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Sidebars That Sell
by Patricia Misiuk

If written correctly, sidebars- those nuggets of information that clarify, simplify and complement articles- often encourage editors to transfer articles from the "slush" to the "sold" pile.

Years ago when a features editor at a newspaper asked me to write an article about fences in residential areas, she sugarcoated the assignment.

"Add a sidebar and we'll pay you more," she offered.

Hmm. Motivated by a checking account plunging toward a negative balance, I readily agreed. Then I asked, "What's a sidebar?"

OK, so I was a naive stringer grappling with the ambivalent lingo of newspaper-speak.

But I became a quick study and soon embraced sidebars as article and paycheck supplements.

"A sidebar is a story of its own," says Dale Smith, an editor and writer with the University of Missouri's Publication and Alumni Communications. "Ideally, for me, it should have a beginning, middle and end. It should have a very tight focus.

"Because sidebars are generally short, they can be an unintimidating way for readers to 'enter' the story. Think of them as windows into your writing."

Set apart yet in proximity to articles, sidebars allow the writer to introduce information that benefits the reader but without interrupting the rhythm or flow of the article. And why do sidebars succeed? Because they embody the way we perceive and process information. Furthermore, words and charts, illustrated and encapsulated, entice the reader to clip and save sidebars.

So how do we determine what elements or content compose a sidebar that sells?

It all begins with the- forgive the seven-letter epithet I hesitate to mention- outline. Yes, that capital "A," lowercase "a" organizer that gives order and focus to an article. You need not adhere to the strict outline regimen you learned in school but it does help to group similar subjects. Then look at the big picture- topics that will flow in the main piece and tangential subjects best arranged in sidebars.

For example, in the fence article, I wanted to subdivide the main piece into topics such as fence materials, uses (decorative and functional), and fence maintenance in a hot and humid climate.

So, what could I incorporate into a sidebar?

Topics I considered included:

* How to hire a reliable fence contractor.

Maybe. But I know I could sum up that answer in a sentence or two. I did save the how-to-hire idea in my "future file" where it found a niche in an article about home security systems.

* Unusual applications for fences.

Possible but subsequent research unearthed little. What I did discover fit nicely into the main body of the article.

* How a do-it-yourselfer installs a fence.

Bingo. After interviewing experts, I wrote a how-to sidebar that included materials needed and a step-by-step guide to fence installation. A definite reference for the wannabe handyman.

Smith advises writers to save all research, even if some of it doesn't blend with an article's focus. He recalls writing a story about making a bow (as in bows and arrows).

"In doing the bookwork, I ran across some five or six words associated with archery (fletcher means arrow-maker, etc.) that made a wonderful sidebar," Smith says. "Although I could've written a transition to fit in a short section on it, it would have been a digression in a how-to piece."

Flip through most publications and notice that sidebars abound. Study them and take note of the patterns and trends that will help you decide what sidebars to include with your article.

Note that sidebars:

* List sources for related or additional information.

Addresses, telephone numbers, books, organizations, and web sites are the most common.

* Define words or terms pertinent to the article.

Especially used in specialized areas such as medicine and technology.

* Compare local trends to national or international ones.

Whether it's the sale of health foods or math test scores in schools, bar graphs or other visual aids are much easier to interpret than statistics buried in text.

* List locations or article-related events.

Date(s), site, time, and telephone contact included. Common for health screenings, grand openings, entertainment, and school functions, just to mention a few.

* Outline a countdown that makes a large project manageable.

Helpful for renovations, a move, financial planning and other long-range undertakings.

*List trivia or fun facts.

A recent one in a piece about allergies: One hundred dust mites can fit on the period at the end of this sentence.

Smith says he uses such "factoid" (bits of free-floating data) sidebars sparingly.

"When your editor wants factoids in some misguided empirical frenzy, sneak in a little background so that factoids have some place to land."

Of course, these are only a few examples of common sidebars. The more you integrate sidebars into your writing, the more creative you become.

Also keep in mind: Tailor the sidebar's content to the readership. If you research and write an article about an on-the-cheap backpacking vacation, a sidebar about selecting accommodations at a five-star hotel will miss the mark.

So are there occasions when a writer should avoid sidebars? Of course, especially if they weaken or cloud the story's focus.

Smith says sidebars can distract readers from fascinating pieces such as short stories and essays. There is also the visual element, Smith says, especially in elegantly designed publications that print large photos. Sidebars, in these cases, can add clutter.

A few final words about sidebars. The photographer's motto, "less is more," applies to sidebars. Don't dilute them with unnecessary words or statistics. Think logically and concisely and your sidebar will become "sold," not "slush."

SIDEBAR ABOUT SIDEBARS

A well-written sidebar will:

(1) Subdivide an article into palatable and digestible pieces.

(2) Be showcased in a visually pleasing and uncomplicated manner.

(3) Provide information that will encourage the reader to learn more.

(4) Reinforce the reader's understanding of the main article by defining or explaining.

(5) Offer bar graphs, pie charts, maps and other graphics to clarify article content.

(6) Present information in a logical and timely manner.

(7) Like any writing, be clear, concise and targeted at the readers.

(8) Condense and summarize an article's content.

© Copyright 2000, Patricia Misiuk

Patricia Misiuk could have been the sole interviewee for Studs Terkel's "Working." Her jobs have ranged from migrant work in New Zealand to the replenishment of sanitary products in the "Big Apple's" restrooms. When she grows up (she is 61) she wants to be a columnist. She still works at "McJobs" but "writing is what she does."

Other articles by Patricia Misiuk :

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