In the 1960s, newspaper circulation growth stalled while magazines flourished. Some analysts concluded that newspaper journalists needed to do what the magazines were doing: Analyze. Interpret. Offer how-to tips on life in a complex world.
So, in the early '70s, a few editors moved to turn their newspapers into what they called "daily magazines." They filled their lifestyle sections with how-to stories. And they added profiles, analysis pieces and trend stories to the entire paper.
Unfortunately, newspaper reporters often reacted to the magazine approach by writing longer versions of the same stories they'd been producing all along. As was sometimes painfully obvious, longer was not necessarily better. In fact, longer versions of the quote-transition-quote format typical of the day's news features often were unbearably tedious.
What some newspaper writers failed to realize was long magazine stories often worked well because their writers exploited techniques seldom used in newspaper features. And in the classic magazine feature, no technique received more emphasis than the anecdote.
Anecdotes have been the backbone of magazine writing for decades. Gay Talese's Esquire magazine personality profiles, for example, often contained 20 or more. Talese and other accomplished magazine writers turned to anecdotes for a variety of concrete benefits.
* Anecdotes help move a long story along. As stories within a story, they contribute their own momentum to the forces pulling readers through the copy.
* Good anecdotes not only entertain but make a point that relates to the story's overall theme. That helps create the tight focus that's a hallmark of good magazine writing.
Anecdotes especially are revealing because they show, rather than tell. In profiles, for example, they show subjects interacting with their environments. They rip off the facade that often results from a string of pompous direct quotations.
Not everyone is a raconteur of course. And anybody who's ever attended a comedy club amateur night knows that only a few rare talents can hold an audience with a line of anecdotal patter. Nonetheless, most of us can manage a successful around-the-water-cooler joke. And we also can follow some simple rules for telling anecdotes that work.
* Good anecdotes are short. The best ones consume only a paragraph or two. And one of the first rules of joke-telling also seems to apply when it comes to anecdotes -- the better the punch line, the longer the story it can support. …