We’ve all seen sidebars in tense TV court scenes when one of the lawyers (usually the defense lawyer who’s representing the innocent defendant) asks the judge for permission to approach the bench. A brief conversation ensues, during which the defense attorney attempts to persuade the judge to make a decision in her client’s favor. The judge decides and the main drama continues. Sidebars in journalism aren’t all that different.

What is a Sidebar?

Sidebars in journalism are found in newspapers, magazines and internet articles. Sometimes they’re enclosed in a box or set off from the main article by a different font. They’re meant to complement the main article, grab a reader’s attention and make him decide to read the full article.

They’re short and compelling. The reader takes a quick look and decides (hopefully) to read the whole article. The word sidebar is also used to describe any "call out" or supplemental information in a business report, briefing or blog post.

Why Have a Sidebar?

Readers like sidebars because they're quick reads and feature information that's helpful, informative or entertaining. Magazine and newspaper editors like them because they add value to the main article and entice the reader to read the longer piece.

Sidebars can show up in any publication including blogs. They’re a great way to set off important information or include details that don’t fit easily into the main content.

A sidebar should complement the main story without duplicating the information in it. A sidebar usually takes a lighter or less complex approach to a topic than the article it accompanies. For example, if the main story is about an abundant apple harvest in Ohio, a sidebar might include apple recipes.

If the story is a hard news piece about a recent crime wave, the sidebar might include information about joining or forming neighborhood watch groups. Sidebars often break out aspects of a story that merit special attention. They feature information that could get lost in a long story.

Different Types of Sidebars

Once deciding on the appropriate content for your sidebar, decide what form it should take. Different types of sidebars include:

  • Anecdotes.
  • A very short article that stands on its own but is related to the main story.
  • Definitions.
  • Helpful links.
  • Instructions.
  • Man on the street comments on main story’s content.
  • Recipes.
  • Resource lists.
  • Short quizzes.
  • Tips.
  • Trivia.

The main article’s content determines the sidebar’s tone and content. For example, anecdotes and quizzes usually accompany lighter, magazine-style pieces. Instructions, resource lists and tips often accompany how-to articles. A cookbook recipe that has a sidebar about what kind of pan to use is a good example of a sidebar in a book.

Headlines, Simplicity and Relevance

Sidebars headlines should be concise and grab a reader's attention. Active verbs are especially important in sidebars, both for the headline and content. Sentences should be simple and brief – lists and bulleted items work especially well in sidebars.

When a sidebar accompanies a news story, it’s usually not updated, even if the main story is. So avoid including information that could quickly become antiquated and irrelevant. A good example of this would be a sidebar for a high-tech article. Technology evolves on an almost daily basis, so try to avoid referring to specific versions of software or specific dates.

Formatting a Sidebar

A sidebar in journalism should be brief and easy to read quickly. One hundred to 500 words is typical for a sidebar. Whatever its length, it should always be shorter than the main article. When writing a sidebar to submit to a publication, double-space and submit it on a separate page from the main article.

Make sure the sidebar has plenty of "white space" and no overly dense blocks of text. Last, don’t forget to ask the publication you’re writing for, for their sidebar guidelines.