Using Anecdotes in Our Writing

In Living Between the Lines Lucy Calkins shows us the power of anecdotes: “Jane Yolen pulled off the highway in a snowstorm to scrawl down a phrase she’d heard on the car radio.  The announcer, trying to sell a fence, described it as ‘horse-high, hog-tight, and bull-strong.’  Yolen thought the words were too good to lose.  Months later, they led to the first paragraph of The Inway Investigators.

 Anecdotes, little stories that are often used to illustrate a point, can be used to build content in any type of writing: narrative, argumentative, and informational.  Sometimes, they are humorous, and sometimes, they are quite serious as demonstrated by Martha Holmes in her nonfiction book, Deadly Animals. She clearly illustrates how dangerous red piranha can be in this anecdote:

Toward the end of the dry season, when the rivers are low, they are found together in great numbers.  A boy driving his herd of cattle across the river doesn’t realize the danger.  The hungry fish smell blood seeping from a recent wound on one of the cow’s legs and dart toward her.  She stumbles as they bite her legs; then more and more fish attack.  Their feeding frenzy lasts only a few minutes.  The cow has been completely eaten.

 I suggest teaching anecdotes by first tying them to a character trait, making a connection between the work we do in reading workshop and the work we do in writing workshop. We make an anchor chart of character traits – good and bad – and make sure everyone understands what each one means (such as humble or magnanimous). Then I demonstrate with several of my own about people I know very well. The student writers make a list of people they know well and try to think of some character traits that could describe each one. Sometimes, they think of a little story about them first; and then, they come up with the anecdote. Here is an anecdote about my grandfather. Following the anecdote, I try to imagine where this anecdote could be placed in future writing or in pieces I’ve already started or finished.  This final step, reflecting on how you might use anecdotes in future work, is important. I must give credit to Rose Cappelli here for including this reflection when I ask students to try writing and using anecdotes. Here is my example:

When I was little, my grandfather taught me how to swim.  I remember the time we were at Sailor’s Lake.  The water felt cold even though is was the middle of July.  Grandpa put his strong arms under me and told me to paddle with my arms and kick with my legs.  “Reach as far as you can, Lynnie,” he told me.  Grandpa showed me how he cupped his hands to pull through the water, keeping his fingers together.  He practiced going under the water with me, too.  We held hands and dunked our heads over and over again.  One time, I took such a big gulp of air before going under, that I made Grandpa laugh. Grandpa laughed so hard that he swallowed some of the lake water. He made me laugh, too.  Suddenly, I wasn’t afraid anymore!  And before I knew it, I was swimming through the water on my own.

Topics:

Narratives

  • The Day I Fell into the River
  • The Day I Learned to Swim
  • Fourth of July Backyard Barbecue
  • Rescuing Annie

Informational:

  • How We Learn to Swim
  • Water Safety
  • Important Things We Learn From Our Grandparents (Parents)
  • Hero Essay About Grandpa

Opinion:

  • All young children should be taught how to swim.
  • There are many things we can learn from our senior citizens.
  • It is foolish to give up on something before we try.

 

I am participating in #SOL17 and thank the twowritingteachers blog team and this community of writers for the opportunity to share my writing and to respond to other writers. slice-of-life2

8 thoughts on “Using Anecdotes in Our Writing

  1. I love planning where you might use it. Planning the anecdote before they write is really helpful. Sometimes with young writers in opinion or informational they move into the anecdote to illustrate the point and then never come back to the original piece. They stay with narrative — I think this would help.

    Thanks for sharing
    Clare

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks, Clare. I had the same problem at first. Students sometimes get lost in their anecdote. We write several anecdotes about teachers or the principal or school librarian together or in partners and post them as anchor charts in the writing center. Mentor texts, mentor texts!

      Like

  2. Being planful! So purposeful!

    This totally absorbed my attention . . .”Following the anecdote, I try to imagine where this anecdote could be placed in future writing or in pieces I’ve already started or finished. This final step, reflecting on how you might use anecdotes in future work, is important.”

    This slice is golden, Lynne! Thanks so MUCH! ❤

    Liked by 1 person

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