How to Use Sidebars, Charts, and Images

Sidebars are a good way to include information that complements your text but that doesn’t aid the flow of your main text. Sidebars are not a good place to house information you discovered that was interesting, but unrelated to the main text.

Images, charts, and sidebars are relevant and support the content, rather than distracting from it.

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Illustration by miamiamia • FreeImages

I recently read a book about eating habits that included a discussion of how restaurants trick you by labeling foods with fancy names. In the midst of this discussion was a sidebar comparing the school lunch menus of a small-town public school and a mid-size city private school. The school menus were a non sequitur, and I spent too much time trying to figure out how they related to the text before finally concluding that they didn’t. The thing was so distracting that had I been the editor of that book, I’d have told the author to omit it. It wasn’t germane to the discussion.

In the same way, including a chart or image that’s unrelated to the main text can leave the reader puzzling it’s reason for being instead of reading further. You may want to reference one statistic in the main text, and then show it in relation to other statistics in a chart. That way they’re connected. Photos and illustrations can sometimes be metaphorical, especially in creative nonfiction. But as much as you can, try to keep the image related to the text in some way.

sidebarOne good use for sidebars, as well as charts and other images, is for information that expands upon what’s in the main text. For example, let’s say your research digs up a lot of detailed data, but putting it all in the main text could bog down your reader and interrupt the flow of your narrative. You can put the primary finding in the text and the details in the sidebar or chart. That way the reader gets both, but you haven’t interrupted the flow of the main text.

Once I was writing an article on the history of a local congregation. The founding pastor had a fascinating biography, having served in the Pacific in World War II. He survived the Bataan Death March and returned home to attend seminary. Great stuff, but not what the subject of the article was supposed to be. Including it in the main text would have meant going off on a tangent that would derail the story. But since he was mentioned several times in the main text, his bio fit nicely into a sidebar.

So where do you put all that interesting information that doesn’t fit into your book but that you still want to share? Magazine articles, your author newsletter, and blog posts are good places for that kind of thing.

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