Anecdotes aren’t just for sparkling chitchat at dinner parties. When crafted with an honest eye, a nonfiction anecdote can tether a complex issue to a flesh-and-blood human being, bringing an understanding to readers they wouldn’t obtain otherwise. A book with illuminating anecdotes can even establish an author as an expert. If a non-fiction book doesn’t have anecdotes, it can be a turn off to publishers.
Sculpting an enlightening anecdote — or even a helpful one — isn’t easy.
Here are 5 laws to abide by when writing anecdotes:
Observe the masters.
You’re not writing anecdotes just to beef up pages; you’re telling stories to notify readers and ensure lasting impact.
The key? Look at great works of narrative non-fiction, a genre that marries artful prose with hard fact to tell stories.
Check out Truman Capote, Hunter S. Thompson, and Joan Didion. Even Walt Whitman, known to most as a poetic genius, scribed a formidable work of narrative non-fiction: his diary when he was a nurse during the Civil War. I also love Barbara Demick’s chilling Nothing to Envy, and Charlie LeDuff’s Us, Guys.
Don’t Shy Away From Beautiful Prose.
People are fascinating. Don’t settle for language that sells them short. Strive to finesse your language to highlight why their life is worth sharing. In other words, don’t draw inspiration from those tall tales Uncle Ralph bleated over scotch at last year’s Christmas party.
Get to the core of a person by focusing on key details that hint at an overall story. Observe Charlie LeDuff’s imagery in Us Guys:
Charley is a walking coat rack with hair the color of nicotine, skin the color and texture of wax paper. He is sixty-five, has a voice ruined by cheap cigarettes, dentures rubbed smooth and a dignity that even the cheap booze cannot wash out.
We don’t simply know several facts about Charley; we feel his pain, connect to his past, and see him before us.
If an anecdote isn’t working, nine times out of ten, it’s because of the language. Ask yourself: What is this person’s outlook on life? And, how can you illustrate this? Answering these questions can take your nonfiction book to the next level.
Master The Interview.
- Be accurate and ethical. Even if you’ve never before considered yourself a reporter, strive for truth.
- In-person interviews are best; you’ll catch subtle details.
- If you can’t meet face-to-face, cell phones can produce scratchy audio, which get more muddled if your source has an accent, a cold, or an equally awful connection. Opt for landlines and record it all with FreeConferenceCallHD.com.
- Have questions ready. You are not Anderson Cooper — don’t rely on the chance you’ll think of brilliant questions on the fly.
- Know why you’re interviewing the person. For his expertise? Does his story prove a point?
- Above all, know that in the end, you’re simply having a conversation.
Despite those circles under your eyes, you’re not the only one working, here. It takes effort to be a great source, too.
In college, a fellow journalism student had 10 minutes until deadline, and almost attacked me for my quote. I shared my thoughts, but he huffed away before I could even wipe the tears I’d formed from basking too long in his coffee breath. He never said thanks, and he spelled my name wrong in print. He’s my least favorite person.
Don’t be my second least favorite person. Remember:
- A little please-and-thank-you goes a long way.
- Be flexible to your source’s schedule, and mention up front if you’re on a deadline.
- Confirm the interview with details and questions ahead of time.
- Make sure it’s okay to use their real name and age. If you’re interviewing a prostitute whose saintly grandmother is signed up to receive your book, perhaps you should use an alias. It’s basic, but can be a nightmare if you have a problem go to print.
Truthful, eye-opening anecdotes are essential if you want any chance of writing a bestselling nonfiction book. When trying to make a complex point, or when writing a book about your business and your method, anecdotes can show readers specifically how you help clients. They become invaluable tools in enhancing your brand and truly showing that you are an expert author worth working with.
Cristina Schreil is Write to Sell Your Book’s Executive Editor. She is also the contributing writer and researcher of two books: Baby Debate, by Diane Polnow and Raise the Child You’ve Got — Not the One You Want, by Nancy Rose.