13 Writing with Anecdotes
The stories that make articles come to life
“Don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass.”
Anecdotes are by definition short, compelling or entertaining stories about real incidents or real people, that help a subject become more relatable and true to life.
We share stories about our day, illustrate situations in our lives and try to connect with others through moments that can be shared.
Anecdotes are also the stories that make your articles come to life, illustrating your main point so the reader can see what the story will be about.
Consider a story is about the challenges of back-to-school clothes shopping. You could say Jeanette Burns’ daughter wanted to go buy new clothes, but economics meant they ended up at the Volunteers of America Thrift Store where their money would go much further.
But I see it better if you show me:
Jeanette Burns pushes the hangers from left to right, her eye scanning first the color and style, then the price and finally the label to confirm the size. The sound of hangers scraping along the metal pole is hypnotic.
Three feet away by the empty cart, 12-year-old Naveah stands with her arms crossed, lips in a tight horizontal line, her eyes narrow. School was five days away, and her four-inch summer growth spurt had cost Neveah her favorite outfits. Now she watched as her mother pawed through other people’s hand-me-downs, waiting to see which ones would soon fill her closet.
That, my friends, is an anecdote.
We use them every day to help people see and experience the world as we do.
There are really only two ways to uncover true anecdotes for your articles:
- Get someone to describe them.
- Experience them yourself.
Much of what we write about has already happened, so we are beholden to those who experienced the situation to describe for us what happened. To do that, though, they need to be asked in ways that will help pull out the story.
- “Give me an example of that.”
- “Describe when that happened.”
- “Walk me through.”
In class, we often use the example of the roommate from hell — which it seems is consistent among college students.
Let’s say the nut graph of our story for a feature is how to cope with the college roommate from hell. To fully understand the nut graph, we need to see an example. So we interview students who have had bad roommates and ask them to share what exactly that experience was like.
Let’s say a source said of his roommate, “He was dirty.”
We could leave it to our imagination what dirty means, or we could ask more questions to get more specifics.
That led one student to relate that his roommate, who he thinks only bathed twice in the entire semester, used to cut his facial hair and fingernails — and leave the clippings in the kitchen sink.
Now I understand dirty.
I once interviewed a mother four years after her son had died. She was the last person to see him alive and found him unresponsive in his hotel bed. Blurting out a question like, “What happened when you found your son’s body?” would not get me nearly the information I needed and it would be terribly bad form. We had to work up to that with a variety of probing questions that allowed her to walk me through her night — what did she eat, where did she sit, what did they talk about, where was he standing when he said goodnight. What did she say and do.
In my mind, I basically had a paint-by-numbers outline of the anecdote, but I had to ask her every question I could so she would provide the paint to fill in and fill out the images.
I also hoped she would surprise me, so my picture had even more personality and color, like when she described how she stood next to him (on his right) while he sat at a restaurant table, running her hand up and down his back three times.
She recalled almost as an afterthought: “It was the last time I touched him.”
Being a writer means exploring the world around you, and getting first-person anecdotes is an invaluable part of your reporting.
Writing a story on a new hotel project in town? Instead of calling up the neighbor whose house will be dwarfed by a parking garage, go out to his house and see for yourself what is his view now and how will it be affected.
If you are profiling a musician, don’t just ask them what their preshow routine is like. Spend the day — or a few days — going to rehearsal, eating lunch, shopping for clothes, doing soundcheck. Get the dialogue that comes when he or she interacts with someone else.
Suppose we were writing a story about the airlines’ new push to strictly enforce carry-on bag sizes, and we found ourselves at the airport. Taking notice of the different size bags passengers wheeled around the concourse could help with details, as could what exactly happens when you are in line for the flight.
Take note of the United Airlines representative stopping a female traveler with what appears to be an oversized roller bag and asking her to put it in the measurement box situated near the gate. What happens? Does she get on with it or need to check her bag? How does the passenger behave? How about the airline employee?
Listen to both talking about their experience, and even go into interview mode:
- Identify yourself as a writer working on an article on this topic.
- Ask the passenger her name and where she is going.
- How does she feel about the policy?
- What was she feeling when approached about the bag and while measuring?
- What were her thoughts when packing the bag (did she realize it would be oversized, etc.)?
- How does she feel about the push for pay bags?
Notice all of these are “open-ended” questions, meaning they cannot be answered with a “yes,” “no” or single-word answer. We need to get people to describe their feelings, emotions and experiences to bring others into their stories.
Nothing is hypothetical
The one way NOT to get anecdotes is the lazy way: creating your own hypothetical from what you think might happen or from a few stories you may have heard from others.
“Imagine you are walking down the sidewalk and you come across a homeless person seeking change…”
“A mother and daughter are shopping for a prom dress…”
“Bringing home a new puppy and not sure where it should sleep?”
Imagine how much more effective real people with real names could be sharing their real stories.
‘An Incredible Journey’ with Aaron Portzline of The Athletic
Aaron Portzline of The Athletic set out to write a profile on NHL forward Artemi Panarin, who had been extraordinary on the ice but elusive to the media. Here is his anecdotal lede:
The 8-year-old boy stood shaking and scared in the middle of a bus station in Chelyabinsk, Russia, tears gathering in his eyes and dripping off his cheeks. His panicked hands rifled through the same pockets over and over for the bus ticket he could not afford to lose.
At the previous stop, he’d reached into a secret pocket on the inside of his pants — to the left of the zipper, just behind the waist — to buy a snack for the 25-mile trip from Korkino to Chelyabinsk. The ticket must have been left at the counter when he reached for his money.
His grandmother didn’t just put the rubles in that pocket, she sewed that pocket into his jeans, too, hoping robbers wouldn’t find it when they patted him down. This was more than 900 miles east of Moscow and just eight years after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Poverty was a permanent cloud in the Chelyabinsk region, and crime was rampant. Even kids weren’t safe.
The boy stood trembling at the world’s mercy. Most mistook him for a 5- or 6-year-old, a golden mop of hair on top of a frail 65-pounder, all ribs and elbows and knees.
Two men emerged from the swirl of legs and luggage. “Where are your parents? Why are you crying? Are you lost?”
They looked around the station for an adult accomplice, fearing a ruse. One gave the boy the money in exchange for a promise that he’d spend it on a bus ticket. Even kids couldn’t be trusted.
The tears dried. A natural smile returned. Deep breaths.
Artemi Panarin remembers this as one of the scariest days of his young life. He bought a new ticket and boarded a bus back home to Korkino, but his remarkable journey from isolation and poverty to NHL stardom and immense wealth was just getting started.
Blue Jackets fans have been treated to numerous Panarin highlights this season — the puck dangling, the passing, the scoring. But few in North America know what Panarin has survived to make it this far, how he emerged from an almost hopeless part of the world to become one of the best hockey players of his generation.
From: An Incredible Journey: Artemi Panarin’s path from poverty to NHL stardom / The Athletic