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Supporting Details: Anecdotes
Common Core: CCSS.ELA

Supporting Details: Anecdotes

Author: Linda Neuman

Anecdotes are literary tools used to pique interest and engage readers. Used to evoke emotion, anectdotes are best used in the introduction or conclusion. This tutorial focuses on how to use anecdotes appropriately and effectively to make your content as powerful as it can be.

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Anecdote: A great story, but not the whole story

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Source: Linda Neuman

Anecdote: A great story, but not the whole story

Everyone loves to hear a story.

Especially a success story.  It makes us feel like we can be successful, too.  But does it really mean that?

Bill Gates became one of the richest men in the world, but that doesn’t necessarily mean your son will follow in his footsteps.  Sure, they’re both computer whizzes.  But many other factors determined the trajectory of Bill Gates; unless you can recreate all the exact moments and circumstances that propelled Gates to his lofty status, you don’t have a very strong argument for assuming your son will be the next Bill Gates, as intelligent and skilled as your son may be.

The problem is that Bill Gates’ story is just one story.  It’s an interesting, inspirational story, and that’s why it has value, not because it can be applied as a reliable formula for all computer geniuses who seek fame and riches--it can’t.

Anecdotes are great little stories about things that really happened, like the way teen-aged Bill Gates and his friends got caught hacking into a computer system. 

Anecdotes pique our interest, and make us want to hear more.  They might even sell us on a particular idea or concept, but we make that decision based on emotion alone, and maybe our trust in the person telling the story.  Anecdotes can be powerful trust builders,

but they don’t prove anything.

So why do writers use anecdotes?  Because readers enjoy them. Consider them a literary tool, which when properly placed can help draw your readers in by evoking an emotional response.

Where do you find them?

  •  You can borrow a relevant anecdote from anyone or anywhere  
  •  You can tell your own anecdote, based on personal experience or observation 

Example:  Your topic sentence claims that becoming a parent makes one more sympathetic toward other parents.

Personal experience:  When I was single I would frown at mothers who couldn’t control their screaming youngsters at a mall; now, I smile and nod to let them know I feel their pain.

Observation:  I saw a father pushing twins in a stroller who was obviously in a hurry, but he stopped in front of a store to allow a woman with her child to go in ahead of him.

These stories make the reader want to agree with the idea that becoming a parent makes one more sympathetic toward other parents. But in no way and on no planet do they prove anything.  Even if I said I'd seen many fathers with children do similar things, that's just one person (me) telling a story.  Compare that to a survey over time of hundreds or thousands of fathers with children in the mall; my anecdotal observation does not carry the same weight.

Do NOT rely on anecdotes for supporting detail.  They just aren’t strong enough.

However, they add fabulous color and emotional appeal, so by all means consider using an anecdote to make your writing more entertaining and exciting. 

Do NOT overuse anecdotes.  One, possibly two, will work well to inject a little shot of something real into your writing, and readers love that.  Anything more will sound like padding, and your reader will begin to doubt your authority.

Anecdotes are NOT appropriate for:

Scientific writing

Close analysis of a novel

Comparing /contrasting

Anecdotes should always relate to your topic.  Don’t just tell a compelling story.  It has to make sense within the context of your paper.

Often, the best place for a relevant anecdote is in the introductory paragraph or the concluding paragraph of your paper--not in the body of the paper where you are making the case for your thesis.

Anecdotes, when told well, make for great reading.  But their job is to amuse, or even to provoke, not to prove.