Essentials of Writing a Compelling White Paper

A white paper is a report that provides in-depth information about a topic, typically including expert insights and actionable tips that readers can use. Discover what's involved in writing a white paper so you'll know how to create this type of document and be able to produce one if called upon to do so.

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What Is a White Paper?

A white paper is a report that provides readers with a comprehensive overview of a specific topic. It includes key facts and points, as well as information on challenges, problems and potential solutions.

  • Business white papers are generally at least 3,000 words, which is the equivalent of a six-page printed report (single-spaced, 12-point type). This is a general minimum; many white papers are significantly longer, while some may be a bit shorter.
  • A white paper is longer and more in-depth than a regular article but is easier to read and understand than an academic paper or research study. Rather than being academic in nature, white papers are written from a practical perspective. They are based on research or expertise and provide readers with actionable information.

Purpose of Writing a White Paper

White papers are written for a variety of purposes. Sometimes they are purely intended to be informative, but they are often published by companies or consultants seeking to position themselves as experts within a particular niche. Companies sometimes publish whitepapers designed to provide people in their target audience with information relevant to concerns for which the business provides a solution.

The paper itself is not sales-oriented but can serve a marketing purpose because it allows the company to build its brand with prospective customers. Many times, businesses that create white papers offer them for free but require people who wish to read them to register before downloading the document. This way, the company is able to build a list of prospective customers to use for marketing or sales purposes.

Examples of White Paper Topics

White papers can be written on a wide variety of topics, depending on the expertise or interests of the author and/or the organization for which they work.

  • A company that provides nationwide payroll services might publish a white paper related to the complexities of multi-state payroll compliance.
  • A talent development firm that provides team-building training might write a white paper on the impact of team cohesiveness on the bottom line.
  • A real estate attorney or mortgage broker might write a white paper on common pitfalls to be aware of when purchasing an investment property.
  • A personal trainer might produce a white paper focused on the role a proper fitness routine plays in overall health and wellness or weight loss.
  • A homesteading expert who offers fee-based classes on food preservation might publish a white paper on common food preservation mistakes.
  • An organization that offers nutritional supplements might write a white paper on health problems caused by nutritional deficiencies.
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How to Write an Effective White Paper

Now that you know what a white paper is, the next natural step is to explore how to write a white paper. Writing a white paper is similar to writing any kind of non-fiction document that primarily serves an informative purpose.

1. Know the Specific Purpose

Make sure you know the intended purpose of the document you are writing. Is the goal to generate leads from people who may be interested in solutions that you or your company can provide? Is the focus more on establishing you, the writer, as an expert in your profession? Or is the goal to build the brand of your company? This information will help you decide what to include in your white paper and how to organize and present it.

2. Clarify the Target Audience

It's important to understand your audience. Your writing will be quite different if the paper needs to appeal to a business analyst versus someone buying a new tablet for personal use. Being clear on who the audience is will give you an idea of how much explanation will be needed about industry jargon, what issues are the most important to the audience or how technical your writing should be.

3. Brainstorm and Research the Topic

Before you start writing a white paper, it's important to consider what it needs to include. Brainstorm about the topic and research it. Ask yourself what people in the target audience need to know about the subject matter in order for the document to achieve its intended purpose.

Since white papers are generally solution-focused, think of key questions or concerns the target audience is likely to have. You'll want to provide background on the topic, key facts and information that answers their questions or guidance regarding what they can do in order to find solutions to their concerns.

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4. Create an Outline

Now that you have a good idea of what the white paper will need to include, create a working outline that you can use to keep things organized as you start to create the first draft of the document. It doesn't have to be overly formal; a general keyword outline will be sufficient.

The idea is to use the results of your planning to rough out the structure of your white paper by identifying key points you want to cover and listing them in a logical progression. This will give you a working structure from which you can begin writing.

5. Provide a Skimmable Format

When setting up a white paper, the document's format is a very important consideration. It's best to decide on a report writing format before you start writing. The format can range from a basic format such as this example whitepaper about using PDF software to an elaborate template with a lot of visuals.

Readers usually download PDFs from a website or landing page or access them by clicking a link in an email or text message. They'll likely read your white paper online or via computer rather than printing it.

