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3 lessons journalists must unlearn to write white papers

If you’ve ever worked as a journalist, you can likely write effective white papers.

As a journalist, you already have many skills you can apply to writing white papers.

You can write crisply and clearly. You know how to tell a story using facts and quotes. And you can meet deadlines and work with editors in a team.

To succeed at writing white papers, you just need to unlearn a few lessons of the journalism trade. Exactly like I had to.

Skills journalists already have

This table shows the skills you likely already have as a journalist, and some you may need to build up to success as a white paper writer.


Skills you already haveSkills you need to build
Understanding an audienceAnalyzing a new audience
Doing quick researchDoing in-depth research
Interviewing expertsUnderstanding B2B buyers
Telling a storyWriting to persuade
Handling quotes and
Formatting for quick
Meeting short
Parking your ego (there's
no bylines on white papers)


Three lessons journalists must unlearn

I wrote close to 1,000 magazine articles as a freelance journalist. We journalists have a few things drummed into our heads at college, on the job, and in bull sessions with colleagues.

Here are three main habits you may need to rethink to succeed in white papers.

Lesson #1: Marketing isn’t evil; it’s essential

photo of darth vader

Saying “marketing is evil” makes about as much sense as “breathing is evil.”

When a company makes something, how is the rest of the world supposed to know it exists? That’s what marketing does.

And by the way, journalism was supported by marketing for almost 200 years, in the form of advertising.

The restructuring of the news business—in which 50,000+ newspaper people have been laid off in the U.S alone—happened for one simple reason: Advertising moved from newspapers to the web.

If you ever worked as a journalist, your job was propped up by marketing.

Sure, some marketers are dishonest. But some journalists slant or even make up their stories.

The failings of a few don’t make everyone corrupt.

So get rid of this old-fashioned attitude.

Lesson #2: Forget telling both sides of the story

Journalists are supposed to get both sides of the story. This means you use a lot of phrases like “on the other hand …” or “but some critics say…” designed to inject the opposite point of view.

It doesn’t matter if the first side of the story presents research on global heating from 98% of the world’s climate scientists. You may still have to the cover “the other side.”

In a white paper, there’s only one side of the story: your client’s.

We could say that in a problem/solution white paper, the other side of the story covers every previous attempt to solve the same problem, and the failings of each attempt.

But you certainly don’t need to look for failings in your client’s solution. Let the competition do that. And let them pay their own writer.

cards representing 2 sides to the stpry

Lesson #3: Get it right the first time

Journalism is a race to see who breaks the story first. This can lead to shoddy work: fraudulent tweets or media hoaxes picked up before they’re properly checked out.

But you don’t have a second edition of a white paper. You have to get it right the first time.

Speed isn’t the most important thing; explaining and persuading with facts and logic is your top priority.

Don’t rush out a white paper like it’s front-page news. Take your time to build a thoughtful piece that will get results.

Sure, you can always upload a corrected version of a white paper later. But any B2B buyer who saw your first edition with mistakes in it may already have a poor impression of your company.

You don’t have a second chance to make a first impression.

If you’re an experienced journalist and you can unlearn these three habits, you can very likely find success writing white papers.



Have you written both journalism and white papers? What differences did you discover? Please leave your comments below. 

This post is a brief excerpt from my book White Papers For Dummies. See what people are saying about it.

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About Gordon Graham

Worked on 320+ white papers for clients from Silicon Valley to Switzerland, on everything from choosing enterprise software to designing virtual worlds for kids, for clients from tiny startups to 3M, Google, and Verizon. Wrote White Papers for Dummies which earned 60+ 5-star ratings on Amazon. Won 16 awards from the Society for Technical Communication. Named AWAI 2019 Copywriter of the Year.

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  1. Patricia Slocum on August 11, 2020 at 3:03 pm

    Thank you Sir for your wealth of insight. Most don’t differentiate between knowledge and insight. True writers must. Congratulations on your writers life. I have too many choices. Thanks.

    • Angie Gallop, Managing Editor at That White Paper Guy on August 12, 2020 at 11:09 am

      Hi Patricia: Thanks for your kind comment! Good luck in navigating the many choices in your life.

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