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3 lessons tech writers must unlearn to write white papers

Here’s my message to tech writers: You can write great white papers.

If you’ve done any technical writing, you’ve probably seen a few white papers in your time.

You may have reviewed a few of them. You may even have written them yourself.

As a tech writer, you already have many skills you can apply to white papers.

You already know how to:

  • Interview SMEs and business executives
  • Precisely explain how things work
  • Enhance text with headings, graphics, and tables
  • Work smoothly in a team

On top of everything else, you have experience in technology firms that are the most common sponsors for white papers.

Skills you have, and skills you need

To succeed at white papers, tech writers just need to unlearn a few things. Exactly as I had to.

This table shows the skills you likely have as a technical writer, and some you may need to build to succeed as a white paper writer.

 

Skills you already haveSkills you need to build
Analyzing an audienceUnderstanding B2B buyers
Interviewing expertsDoing third-party research
Writing to explainWriting to persuade
Following a style guideTelling a story
Formatting for quick
reference
Handling quotes and
sources
Handling comments
tactfully
Meeting short deadlines

 

Three lessons tech writers must unlearn

I wrote technical manuals for about 20 years. We tech writers have a few things drummed into our heads at college, on the job, or in bull sessions with colleagues.

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

 

photo of darth vader

 

Lesson #1: Marketing isn’t “the dark side”

As a technical writer, your pay check depended on sales and marketing to bring in the customers.

Yet tech writers often encounter mistrust of sales, marketing, and business in general from the engineers and scientists we rub shoulders with.

Moving from R&D or engineering into marketing is commonly called “going over to the dark side.”

Marketing people are called “suits” or even “weasels.”

What those name-callers forget is that without marketing, no one will ever know about the wonderful products they’re building.

When you write a white paper, no one is going to ask you to lie, cheat, or steal.

You won’t be writing breathless infomercials (“How much would you expect to pay?”) or ditzy sales letters (“Act now: This limited-time offer available only to the first 50 buyers!”)

In fact, part of your job as a white paper writer is to resist plunking the same old sales pitch or marketing-speak into your document. Instead, you must work hard to replace that with well-researched and useful information.

Does that sound like “selling out” to you?

Lesson #2: Let your voice be heard

Did you ever try to use a striking turn of phrase or a lighter tone in a technical manual? Or point out that one feature was superior to another?

If your experience was anything like mine, I bet you were slapped down like a misbehaving child.

Then you got a lecture on how a tech writer must be invisible, neutral, and unemotional; a veritable Spock of the writing world.

But white papers are different.

You’ll likely need to write about an industry challenge or tell a story about people in a place with a problem.

To write in a compelling way, you must take a well-reasoned but passionate stand. You must express your position forcefully and eloquently.

You must take off the tech-writing muzzle and find your voice. If you can’t, your white papers will sound cold and unpersuasive.

Lesson #3: White papers need content + style

As a technical writer, you wrote about “things.” You explained how to use a product to perform a task or accomplish a goal.

Conveying that content accurately was your top priority. How well you expressed it was much less important.

As you know, most documentation follows a house style that determines everything from your nomenclature to your choice of pronouns.

White papers are different.

Yes, you need to keep your facts straight. But no style guide can tell you how to express those facts.

And because you’re writing to persuade, an effective white paper must get the argument exactly right. That means backing up all your assertions with proof.

I’ll bet you never had to do that in any technical manual! It was usually enough just to state how to do something.

Plus, you must rewrite and polish like never before. One draft or two for technical accuracy won’t be enough.

You must labor over your words to craft a message that explains and persuades. You must control your material and build a convincing case.

You must ignore many of the confines you’re used to from writing documentation.

In short, you must let your style take flight in a way it never could in any technical manual. If you’re up for that, you can do very well writing white papers.

 


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

Notes: This post is based on an excerpt from my book White Papers For Dummies. You can see what people are saying about it here.

The word cloud above was created with wordle.net from the text of this post.

About Gordon Graham

Author of close to 300 white papers on everything from choosing enterprise software to designing virtual worlds for kids, for clients from Silicon Valley to Switzerland, from tiny startups to 3M, Google and Verizon. Also wrote White Papers for Dummies which earned 50 5-star ratings on Amazon. And Gordon was recently named 2019 Copywriter of the Year by AWAI.

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