essay.

How to Write Grabber Intros using Anecdotes. Hook your reader at the start by engaging them with a mini-story, aka anecdote.

The BIG Difference Between a Story and an Anecdote:  This post explains why a story and an anecdote are not the same thing, and how to use an anecdote to “show” a point instead of just “tell” about it.

How to Find and Tell Anecdotes: This post teaches you how to find a good anecdote to illustrate the main point of your essay.

Become a Storyteller in Less than Five Minutes. I love this post, if I don’t say so myself. It shows you with simple little line drawing how an anecdote fits into a narrative essay.

Grab Your Readers with an Anecdote:  This post walks you through taking a little incident or moment and time and spinning it into a short anecdote. Includes a sample anecdote.

Components of an Anecdote: A good anecdote usually includes scene setting, so the reader can immediately start to visualize where something is happening. And something is happening–like a problem or action.

It also will include details that help the reader step into the moment–hearing, seeing, smelling and feeling what was going on.

The best anecdotes help readers experience the moment or incident by including bits of dialogue so they can get into the writer’s head and feel their pain, joy or other thoughts and emotion.

HOT TIP: To start an anecdote for your narrative essay, begin by letting the reader know WHERE you were (just enough so they get the idea), and then put yourself in the scene.

Then go from there. Example: Sitting at the bus stop, I stepped off the curb…or: Just before midnight, we gathered in a large circle in front of the fire…or: Driving with my friends along the Coast Highway,we stopped at a gas station…While scraping the burnt onions off the grill, I could tell my shift at the White Castle was almost over…

Want to write a killer college application essay? Start with an anecdote. You will leave the majority of other essay writers in your college application dust!

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



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College Application Essays

How to Write An Anecdote About Almost Anything


Before one of my college application essay writing workshops yesterday, I skimmed over some of the rough drafts the students had written last semester for their English classes.

The writing was solid, the ideas strong.

Yet the essays were all on the dull side.

If only someone had taught these kids how to use anecdotes, I thought.

They are the ultimate writing technique for Showing (an example) rather than Telling (explaining) about a point you want to make.

Nothing powers a college application essay like an engaging anecdote in the introduction.

Often, you can pull an anecdote ( a mini true story) out of what you’ve already written and instantly transform it into an engaging read. And it can be a very everyday, simple event or moment.

I tried to think if anything of interest happened during our workshop to use as an example.

In general, it was pretty uneventful, even (ahem) a bit boring.

Then I remembered: The cat fell off the bookcase while I was talking. It had fallen asleep and slipped off. We all had a good laugh. So something did happen.

Now, how would I write that as an anecdote?

Is it possible to take such a mundane event like that and turn it into a mini-story? Let’s see.

How to Write An Anecdote


The trick to anecdotes is to gather some details.

Start with the 5ws—Who, What, When, Where and Why:

Myself, five students and a cat.

A writing workshop.

One recent morning.

In a house.

On a bookshelf.

It fell off because it went to sleep and slid off.

Next, gather the sensory details to try to re-create the scene or setting.

What did we see, hear, smell, feel, touch or sense?

I didn’t see it fall since it was lying behind me.

I heard a soft thud.

I heard the students’ exclamation of surprise.

I felt surprised.

I didn’t touch or smell anything.

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

Now put these together.

I find it helps to start with the “where,” and then put yourself into the picture as well.

Standing by the window? Sitting on the grass?

Where were you when the incident or event happened—for point of view.

Remember, I was sitting with my back to the sleeping cat.

My students watched it happen.

Here’s how I would write an anecdote about this moment.

It took me a couple attempts.

I wrote it out, then took out words I didn’t need or want, moved sentences around, shortened some sentences, added a phrase to another.

I read it aloud each time.

I tried to vary sentence lengths between short and long, sticking more with the shorter sentences.

I tried to think of this little moment visually—what it would have looked like as a piece of video.

I tried to start as close to the peak of the action as possible and still have the event make sense with some background.

Notice that I spend barely any time leading up to what happened.

I had been talking for nearly an hour straight. My five writing students, all seated around a large table in front of me, were starting to fidget. Suddenly, I heard a soft thump and a commotion behind me. The students also jumped up in unison. 

“What the heck?” I said as I craned my neck behind me.

Everyone started laughing. The 16-year-old black cat, Ace, had fallen asleep on the bookshelf behind us and gradually slipped over the edge until he abruptly dropped to the floor. As the students laughed, we all watched Ace shake his head a couple times, stunned from the impact, trying to brush off the rude awakening. Then he padded into the next room as though nothing had happened.

I couldn’t help but think later how it took a sleeping cat to wake everyone up.

I know this isn’t great writing or the most compelling anecdote you’ve ever read.

But notice how it’s easy to read and keeps you moving forward.

Why? Because something happened, and you want to know why and what happens next.

I also want you to see how to take the most simple event or moment and turn it into an engaging anecdote, simply by relating the details of what happened in a direct manner.

There were countless other ways to describe this same moment, and that’s the beauty of an anecdote. It’s all in the telling, what details you share and what you want to emphasize.

RELATED POST: Writing Anecdotes: A Crash Course

If you want to practice your narrative writing skills, try crafting a couple anecdotes out of everyday incidents in your life.

They don’t need to be super exciting or impressive.

Just think of something that happened, say, when you were at the beach, or at a bookstore, or at the yogurt shop.

Describe a brief interaction you had with someone in line with you, or an exchange between a mother and child.

These take a little practice.

Remember, anecdotes are one of the most powerful writing techniques you can learn.

And they are solid gold when it comes to writing your college admissions essay!

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



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