7 habits of highly effective white paper writers
The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People is an acknowledged self-help masterpiece.
Written by Stephen Covey and published in 1989, this book has sold an estimated 25 million copies.
And it’s been translated into 38 (?!) languages.
These seven habits make a lot of sense to me.
And I’ve been thinking about how well Covey’s guidelines apply for white paper writers.
With apologies to the author, here’s how I believe the 7 habits apply to writing white papers.
Habit #1: Be proactive
The job of a white paper writer is to find the most compelling words to persuade a business reader, using facts and logic instead of emotional appeals.
As a white paper writer, most clients will feed you a flood of sales material, marketing slogans, and hype.
Your job is to not just parrot back whatever your client tells you. Push further and go deeper.
To be proactive: Put yourself in the shoes of a skeptical reader who needs proof for any claim. Go find that proof and show it.
Habit #2: Begin with the end in mind
Whenever you start a new white paper project, try to visualize the final result.
For example, an 8- to 10-page paper with a stock photo on the cover, a half-page Executive Summary at the start, an easy-to-grasp graphic, a table or two, a call to action, and a list of sources at the end.
If the client has a corporate template for designing content, check it to see how the final paper will look.
Having that vision to guide you from the start will be a tremendous help.
Habit #3: Put first things first
If you’re familiar with the 12-step process for writing a white paper described in my book, you can likely guess what I’m going to say here.
Put first things first, by asking some fundamental questions at the very start:
- Who is the target audience?
- What is the business purpose of this document?
- Who are the subject-matter-experts (SMEs)? Who are the reviewers?
- Who’s doing the design? The graphics?
- Are there any SEO keywords to use in the title?
- What is the timeline? Is this a real-world deadline for a trade show or product launch, or a would-be-nice deadline plucked out of thin air?
These answers will help you determine the right flavor to pick, what to include and what to leave out, who to talk to for background, and how quickly you need to work.
Can you imagine starting such a big project without knowing those answers?
Habit #4: Think win-win
The best white papers are delivered on time and on budget, make your client look good, and achieve their purpose: to generate leads, get the company noticed, or beat competitors in a head-to-head evaluation.
As the writer, you get paid well and quickly. Your client is so pleased, they spread your name around the company and to their peers in other firms.
That’s a win-win where everyone benefits.
But over the years, I’ve noticed that some writers don’t focus much on what their clients need.
Instead, they’re in it for themselves: They want to make as much money as possible, in as little time, with as little effort.
They may get a first assignment from a client, but they’re seldom called back for any further projects.
This is obviously not an effective habit, nor a sustainable way to do business.
If you work hard to create a white paper that generates results, any reasonable client will reward you with good pay, recommendations to others, and repeat business.
Habit #5: Seek first to understand, then to be understood
This maps extremely well to any B2B writing project.
In other words, first get your input, then create your output. First gather your research, then write.
Some writers say you should know far more about the topic than you can ever put into your white paper.
This added depth gives your copy more authority. And this knowledge helps you find the proper metaphor to sum up some concept in an illuminating way.
Don’t take shortcuts on your research. Ask enough questions, and then ponder the answers carefully. Use the web to look up everything you’re not sure about. Don’t be too shy to ask for clarification.
And don’t start writing until you know more than you need to know about your topic.
Obviously this is a strong argument for picking a specialty, instead of facing a steep learning curve with every new project.
Habit #6: Synergize
Covey offers this simple definition of synergy: “that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.”
Each completed white paper draws together a mass of information, knowledge, and insight.
In practice, this means that one white paper can be repurposed in many different ways, as:
- two or three blog posts
- a slide deck or webinar
- a press release
- an opinion piece
The same white paper can sometimes be “cloned” to appeal to several different market segments.
Why not offer to do this for your client for a modest fee, or even as a free extra?
You may end up solving a problem your client never got around to mentioning: No one on their team has a spare minute to do any repurposing.
And that’s synergizing.
Habit #7: Sharpen the saw
Renew and refresh yourself before you start your next big project. Even if that means going for lunch with a friend, heading out to the gym, or taking an afternoon nap.
White papers are big, complex projects, and not many people can crank out a new one every week.
For the past seven years, I’ve completed two white papers a month. To do any more, I need help from other writers.
So take some time to reward yourself. That way you’ll stay sharp and be ready for your next project.
P.S. Use numerals, not text
Notice how the number in the book’s title is given as a numeral (7) instead of text (Seven). I recommend showing numbered lists this way, for several reasons.
A numeral is faster and easier to scan. A numeral appears higher in a list of search results, so “7 Habits…” will appear before “Seven Habits…” And if a title shown this way is good enough for 25 million readers, it’s certainly good enough for me.
Becoming more highly effective
If you as a white paper writer follow these seven habits on every project, I believe you will soon improve the quality of your drafts, your project management skills, and the satisfaction of your clients. Good luck!
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Hi Gordon, I’ve been reviewing your website with great excitement. I’m a new (AWAI trained) copywriter and recently decided on B2B content in the Building and Construction Industry.
I’ve been trying to decide what type of content to focus on and white papers continue to rank near the top. Then I remembered “that white paper guy” (we’re connected on LinkedIn as well…I know, big deal) and decided to start with THE guy in white papers to do some research.
I’m looking at taking your Crash Course in B2B Content from AWAI.
So thanks for blazing the trail for guys like me. Btw, I love your title. I’ve used “guy” in a few of my titles as well.
I formerly sold XS Energy Drink and called myself “The XS Guy”. At a previous job with Military OneSource, I was “The OneSource Guy”.
I just checked GoDaddy and I see that “theb2bguy” is available.
Time to make some money for my clients …
We “guys” gotta stick together!
You know, I picked my domain name because my own name, Gordon Graham, is so commonplace there are a dozen of us in every city. So I thought about how people in business really talk. And it’s often, “Hey do you have the number for that guy who does…” So it’s mildly amusing and easier to remember than a person’s name, so it stuck.