  • Use headings for major sections, keeping each section limited to one topic.
  • Include subheadings for different aspects of the topic of a section
  • When you find yourself shifting topics, start a new heading.
  • Keep sentences short so they're easy to follow and understand. An average of 15 words per sentence (or less) is a good general goal.
  • Keep paragraphs to three or four lines, as readers are turned off by large blocks of continuous text.
  • Use bullet points to break up multiple points related to the same heading or subheading.
  • Use numbered lists for instructions, steps or anything else that should be done in a certain order.
  • Include diagrams, charts, graphs, and other images to boost visual appeal and illustrate key points.

Making formatting decisions before you start writing can be very beneficial. It'll force you to think about how to best present your contact visually and also allow you to take care of most of the work as you type. This will help keep you on track and ensure that the document is coming together in a way that's easy for readers to skim and digest.

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6. Use a Formal Tone

It's best to use a formal tone when writing a white paper. The goals of a white paper are to position you or your company as an expert solution provider and to provide readers with trustworthy information and effective solutions. These things are serious business, so the white paper should be written in a way that readers will take seriously.

  • Adopt an authoritative, professional tone appropriate for business communication without being too academic.
  • Avoid being too informal by avoiding things like slang, non-standard contractions, jokes, or sarcasm.
  • Find the right balance between formal and informal diction. You don't want to sound like an academician, but you also don't want to be too casual.
  • Write in a manner that you'd find acceptable to present to, say, the CEO of a major corporation.

7. Include Key Sections

With these tips in mind, you might be rubbing your hands together and gearing up to start sharing your knowledge. You'll be excited to know that it's time to start writing. While this is not a hard and fast rule, it's generally a good idea to include five key sections in a white paper. This format will help you structure the information you wish to share in the context of a cohesive white paper, though you can alter it as appropriate for your topic and audience.

  1. executive summary - The executive summary is a brief preview of what the white paper is about. Focus on key benefits of interest to the target audience.
  2. introduction - Th introduction should preview the overall goal and purpose of the white paper in an appealing way so that people will want to learn more. It's where you should tease what's to come in the white paper. It should include a compelling hook to inspire people to want to read the full document.
  3. challenge - Immediately after the introduction, describe what readers can expect to be able to do as a result of reading the white paper. This should, of course, be something that they didn't already know before. Address the challenge or problem with information readers can use to overcome it.
  4. body - This is the meat of your white paper. This is where you'll detail all the aspects of your topic. Flesh out the key points on your outline, adding facts, data and other credible, authoritative information to help make your point. Provide sources for statistics so there is no question about the accuracy of the information.
  5. conclusion - End the white paper with an effective conclusion that summarizes the main points and emphasizes the proposed solutions. Be sure to include a call to action, which could encourage further research, ask readers to connect with you or offer a free sample or trial to a relevant solution your company offers.

A good white paper can be anywhere from 3,000 to 6,000 words — or even longer. Remember, a white paper is an in-depth dive into a topic. If it needs to be longer, then it does. However, there is no room for fluff in white papers. Stick to facts and, of course, persuasion.

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8. Review and Edit the Content

Once you have finished writing, take the time to carefully review your white paper for content, writing style, and errors. Think about what you have written from the point of view of your target audience. Is it comprehensive enough? If not, add more information. Is it too technical? If so, alter the angle so that it's better suited to your audience's level of knowledge.

9. Proofread Thoroughly

Once you're happy with the content, the next (and final!) step is to proofread it very carefully. Don't forget that some typos create real words other than the ones you intended to use, so spell check won't catch them all. Also, some words sound the same but are spelled differently, so watch for that too.

It would be a good idea to have someone other than proof the document once you have completed a round or two of editing. It's so hard to catch fine details in your own work since you know what you mean to say. It's always best to have someone look at your work with fresh eyes before finalizing it.

Example White Papers

It's a good idea to review a few white papers before you get started so that you can get a sense of what these documents are like in a finished format. This will help give you a sense of what you like and don't like in terms of content and visual setup. Explore the examples below, or see if you can find some published examples online that are on a topic similar to what you are writing about.

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Ready to Start Writing White Papers?

Writing a white paper is a blend of writing a business report and a web content article. If you apply these white paper writing tips, you'll be prepared to start writing white papers that people will want to read. For additional preparation, take the time to review these tips for writing clear, concise sentences. Brushing up your ability to get your point across quickly will help prepare you to create the most authoritative and readable white paper your readers have ever seen.