how-to-write-white-papers

How To Write White Papers

Here is a quick but complete guide on how to write white papers.

A white paper is more than a business report, and can be a powerful tool for your content marketing.  With white papers, you can help the reader solve a problem, gain a better understanding of an issue, or to make an informed decision.  We’ll show you how to approach writing a white paper and give you a template as well as tips for the process.

The Process Of Writing A White Paper

Just like writing the outline for your white paper, editing is an iterative process.

Design

Collaborate with your design team before finishing the copy for your white paper so you’re clear on what they need. We talk about the design process itself in our article on How To Design White Papers. Even after handing over the final version, you might have to make copy adjustments here and there in order to shorten paragraphs or adapt captions. But in the overall production process, after you’ve written the white paper, finalizing the design is the next big step.

Goals And Objectives

If you set a clear goal or objectives for your white paper, you’ll know what to measure and which metrics inform you of your success. This is where one of the advantages of a digital white paper comes in: you will be able to gather data directly from readers and visitors, such as time spent on individual pages, reading behavior, links followed, and other feedback. This can also inform which parts of which data from your white paper you reuse and reshape into other kinds of content, such as infographics.
Tone of voice, writing style and models are all part of your editorial approach. Consistency is key here, especially when you share the writing of your white paper with another writer or a whole team. Use your existing style guide and brand guidelines and all the user research information you might have, such as user or reader personas, to produce content that is in line with the rest of your publications as well as the expectations of the target audience.

Editorial Approach

Editing Tools

What Is A White Paper And Why Write One?

White papers convey expert knowledge researched by an authority. They feature a formal tone and present facts and data through accessible visualization and text. They’re in-depth reports or guides addressing a specific topic or solution, yet they need not be exhaustive and can be as succinct as possible.   In content marketing, a white paper has become a long-form, deep-dive piece of content published by a business or corporation to communicate with customers, a specific audience, and the general public. The tone of authority and the data backed by research make a white paper ideal for promoting your thought leadership.

Types Of White Papers

You can distinguish between three different types of white papers:
  • A white paper can discuss a problem and present the steps of a possible solution. You can potentially reach a wide audience here and present the benefits of your product or service in this problem-solution approach.
  • A background white paper will go over the benefits or aspects of a specific subject, for example a new technology, or explain conducted research and its findings.
  • A generic white paper approach is to give a summary or overview, for example explaining the current state of an industry or comparing different cases studies, or defining the boundaries of a field.
A white paper doesn’t have to follow a problem-solution approach, but can also present survey or research results (source).
A white paper is different from a business report, which might have to comply with regulation requirements and is commonly produced at regular intervals. The focus of a white paper also tends to be more singular than that of an ebook, which is also long-form content with a possibly broader approach and less formal tone.

Template: How To Write A White Paper

This template will help you produce an outline and first draft of your white paper. It works particularly well for the problem-solution approach, but it’ll also allow you to give an introduction and summary of the research you’ve conducted or explain the parameters of your case studies, overview or comparison.

Title

Begin with a working title, which will guide your research and writing process. You’ll finalize the title after completion to grab the reader's attention and encourage reading and sharing.
  • Stay away from click-bait titles and only set expectations which you’ll actually fulfill in your document. Your white paper can’t appeal to everyone and neither should your title.
  • Your title will stand out with your readers if you know who you’re writing for and give them something new or at least new information on a popular or important subject. The title should therefore express the need of your target audience, and not your own.
  • Grab the reader’s attention, but don’t be too flashy just for the sake of it and avoid buzzwords unless you absolutely have to include them. Balance is key: follow the language standards of your sector or industry, yet cleverly set yourself apart without excluding anyone.

Abstract / Summary / Synopsis

Executive summary, abstract, or synopsis, they all serve the same purpose: focus the attention of your audience, raise expectations, and convince them to read on. Just like your title, your summary should be short, clear, and straight to the point.
  • Only include the most important or interesting findings from your white paper in the summary.
  • As a rule of thumb, 150 to 300 words is a good length for your synopsis.
  • An even more shortened version of your abstract, combined with the title and a call to action, makes for a good landing page or marketing copy for your white paper.
  • Your summary should answer the following questions: What ground does the document cover, or which problem does it address? What are the benefits of reading the publication? What is the discussion solution, the conclusion or recommendation at the end?
You’ll write the executive summary after you’ve completed writing your white paper (source).

