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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"
Years ago when a features editor at a newspaper
asked me to write an article about fences in residential areas, she sugarcoated
"Add a sidebar and we'll pay you more," she
Hmm. Motivated by a checking account plunging
toward a negative balance, I readily agreed. Then I asked, "What's a
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
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
Topics I considered included:
* How to hire a reliable fence
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
* How a do-it-yourselfer installs a
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
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
Addresses, telephone numbers, books,
organizations, and web sites are the most common.
* Define words or terms pertinent to the
Especially used in specialized areas such as
medicine and technology.
* Compare local trends to national or
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
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
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
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
(2) Be showcased in a visually pleasing and
(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
(7) Like any writing, be clear, concise and
targeted at the readers.
(8) Condense and summarize an article's
© 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."
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