What Is an Anecdote?

once upon a time - anecdote
Gary Provost defines anecdote as "a little story, usually one paragraph, that illustrates a point of your article" (Make Your Words Work, 1990). Dave Bolton/Getty Images

An anecdote is a brief narrative, a short account of an interesting or amusing incident usually intended to illustrate or support some point in an essay, article, or chapter of a book. Compare this to other literary terms, such as parable—where the whole story is a metaphor—and  vignette (a brief descriptive story or account). The term's adjective form is anecdotal

In "The Healing Heart: Antidotes to Panic and Helplessness," Norman Cousins wrote, "The writer makes his living by anecdotes.

He searches them out and carves them as the raw materials of his profession. No hunter stalking his prey is more alert to the presence of his quarry than a writer looking for small incidents that cast a strong light on human behavior."

Examples

Consider the use of an anecdote to illustrate something like the literary version of "a picture is worth a thousand words." For example, use anecdotes to show a person's character or state of mind:

  • Albert Einstein: "There was something elusively whimsical about Einstein. It is illustrated by my favorite anecdote about him. In his first year in Princeton, on Christmas Eve, so the story goes, some children sang carols outside his house. Having finished, they knocked on his door and explained they were collecting money to buy Christmas presents. Einstein listened, then said, "Wait a moment." He put on his scarf and overcoat and took his violin from its case. Then, joining the children as they went from door to door, he accompanied their singing of 'Silent Night' on his violin."  
    (Banesh Hoffman, "My Friend, Albert Einstein." Reader's Digest, January 1968)
  • Ralph Waldo Emerson: "In [Ralph Waldo] Emerson's later years his memory began increasingly to fail. He used to refer to it as his 'naughty memory' when it let him down. He would forget the names of things, and have to refer to them in a  circumlocutory way, saying, for instance, 'the implement that cultivates the soil' for plow."
    (Reported in Clifton Fadiman, ed., "The Little, Brown Book of Anecdotes," 1985)

    Brainstorm to Choose the Right Anecdote

    First, consider what you want to illustrate. Why do you want to use an anecdote in the story? Knowing this should help brainstorm the story to choose. Then make a list of random ideas. Just free-flow the thoughts onto the page. Examine your list. Will any be easy to present in clear and concise enough manner? Then sketch out the basics of the possible anecdote. Will it do the job? Will it bring extra layers of evidence or meaning to the point you're trying to convey?

    If so, develop it further. Set the scene and describe what happened. Don't get too long-winded with it, because you're just using this as an illustration to your larger idea. Transition to your main point, and hearken back to the anecdote where needed for emphasis.

    Anecdotal Evidence

    The expression anecdotal evidence refers to the use of particular instances or concrete examples to support a general claim. Such information (sometimes referred to pejoratively as "hearsay") may be compelling but does not, in itself, provide proof. A person may have anecdotal evidence that going out in the cold with wet hair makes him or her sick, but correlation is not the same as causation. 

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    Your Citation
    Nordquist, Richard. "What Is an Anecdote?" ThoughtCo, Apr. 17, 2018, thoughtco.com/what-is-anecdote-1689095. Nordquist, Richard. (2018, April 17). What Is an Anecdote? Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/what-is-anecdote-1689095 Nordquist, Richard. "What Is an Anecdote?" ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/what-is-anecdote-1689095 (accessed April 21, 2018).