3 Things to Know Before Including a Sidebar

Recently I was writing about the Kent State Massacre. It wasn’t the main focus of the project, and as I polished the chapter about this incident, I had to cut several fascinating points. The chapter was about 150 words too long so something had to go. One of these things was the information that I had found on faculty marshalls. The unarmed marshalls prevented additional deaths.

Behold: The humble sidebar

As factinating as this was, it didn’t fit tightly into the chapter. I was tempted to use the information in a sidebar. Not familiar with sidebars? Here are three things you need to know.

What’s a Sidebar?

See the photo on the right? The text in the green text box is a sidebar. Generally it is located at the side of a page of text. Get it? Side bar. But sometimes it is at the bottom of the page.  It is essentially a mini-article about a topic that is mentioned in the main text.

The sidebar in the graphic is in my Ancient Maya book. The main text included information about a jade artifact. The sidebar explained the importance of jade in Mayan culture.

Where to Locate It?

One of my nonfiction writing students is creating a how-to booklet. She has included several sidebars but has also struggled with where in the text they should be. I explained to her that you should include the sidebar on the same page where the topic is mentioned.

This can be a problem when I am writing a book with three to five sidebars per chapter. To allow an attractive design, the sidebars can’t be clustered in one part of the chapter. They have to be spaced throughout which means spacing out where you mention the sidebar topics.

What if I Can’t Mention It?

Can’t mention it in the main text?  Then you can’t include it in a sidebar.

And that’s really okay.  You want your piece to be slick and focused.  That’s going to attract an editor and readers. If your sidebar topic, like the faculty marshalls, is too tangential to mention, it should not be in the chapter.

Those things that can’t become sidebars? Use them in a different piece of writing. 

–SueBE

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