Using Anecdotes: How to Capture Readers with a Slice of Life
By Kathy Widenhouse, award-winning content writer and author who specializes in writing for nonprofits and faith-based organizations.
Anecdotes are a powerful tool in copywriting, I explained to a beginning writer’s group.
“I’ve never had a short story published,” I said.
“I’ve never written a novel. And I never make up stories about the services and
organizations I write about.”
I paused. “But I’m a
Some shifted uncomfortably in their chairs. A few cast looks
of pity my way. Finally, one woman raised her hand. “What kind of fiction do
you write?” she asked.
“I borrow techniques from my friends in the fiction
community,” I told her, “and fill my writing with anecdotes.”
To my relief, I heard a collective, “Ah ha!”
in the room and laughs all around.
Anecdotes are Real-Life Illustrations
I went on to share that an anecdote is an itsy-bitsy, true
story that illustrates a point and touches the reader's soul.
Why are they so powerful? Because people make decisions with their hearts more than their heads.
writing, an anecdote gives a real-life example of the benefits of your cause.
It lets the reader peek inside the lives you impact.
In other words, anecdotes are a classic way to
show rather than tell in your content and copy. Which makes them very, very valuable ... unless they
A Checklist to Use as You Write Anecdotes
Remember, an anecdote is a snippet of life, not the whole
enchilada. If you get off topic you lose the opportunity to make your point with
a story because you’ve lost your reader.
Use this checklist as you write stories to include in your content and copy.
- Make one point. Why is your particular
anecdote significant? Make sure its focus supports the main idea of your
promotional piece or article. The point of the opening story above? All writers can make
their writing sparkle with storytelling, once they learn some simple techniques
... which forecasts precisely with what the rest of this article is about.
- Give the facts. Record the basic elements
of your story – the facts. Who was there? When and where did it all take place?
Now sift through and decide what pieces of the puzzle are necessary to get
your point across. In the scenario above, it’s important for you to know that I
spoke to other writers. But I didn’t need to tell you that the meeting took
place in the winter. So I left that out.
- Indicate the problem or need. The element of
conflict is central in fiction. Tension comes in many forms – it could be a
full scale war or a verbal cat fight, but can also involve a daily difficulty
or hurdle. I spoke to beginning writers. They have a need: they want to learn
effective writing techniques. Make sure your anecdote communicates a problem
that someone must solve.
- Add details. Collect as many pieces of information
as you can. Then incorporate the details that add to your story’s point. Weed
out the ones that aren’t necessary. In my example, the reader didn’t need to know that I
addressed the writer’s group in a coffee house or that I wore a black pantsuit.
But the fact that I have never written a novel is an important detail in the
- Use dialogue. Let your characters talk.
They’ll communicate their thoughts and feelings to underscore tension or
conflict. Eliminate any dialogue that doesn’t propel the story forward. Then,
read the dialogue aloud to make sure it sounds realistic.
- Apply verisimilitude. That’s a fancy term for “as
similar to the truth as possible.” I don’t remember the exact words I said to
the writer’s group and I don’t have a recording of the presentation. It’s well
within a writer’s domain to report a story as best as you can, whether it’s
your own or one you’re sharing second-hand. The dialogue above is as close to
the truth as I recall.
- Appeal to the senses. Let readers smell the pumpkin
bread in the oven or the freshly-turned dirt at the building site. Let their skin prickle ... sweat pour down their backs ... ice cubes melt in their
mouths. Aim to describe your scene through at
least one of the senses, in a way that underscores your point. I let the reader see my listeners squirm in their seats when
I told them I was a “fiction writer” with no credits. Then I let the reader
hear an imaginary “ah ha” when the listeners collectively understood my
- Expose emotion. Good writing
reveals humanity. Readers relate to copy that expresses vulnerability. They
desperately want to hear how the conflict, tension, need or problem in the
story was settled. An effective anecdote reveals some kind of resolution or
answer to the obstacle. Readers of the above story can connect with emotions of
relief: I felt release when writers learned I wasn’t a fraud, and the group
felt assurance that I had significant information to share with them.
- Write simply. An anecdote is short and pithy.
Complex stories lead the reader off track.
- Self-edit. Cut out any copy that doesn’t
contribute to the one point you’re trying to make. (Get self-editing tips here.)
Use the same techniques as best-selling novelists do, but in
targeted miniatures – and your anecdotes will capture readers’ hearts with your
special slice of life.
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