Introduction

After the title and summary, your readers are ready to go deeper into the subject matter: introduce the actual content, the problem or basis of your white paper.
  • Begin with the problem, the main point or the most important aspect of the topic.
  • Introduce data from the main part, but rely on easy-to-understand findings and summarize them well, saving the details for the part where you present the bulk of your supporting information. Specifics will follow later.
  • Clearly state the objective of your white paper and introduce readers to what they’ll learn or find in each section, therefore giving a layout or map to the publication. It’s important that they understand how to access what.

Problem Statement

If you’re following the problem-solution approach in your white paper, this is where you thoroughly define the problem and list all the pain points. For a background publication, you explain the subject matter and the benefits or issues. For a generic paper, summary or comparison, you lay out the individual components you looked at and present your findings. Example questions you’ll answer or discuss in this section are:
  • What is the status quo or the current situation, the basis for the problem, or the market today?
  • What troubles, issues, or problems do companies, customers, readers, or the audience face most often, and why?
  • Can you specify the problems or pain points and illustrate which class of people are sharing them?
  • What data and facts will you introduce to support your claims? What model or framework will help the audience understand the information? This is the basis for the next section.
  • What are the benefits of addressing the problems? This lays the groundwork for the solution you’ll present and will make readers want to read on.

Supporting Information

Presenting your research results to support your argument establishes you as an authority on the subject, therefore this section is most important. Help readers understand the specifics and details of what you’ve outlined so far, add to your argument, and lead to the solution, recommendation, or conclusion at the end.
  • Briefly outline your research method, but be aware that the findings are of greater importance to readers. Complex methodology might best be included in the annex.
  • This section will include many charts and aides to visualize your findings, but you’ll still need to explain these in the text and provide captions and descriptions.
  • Think about structure, layout and format here: the more data you have, the higher the need for brevity and for everything to be scannable or available at a glance.
  • Key findings and conclusions go at the beginning, not the end. Your audience doesn’t want to have to click or scroll through endless charts to find out what it all means.
When you present supporting information and data, your white paper will rely on visualization to help readers quickly grasp facts and figures (source).

Presentation Of The Solution

In this section, you’ll go into all the specifics to fully explain your solution or proposal to your audience. If your white paper doesn’t follow the problem-solution approach, this section takes on the character of a summary where you reiterate all the important points from your background research, case studies, comparison, or analysis.
  • Introduce your solution with an overview, clear definition and possibly a model or framework for it.
  • Give a detailed description as either a step-by-step process or a breakdown of the individual parts with a logical flow of information so readers can easily follow, understand, and process the content.
  • Outline and highlight the benefits and what impact your audience or target group can expect. You’ll most likely have to break this down for different target groups in order to be highly relevant to each of them instead of talking about generic benefits.
  • Apart from the supporting information with which you’ve backed up your research before, you can give real-world examples here of how people have applied your practical solution and the results they’ve achieved. These can be mini case studies, testimonials, or proofs of improvement from customers. Again, these are best targeted for different parts of your audience.
  • A table or sheet as an overview can be a good visualization of your proposed solutions. It’s also a shareable asset which you can distribute or reuse in other contexts.

Conclusion

At this point, your white paper should have fulfilled your audience’s expectations and made good on any promises raised by the title, abstract, and introduction. You’ve outlined the problem and solution or have provided the detailed background information and research data. The conclusion serves to succinctly recapitulate everything you’ve told your readers.
  • Give a summary of the objectives of your white paper.
  • Review the stated problems or background information.
  • Highlight your proposed solution and how it addresses the problems you’ve raised.
  • Finish strong with a call to action, a bold statement underlining your authority or building brand trust, provide a future vision or solutions, and tell readers where and how they can find out more about you as well as your products or services.
In your white paper’s conclusion, you’ll summarize and highlight presented solutions or findings (source).
Your white paper might not require an annex as you can link sources and more detailed statistics throughout the document itself. However, the more additional resources, literature and external links you might have, the more helpful it is to see them all in one place. This kind of link list goes at the very end, of course.

