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Sell Them With Sidebars
By Joanne Stanko

Many restaurants offer side dishes as savory treats to accompany the meal. In the publishing world, these side dishes are called sidebars, and they can make a good article even better.

Sidebars appear as boxed text accompanying longer articles. The boxed text has its own headline and often is set in a different type style or color. Sidebars are filled with tasty bites of information that tantalize the reader and editor. The information in sidebars can range from historical facts, to helpful lists, to an expansion of the main topic.

Magazine editors love sidebars and admit taking a closer look at articles in which the author has included them. In browsing through recent issues of Country Woman, People, Working Woman, Time, Reader's Digest, Family Circle, Outdoor Life and Sports Afield, I found every editor used sidebars of one kind or another. It makes sense to consider possible sidebars even before you write your query letter. 

First, browse through recent issues of magazines on your submission list to see if sidebars are used. Note the type and length of sidebars used most frequently and keep those things in mind when writing the article. Even if you find no sidebars, don't hesitate to suggest them for your article. When you write your query, mention to the editor points of the article that might be further defined by sidebars. This demonstrates that you have put time and thought into framing your story idea. 

Some sidebars require little effort, but for others you may need to do extra research to find the right information that will help your article stand out. An article in Reader's Digest explaining well-planned vegetarian diets included a sidebar listing no-meat foods that could replace the protein lost in vegetarian diets.

Broad or complex topics

Some topics are so complex that it could take several articles to do them justice. When working on such an article, you may want to suggest several sidebars to cover the many angles of the feature. For example, I wrote an article taking readers on a guided tour through a local historic village that described the lifestyle of the early 1800 Harmonist settlers. In three separate sidebars, I presented a variety of interesting facts about housing, agriculture, cooking utensils and tools. Only three villages exist, and the location and tour hours of the villages were treated in a fourth sidebar.

Sometimes, while researching an article, you will uncover related information that is too lengthy to include, but too interesting to leave out. Suggesting a sidebar on the related topic could add a few dollars to your assignment. Or the editor might assign the related topics to you as features. While I was working on an article for a local newspaper about campgrounds in the area, I learned that one of the campgrounds had just completed construction of a guitar-shaped swimming pool. The same campground held country music concerts and Charlie Daniels was to perform. I told the editor about my findings and received the go-ahead to write an additional feature on Charlie Daniels, with a sidebar about the guitar-shaped pool. 

Look through your target magazines and study the sidebars. You may find one that gives you another idea besides those listed below.

bulletThe useful list 

Lists make things faster, easier, more efficient. Woman's Day listed some of the best germ fighters in a sidebar to an article about protecting your family from germs. Other examples: Health articles about diseases often include sidebars that list symptoms. A travel piece featured excellent but less expensive hotels and included a sidebar listing hotel names, prices and contact information. Every month Country Woman uses a sidebar to list all the recipes contained in the magazine. 

bulletResources and references 

These sidebars provide readers a place to go for more information. An article I wrote about fibromyalgia contained two sidebars: the useful list of symptoms, and the resource list of organizations, newsletters, web sites, self-help groups, and specialists where sufferers could get additional information and help. Depending on your article, your resource list can include books on the subject, website URLs, organizations, addresses and phone contacts, or similar events. Travel pieces might include a resource sidebar of additional sites to explore in the same area, or hotels, restaurants, and local event calendars. Other travel sidebars: Resources for airlines and fees, travel guides, or even a list of the most popular vacation spots or sight-seeing areas.

bulletThe glossary 

Use a sidebar to define or identify items in the article without cluttering the article itself. For example, an article about potato farming included a sidebar identifying varieties of potatoes. An article about the risks of cancer used a glossary sidebar to define several types of cancer. A gardening magazine included a sidebar of several types of rose fertilizers with a feature about roses.

bulletThe how-to sidebar 

This sidebar lists instructions. An article in a local paper told of my experiences as a 4-H leader and the need for additional leaders in my community. The sidebar added a list of the steps toward becoming a 4-H leader and beginning a club. An essay in a country magazine about raising hybrid strawberries was accompanied by a sidebar with suggestions on how to start a strawberry patch. Cooking articles normally have sidebars containing recipes for dishes mentioned in the article.

bulletFacts or tidbits 

Small bits of information related to the article, or historical and current bits of information too interesting to leave out, can make a fun sidebar. Most editors specify article word counts and adhere to them, especially assigned pieces, but the sidebar might be extra. An article in Ladies' Home Journal about skin cancer breakthroughs included a sidebar about former President Clinton's bout with skin cancer. With articles such as this you can use sidebars to expand on the topic, list key factors, or provide interesting sidelights that would otherwise make the main article too wordy.

bulletQuizzes 

Many magazines use sidebar quizzes. These are not only entertaining but informative. Family Circle's, "Pay Less for Groceries," story contained a sidebar called "What Kind of a Shopper Are You?" asking readers to rate themselves. With quiz sidebars, list about ten questions and include an answer code and score list in which readers learn how they rate. 
Questions to ask Tell readers what questions to ask about a specific topic. For example, an article about obtaining a personal loan contained a sidebar that warns readers of fluctuating percentage rates and gave a list of questions to ask before signing on the dotted line. A woman's magazine accompanied an article on "What Your Doctor Doesn't Tell You" with a list of ten questions to ask your doctor when you have an appointment.

bulletIt happened to me

This is a personalized sidebar. When working on a feature, you may come across someone who has had an experience related to your topic. With a first-person account of his/her experience, an "It Happened to Me" sidebar will add a personal touch.

Sidebars are used in other ways, too. Editors sometimes place an interesting quotation from the article in a sidebar to attract attention to the feature. Sidebars can take the form of a joke, poem, or quote and may be sold separately as fillers. While researching your story, consider any additional information that would make a good sidebar and help move your article from the slush pile to acceptance. Sidebars can grab an editor's attention, help sell your article, and sometimes add to your payment.

Tips for Successful Sidebars

Consider sidebar possibilities with each article you write.

Mention your sidebar suggestions in your query letter. 

Each sidebar should be typed on its own page. 

Type name, address, phone, e-mail in upper left corner, and word count in right corner. 

List the sidebar word count separately from the main article. 

Double space as you would any feature article. 

Sidebar information can be numbered or bulleted. 

Originally appeared in ByLine Magazine, October, 2001.  Reprinted with permission.

Joanne Stanko has published more than 2,500 articles. She was award recipient of the 1990 Woman of the Year for Beaver County, Pennsylvania, for her accomplishments in her community and excellence in journalism. 

She was on the staff of Slippery Rock University teaching her copyrighted writing course "Sell What You Write" and
Creative and Freelance writing. She has appeared on television and radio, hosted several Writers' Conferences, and spoke for many conferences and writer's organizations. 

Her most recent articles were published in ByLine Magazine, AbsoluteWrite.com, and Moondance.org.

 

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