An anecdote is an example disguised as a story. Anecdotes are
usually true narratives, but they can be composites or even totally
The following anecdote example is used as a single piece of evidence
to support a thesis.
The anecdote itself is about 335 words. With its single sentence
introduction and three paragraph conclusion, the anecdote is,
in fact, a very short narrative essay.
As you read, note the key terms in the opening paragraph. The
same terms are repeated in the conclusion.
As writing teachers, we have to be careful not to get so enamored
of our strategies for writing that we forget the purpose of the
strategies is to enable writers to accomplish their writing
A student I'll call John came to my office to discuss his first
major writing assignment, which required going through a series
of strategies associated with preparing a 5-paragraph essay.
John was ex-military, a few years older than most of his classmates.
John said the 5-paragraph essay was not going to work. He was
very polite, but I could tell he was angry.
I said, "Well, why don't you tell me what you did, and I'll
see if there's something I can suggest to help."
John described the strategies he had used to get his thesis statement
and to figure out what evidence was available. He told me how
he determined what evidence would be persuasive with his readers.
He concluded, "I just don't think a five-paragraph essay
is going to work."
"What do you think would work?"
John had an answer ready.
"I think it would be better to tell one story instead of
having three body paragraphs with three pieces of evidence."
"That sounds reasonable," I said. "Why don't you
John looked at me in bewilderment.
"Can I do that?"
"John, do you remember my saying one of the first days of
the semester that what I would teach you would probably work nine
out of 10 times as a way to structure a paper, but that even the
tenth time when it didn't work, it would still tell you what to
"Well, this is that tenth time. You went through the process,
and the process said, 'This content won't work in a traditional
five-paragraph essay format.'
"Now if you know this content won't work in a traditional
five- paragraph essay format and you've convinced me it won't
work in traditional five-paragraph essay format, don't you think
we'd be awfully stupid to insist you write it as a traditional
five- paragraph essay?"
He broke into a big grin.
"Yeah," he said. "That would pretty stupid."
I cannot recall John having another situation that year in which
he couldn't use the five- paragraph essay strategies for both
planning and writing his essay. As I told him, and tell all my
students, they work most of the time.
I remind myself of that incident whenever I find myself confusing
my strategies for my objective.
As writing teachers, you and I should work to get all students
to write clearly and effectively. When the strategies we teach
enable students to write clearly and effectively, that is marvelous.
When those strategies interfere with their writing clearly and
effectively, then we ought not insist on students using them.
Tip: Paragraphing anecdotes
When requiring an anecdote as paragraph development say, "Use
an anecdote to illustrate the topic sentence of one body paragraph
of your paper."
That means students use about a paragraph's worth of their space
to prepare for, present, and tell the significance of their anecdote.
The first couple times you require anecdote examples, you need
to state explicitly that students are not limited to writing one
paragraph if their anecdote has dialogue that requires starting
a new paragraph.
Get students to use anecdote as example
I suggest you prepare some writing prompts that suggest
students use an anecdote to illustrate the topic sentence
of one body paragraph of a paper.
Most students who are competent at using the standard thesis
and support format have no difficulty using an anecdote to support
one of their points. (They may have difficulty thinking of an
anecdote to use, but that is a different problem.)
After suggesting an anecdote example as a paragraph development
mechanism in several papers, you can require
students to use an anecdote to develop a paragraph.
After students have several experiences using an anecdote as
an example in a single paragraph, you can have them write full-length
narratives. (The papers you probably learned to call
Sneaking up on requiring narratives helps students avoid the
novice writers' problem of knowing that to put in the anecdote
and what to leave out. It also makes doing a new kind of writing
far less scarey.