Importance of happenings quotes and anecdotes

Adjectives are a trap.

Allow me to explain the statement: “Do not depend on adjectives, use strong verbs”.

Some early (or bad) writers will write:  “She had a beautiful face but wore ugly clothes.”  The adjectives “beautiful” and “ugly” convey NOTHING.  Beautiful . . . how, in what way, to whom?  Ugly as in worn-out?  Ugly as in dirty?  Ugly to the writer?  But what did the clothes in fact look like?  Relying on adjectives and hoping they mean to the reader the same as they mean to you the writer, is LAZY WRITING.

“Show don’t tell” is the rule here.

Describe the clothes and let the reader decide if they’re ugly.   However, strong verbs like shoved, smashed, floated, sank . . . convey a picture well.  Read good publications and good books and you’ll see that NOT relying on adjectives, but using strong verbs makes for much better writing.

You are having some trouble in your article, using inadequate “telling” rather than powerful “showing”.  Here I pass on the words of a great teacher of writing Judy Delton.  This is adapted with permission from her book (now out of print sadly) called 29 Common Writing Mistakes.  It is important to apply the principle of  “show don’t tell” to create good writing.

SHOW DON’T TELL: Do you remember reading an article and then you came to a long passage of description and you felt a bit bored? Your eye (you found) was slipping down the page, just grazing the words, moving along, skipping words, skipping whole sentences, searching for something. What was your eye searching for? It was looking for something to happen. It was looking for action!

Most long narrative in articles in mainstream publications, is boring. What is narrative? Narrative is telling a story, instead of showing a story, endless paragraphs where nothing happens but description. Mary said she was going to the circus is a narrative phrase, a telling phrase. Mary said, “I am going to the circus!” is an action phrase.

Don’t fall into the mistake of telling too much. Try to show everything that happens. There are four ways to do that.


2. Examples of what you’re telling

3. Happenings (incidents)

4. Anecdotes (stories about happenings)

Quotes are the best way to break up long narrative. When individuals can say something themselves, let them say it rather than you the journalist. If you interview people for an article, don’t tell what they said, but let them say it themselves. Use quotes when you have a chance. Put the words into their mouths. When a reader sees quotation marks, he is enlivened. He may not even realise it, but he is. He reads on. And a writer needs every device he can find to keep that reader reading. Look over your articles.  See how many quotation marks you used.

Incidents (happenings) is another good way to break up long narrative. An incident is having something happen. Movies and plays and television sitcoms are based on this. It would be no good watching a movie unless something happened. And it’s no good reading if something doesn’t happen — an earthquake, a walk around the block, a car chase, a cooking class, an explosion, sibling rivalry, a party. Dialogue is good, but people can’t talk the whole time. Something has to happen.

Speakers (and writers) who hold your attention use anecdotes.  They say “I met a man on the way to the studio . . . ”  An anecdote is the telling of a story within a story. The Bible uses this device in the parables. So follow the example of what is said by some to be the world’s greatest book, and tell an anecdote to break up the narrative.

Your job is to move the words along in that article rapidly and fluently and with lots of incident, anecdote, and dialogue.  In my writing classes I have the students print in their notebooks in very large letters, SHOW DON’T TELL . . . SHOW DON’T TELL . . . SHOW DON’T TELL.  Three times for emphasis.

Judy Delton



An anecdote is a small story.  Column 8 is full of anecdotes.

An anecdote is a short story relevant to your article.  It might be as short as: “I was so surprised the night Clint Eastwood walked in to the restaurant, I called him Mr Westwood and then dropped my tray on his foot.  He laughed hysterically.  Two years later I met Clint again in my first acting role and he remembered my disaster and this time we both laughed.”

The test of an anecdote is whether it is short and simple, and can be easily remembered and re-told fairly accurately.  An anecdote enlivens an article, humanises it and brings an entertainment element to the article.


You get anecdotes by asking questions like:

  • “What’s the saddest/happiest event in (so-and-so)?”
  • “What’s the strangest thing that’s happened here?”
  • “Can you tell me of some coincidences here?”
  • “What incidents do you most remember?”
  • “What’s your favourite story of those times that you enjoy re-telling?”


That kind of OPEN-ENDED question.  Once you get one anecdote from your interviewee, other anecdotes tumble out.


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