Thursday 26 March 2015

How to Flavour Your Article with Anecdotes

"Anecdotes are like raisins in oatmeal cookies.  Sure, you can eat the cookies without them, but you'll miss out on the added flavour, contrasting texture and enhanced nutrition." 
(Michelle Ruberg in Writer's Digest Handbook of Magazine Article Writing)

Anecdotes don't just fall out of the sky onto your page like "manna", according to Michelle Ruberg. As a writer, you must search for them during your research and interviews.  While you are recording your names, dates and places, don't forget to include an anecdote or two.

Michelle Ruberg suggests that you draw them out of your subject by asking open-ended questions ex. "Tell me what happened when..." or "Describe what you saw when..."  Ideally, a face to face interview is the most productive.  Much of what we say is non-verbal, conveyed by our gestures and facial expressions; these are thing you can't pick up in a telephone conversation.  Don't forget to look for cultural distinctions and nuances as well.

As part of your research, documents can be a good source for anecdotes.  Eric Freedman, author of Pioneering Michigan, used a letter written by Jefferson Gage Thurber to his New England family to illustrate the panic following the 1832 cholera epidemic in Detroit.

"The panic at the time exceeded anything I ever imagined.  The timidity of our border settlers from sudden incursions of the Indians forms but a faint comparison.  I have no doubt from what little experience and observation I have had that fear has killed as many as the cholera." 

Where does an anecdote go in the article?  According to Michelle Ruberg, anywhere that it fits.  Steve Wilson's Folio magazine profile started with an Evel Knievel anecdote.

"One evening in 1973...Bob Bitchin pulled his chopper up to a stoplight on the Sunset Strip in Los Angeles.  He made eye contact with a man in a fur coat behind the wheel of a Ferrari.  When the light turned green, they raced.  The driver (who won) turned out to be Evel Knievel, and their late night of partying and entanglement with the law later made it into a Rolling Stone article."

Immediately upon reading this anecdote, your interest is piqued.  It pulls you in and makes you want to keep reading.

You can also put an anecdote at the heart of your piece as William Goldman did in his New York magazine article about wrestler turned film star Andre the Giant.  After being treated to several meals by Andre the Giant, Arnold Schwarznegger invited him out to dinner.

"...late in the meal, he snuck into the kitchen to give his credit card to the maitre d'.  As he was about to do this, he felt himself being lifted up into the air.  'When he had me up in the air, he turned me so I was facing him and he said:  'I pay.'  Then he carried me back to the table and set me down like a little boy.'  Oh yes, Andre was very strong."

The image I have of Andre the Giant lifting up former body builder Arnold Schwarznegger like a little boy is a powerful one.

An article can also end with an anecdote to drive a point home.  Douglas Preston included one in his National Geographic article about Cambodia.  He touched an ancestor stone, then:

"ran my finger through the cool grove of a lotus tree.  Here, broken soldiers from an Angkor temple had been put in the service of an even more ancient religion.  One of our soldiers, a skinny, barefoot teenager with an AK-47 slung over his shoulder, stopped at the shrine,placed his hands together and bowed deeply in an act of veneration.  A gecko called twice, and then the forest fell silent in the stifling noon day heat.  Life went on in this strange, timeless land."

Note the sharp words and vivid imagery Mr. Preston uses, just as you would see in a fiction piece.

Michelle Ruberg reminds you to write tightly when including anecdotes.  "An overly long and wordy anecdote detours readers".  If your word count is 1000, and you include an anecdote of 350 words, that only leaves you 750 words for the rest of your article.  However, if your word count is double that, you might have room for such an anecdote.

Think like a fiction writer.  Use devices like plot, dialogue, characterization, sharp words and description when writing an anecdote.  Remember, your anecdote should bolster your point; it should be more than just "window dressing".  If you have too many to fit in your piece, save the remaining anecdotes for future writing assignments.

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