The Power of Anecdote: Creative Strategies for Academic Writing

Posted by Sam on 3/30/18 5:56 PM

Academic Writing-1

Many of the freshmen I instruct at CUNY enter the first few sessions of my Expository Writing class wearing metaphorical top hats and monocles, armed with—and comforted by—the five-paragraph essay structure and other basic compositional building blocks. College-level essay writing, in their understanding, requires a stuffy, exacting formality—a holding in of one’s breath. By sublimating their individual perspectives and voices, these writers are, in fact, setting aside their most effective argumentative tools.

Aristotle and Me

Think of the most inspirational presidential addresses of the few decades, or, to be especially timely, of Oprah’s rousing Golden Globes acceptance speech. These speakers went far beyond oatmeal summation of why their issues were worthy of attention. Oprah, for example, began by vividly recounting her experience of watching Sidney Poitier win his Oscar when she was a child in 1964, going as far to describe the linoleum floor on which she was sitting. By setting herself squarely in the center of her argument about equality and inclusivity, many viewers were emotionally moved; some Twitter users were even galvanized into championing her presidential candidacy.

I encourage my students to research and write about topics they’re interested and invested in, which I’ve found immediately enlivens their argumentation. Caring about a subject is three-quarters of the battle, but because freshmen enter college with certain staid notions of academic writing—that, put concisely, it is more science than art—they forget the power of the personal. 

Rhetoricians teach the argumentative tenets of ethos, logos, and pathos, but contemporary college students often feel alienated by Aristotelian terminology. In high school, students learned about logos—the appeal to logic that the five-paragraph essay was born to satisfy—in essence, if not by name, as they focused on building clear, fact-based arguments. In so doing, and by attempting to adhere to vague notions of maturity or professionalism, many banished the first-person point of view from their writing entirely. 

This self-imposed restriction only serves to mute their authorial voices, and inevitably robs their essays of pathos, or emotional appeal. Supporting reasoning with concrete examples is indeed crucial to effective argumentation, but showing professors why students care about a subject proves that their argument matters. This achievement both makes for a powerful and memorable essay. For professors who are very likely reading hundreds of papers over the course of the semester, distinctiveness, too, counts.

The Art of the Anecdote

The decision to include an anecdote also allows students access into more expressive modes of writing. As a poet and an academic, I am especially positioned to bemoan the draining of authorial individuality that some high school writing classes catalyze. Again, the ability to organize and articulate one’s thinking with effective examples is integral to the college essay, but good writing also requires a more refined linguistic acumen.

Because of their past adherence to the five-paragraph expository essay form, my students tend to look at the writing of anecdotes as a creative exercise, inevitably divorced from the more methodical approach of paper writing. As warm-ups in my classes, I often task students with jotting down personal experiences that relate to the issues discusses in their assigned reading. As they reacquaint themselves with the first person—with their individual authorial Is—their hands loosen around their pens, and in flood in their distinctive writerly voices. 

To many students, creative writing has a different base set of requirements. In their anecdotes, they provide sensorial information, evocative visual details, and emotional depth and positioning. More often than not, their vocabulary expands exponentially as the tight grip of their academic diction loosens. In short, they become better writers—their arguments find their footing, and their language develops resonance and texture.

It’s a Balance

Some students become so enlivened by the permission to break with the tyranny of high school writing standards, they forget that, though strictures have loosened, they are still expected to provide a balance between pathos and logos in their writing. Is it compelling that you’ve seen the effects of gentrification first-hand in your city? Absolutely! But I also expect statistics, academic and peer-reviewed sources, and other relevant objective information. Anecdote cannot convince in a vacuum—but it can serve to guide students toward both more persuasive and more expressive writing.

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