The little helpmate

Use sidebars to make your word count elastic and attract more readers (and editors).

Sidebar tips
6 tips for a successful sidebar

I like simplicity. When I started writing and learned about sidebars, creating extra documents as accessories to a main article seemed an unnecessary complication. But once I began using sidebars, I found that they often made completing articles easier and offered readers multiple points of entry. Let’s say a magazine editor asks for 1,200 words. You plow ahead but find yourself stuck at 900, having more or less exhausted the topic. You need to deliver the article, but you can’t send in only 900 words. You may fear you can’t complete and submit the project, but the solution is simple and right in front of you.

The sidebar to the rescue

As you researched and wrote your article, along the way you no doubt noticed several points of interest that were related, but tangential to, your main topic. It might have been a vivid character, incident or interesting place – something associated with your primary subject. Congratulations. You have found a way to meet your goal.

To solve your word count dilemma, you only need 300 more words. Your solution is simple: Write two or three sidebars on the “side” topics you discovered. Writing 100 or 200 words on a new but associated subject gives you and the reader a refreshing break from the main theme. You will probably find that those few hundred words will go incredibly fast compared to the 900 you’ve already completed. And you’ll find your total word count growing almost effortlessly.

Because of their brevity and modular nature, sidebars make the size of an article blessedly elastic. If you’ve exceeded a word limit, you have the option of resizing or dropping one sidebar or perhaps including it in the submission as an optional extra for the editor’s consideration. And since you normally write sidebars in the same format as the main article, there is nothing complicated in their mechanics. They are neatly the little brothers or sisters of the principal work. The flexibility sidebars offer actually makes writing to a specified word count easier.

The reader’s eye

Sidebars can do much more than save the day in a word count emergency. Since they break up the text on the published pages into bite-sized blocks, they create the potential to draw more readers to your article by offering alternate points of entry to the material. A reader who might hesitate to commit to reading the whole article may linger over a sidebar, read it through as a taste test and find it interesting enough to then turn to the main text. This can be important for a slow reader, who might not want to invest in reading the whole piece, but could be attracted by the sidebar content. And for the fast reader, they supply a fix. These short tangents were refreshing breaks for you during the writing process, and they likewise offer breathers from the main text for a variety of reading habits.

Sidebars and process

Practice the skill of identifying sidebar ideas by jotting down notes about secondary topics that strike you as interesting while you are researching and writing your article. As you cultivate this skill, you’ll begin to notice that these side-topics jump out as little bright gems from the bed of your working material.

For example, while working on an article on the history of the Vespa scooter, I learned that the Vespa’s

inventor Corradino D’Ascanio was a colorful character who lived an eventful life. If I veered too far into D’Ascanio’s biography in the main article, I might have disturbed the flow and pacing of the piece, so D’Ascanio earned a sidebar of his own.

I also wanted to cover the phenomenal Vespa sales figures from 1947 to date, but a list of numbers threatened to derail the forward motion of the article. Right away, I knew that these figures were ideal for a second sidebar. With this arrangement, readers could digest the more factual data in one compact section without interfering with the reading of the chronological story of the Vespa.

If you stay consciously aware of sidebar ideas while writing longer features and keep track of them by taking notes as you go, you’ll find the skill becomes automatic. As you develop awareness of your topics and breakout material, a sidebar-seeking system will become embedded in your nonfiction writing process.

Design and color

In addition to editors, graphic designers will also appreciate your inclusion of sidebars because of the options they offer to the layout of the article. They can be moved to different positions on the page and serve as graphic elements. Since the designer will sometimes place the sidebars in variously colored boxes to contrast with each other and the background of the main text, the distinct elements can make the article more aesthetically pleasing, creating the potential to draw more readers.

Once you start putting sidebars to work for you, you’ll find that they aren’t a complication, but rather a helpmate to your nonfiction writing career.

Eric Bryan is a freelance writer from Burlingame, California.