Annex

Ideation

If you’re looking for ideas regarding what to write about, start by asking questions:
  • Which problem or problems are a priority for your audience, readers, or customers?
  • Which of these best tie back in with your business, service, or expertise? On which subject are you an authority, or on what topic do you want to extend your authority?
  • Where is the alignment or overlap of your goals and the goals of your audience?
  • How can you best demonstrate your authority in a key area of your expertise?
  • What speaks directly to the needs of your audience?
  • Is the topic broad enough to engage a wide audience and merit in-depth research?
  • Will you white paper be an informational, educational asset and not a sales pitch? Are you providing solutions, guidelines, or recommendations which are practical and applicable?
  • Who are you writing for? We’ll also address the question of your audience in detail in the next step.
Your white paper is FOR your audience, and less about them – it’s also FROM you, and less about you. The clearer your picture of your readers is, the better you can help them with your publication. Your product, service or business can still come into the picture, but you’ll explain how it solves the audience’s problem.
  • Who is your target audience?
  • Can you create personas for your readers or customers?
  • What are the problems or pain points you’re going to address?
  • What kind of content can your readers not get elsewhere?
  • Is there a knowledge gap or niche you can fill?
  • What are your potential readers searching for?

Audience

The research for your white paper begins with the ideation process and the definition of your target audience. In order to present the solution, you’ll need to thoroughly research the problem or background. Your original research for your white paper can include:
  • Audience or customer surveys and analysis
  • Collaboration with other companies or publishers to gather more data
  • Interview with other thought leaders and experts
  • Searching industry news sources
  • Professional research reports
  • Open and public data sources, for example from research institutes, universities, or the government

Research

Before you begin the writing process, develop an outline. This will give you a structure to follow and will later inform your table of contents. Your outline lays out the objectives of your white paper, helps you stay on track, ensures a logical flow of information in an easy-to-follow manner, and is a document you can share with stakeholders for approval and feedback.
  • Focus on the needs of your audience while composing the outline to stay on the correct path.
  • Remember that you’re not writing a sales pitch and stay aligned with the goals you’ve set for your white paper.
  • Collaborate: get feedback from your team, consult stakeholders, and talk to your designer or design team who’ll also be working on the white paper.
  • Revise your outline. Same as the ideation process, composing the outline is iterative and you’ll create version after version before moving on.
  • Already break down the sections into subsections to get a feeling of how balanced or spread out your content is throughout the document. Formulate headings and sub-headings for each section.

Outline Your Write Paper

Editing your white paper is the iterative process that takes you from your first draft to your second draft, incorporating feedback, comments, suggestions and corrections until you arrive at a final version. During editing, the most important things you check for are:
  • Spelling
  • Grammar mistakes
  • Punctuation
  • Wordiness (“flowery” language, too many buzzwords or keywords, run-on sentences etc.)
  • Inconsistent writing style
  • Unclear sentence structures
  • Overused words and repetitions
  • Vocabulary (are you speaking to your audience in clear language they can easily understand?)
  • Inappropriate tone or formality level
  • Plagiarism
  • Cited sources and links
  • Does the content answer all the questions of our audience? Is there anything missing?
  • Is all the information factually accurate?
  • Is the language and writing easy to understand and follow? Is there an overuse of jargon or technical terms?

Editing

Tips On How To Write A White Paper

You can still offer a PDF as a download or even print paper copies. But a white paper hosted on your website or a minisite allows for interactive features and the possibility to measure your impact. This can impact the writing process as you don’t have to convey all the information and comprehensive research results in a paragraph or block of text. Develop a collaborative process with stakeholders in research and analysis as well as design so you can discuss the capabilities and goals of your digital white paper.

Digital Online White Paper

Digital online white papers can be interactive and allow you to gather important insights from your audience (source).
Feedback is important to stay on track with the production of your white paper. Depending on your team, your process, or your style, you can ask for feedback after the first draft or already during the writing. Fresh eyes on your writing will spot issues you’ve missed and give you a different perspective. You can even provide samples to test readers who represent your target audience or customer personas to get an understanding of how well you’re serving their needs with your white paper.

Feedback

In conclusion, let’s repeat what we’ve stated above: a white paper is neither an ebook nor just a research report, although there are similarities. A white paper as a publication is:
  • Written in a professional tone and formal style, yet keeping the language accessible and easy to understand.
  • Focused on one topic or problem, yet providing an in-depth look, comprehensive analysis, or thorough research and a solution.
  • Based on facts and research. There is no room for unverified claims, empty promises, lengthy sales pitches and speculations about the future.
  • Backed up by data: your white paper is letting the numbers speak as well, though you’ll explain and visualize them to a level appropriate or necessary for your audience.

White Papers Compared To Other Types Of Content

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