Can technical writers do white papers?
If you’re like most tech writers, you’ve watched from the sidelines as your company publishes white papers.
Perhaps you’ve been asked to review a white paper or two.
So why can’t you write white papers yourself?
The truth is, you can. Technical writing makes an excellent background for doing white papers.
You’ll just need to understand the differences and be ready to change up your style and your focus.
Here are 8 tips to help you make the transition from tech writing to white papers.
Tech writing to white papers tip #1: Understand the differences
From the audience to the deadlines, technical writing and white papers are different. This table sums up many of these differences.
To succeed in writing white papers, you’ll need to understand these differences and allow for them as you work.
|Technical writing||White paper writing|
|Audience||Users or developers||B2B buyers or executives|
|Manager or client||R&D, engineering, or support||Marketing|
|Research scope||Features of a product or service and how to use them||Features and benefits of a product or service*|
|Purpose||To teach how to use a product or service||To help a business person understand a problem, solve a problem, or make a decision|
|Style||Explanatory: just the facts||Persuasive: using facts to build an argument|
|Length||20 to 150+ pages||6 to 12 pages|
* For a backgrounder/vanilla-flavored white paper only.
Other flavors have a different focus and different scope of research.
Click here to see more on the three flavors of white papers.
Tech writing to white papers tip #2: Accept your move from support to marketing
This point can be difficult for tech writers to accept, but here is how things work.
As a white paper writer, you will:
- Have a different manager or client
- Write for a different audience
- Work in a different part of the company
Remember, most companies don’t earn direct revenue by publishing documentation.
In most cases, before anyone sees your work, they’ve already bought the product. The company already has the customer’s money.
As a tech writer, you’re helping buyers get the most from the purchase they already made. Your role is part of after-sale support.
And support is a cost center that most companies try to keep as low as possible.
But white papers are different. Companies publish white papers to generate new revenue.
The company doesn’t have the customer’s money yet. You’re trying to persuade prospects to buy using the soft-sell approach of a white paper.
Your role is part of marketing. Companies invest in marketing hoping it will pay off. Marketing should be a profit center.
All this means you need to understand the prospect and the journey they’re on.
A white paper can be used at any point in the customer journey:
- At the start, to attract the interest of a new prospect
- In the middle, to encourage them to keep moving
- Near the end, to help them compare different products
As a white paper writer, you need to understand the prospect and where they are in their journey.
And you need to accept that when you do a white paper, you’re working on a different side of the business.
Tech writing to white papers tip #3: Do different research
For a technical writing project, you research how the product or service works.
Even when you write about software, it’s like describing a machine: Push this button, crank this lever, do this and the system will do that.
You’re writing about “things.”
For a white paper, you do your research a little differently;
- You don’t need to understand in detail how the product works
- You do need to understand all the key features
- And you must spell out the benefits of those features for potential buyers
So in a white paper, you’re writing more about people.
Tech writers may well ask: So, what are benefits?
Those are the reasons why a prospect might buy the product, the pain they expect to avoid, or the gains they expect to make.
As a white paper writer, you must clearly find and express the benefits that will compel prospects to buy.
That’s a different kind of research than you do for a tech manual. It may feel weird at first.
Tech writing to white papers tip #4: Think about visuals, not just words
When you do technical writing, all you really need to provide is words.
Your readers are looking to learn, so you’re basically teaching. Readers will usually stick with your material until they learn what they need to know.
Your company or client often has a standard template you write with. That will set up all the headings, margins, and styles for every page.
Once in a while, you will want to stick in a screenshot or a product illustration. But that’s about it for visuals.
With a white paper, you are persuading.
Readers have a much shorter attention span for any type of pitch. And they’ll click away the second your white paper gets boring or confusing.
A wall of text isn’t the best way to keep readers interested.
White paper writers should learn how to use charts from Excel, infographics, stock photography, and tables from Word to illustrate the message.
All these visuals help your white paper communicate in a concise, easy-to-scan way.
There are no rules for when to use a visual. You really do have to make it up as you go along. And how well you think visually will contribute a lot to the success of your white paper.
Tech writing to white papers tip #5: Learn About SEO
With technical writing, your work is usually bundled with the product or available in the Support section of the company website.
You don’t have to think about attracting visitors. Any buyer automatically gets your documentation, or they can access it through the web.
You don’t have much choice about what to call your document. The title will probably follow a standard format, as in:
Acme Software 2021 Edition Configuration Guide
On the other hand, your client wants your white paper to get noticed by Google and to generate downloads.
To do that, you’ll need to use Search Engine Optimization (SEO) and make effective use of certain keywords, especially in your title.
A strong title helps your white paper show up when any prospect does a relevant Google search.
One good tool to help optimize a white paper title is the Coschedule Headline Studio. You can learn a lot from the free version, where you can try out different titles and see which one scores the best.
Tech writing to white papers tip #6: Free up your vocabulary
As a technical writer, you deal with strict limits.
Your work has no room for figures of speech, humor, or any hint of emotion.
The goal above all is to be crisp and clear.
For example, consider the kind of vocabulary you might use as a technical writer for engineering.
That usually includes a lot of jargon, with many technical and industry-specific terms. No joking around. No informal words or idioms.
But in a white paper, you want to be conversational, using emotive words and figures of speech to make persuasive points.
That means you really need to free up your word choices.
Allow your vocabulary to have more energy and personality. Be a little more light-hearted with your wording.
And don’t be afraid to start and end a white paper with a sprinkling of emotion.
Tech writing to white papers tip #7: Prepare for shorter deadlines
Technical writing often involves big projects like a user guide of 150+ pages. Your manager will realize those take several months to complete.
White papers are different. They’re only a fraction of the length, most often 6 to 8 pages of content plus a few pages of front and back matter.
And your client might expect you to be finished a week after you start.
For more on how tech writers can write white papers, click this link: 3 lessons tech writers must unlearn to write white papers
In fact, a typical white paper takes 6 to 8 weeks from start to finish, including planning, reviews, and design.
And you might have to incorporate a set of comments in a single workday.
You’ll have to learn how to work faster and meet shorter deadlines. That will come with practice.
Tech writing to white papers tip #8: Learn how to sell
B2B prospects are dealing with pain—some problem they want to solve—and they’re willing to pay to solve it.
Your white paper must persuade prospects to choose the solution from your company or client.
This is what it all really comes down to: In a white paper, you are trying to sell.
And sales is a specific skill.
So you need to learn about the art of persuasion. Learn about the idea of a pain point. And learn about the kind of language an audience wants to hear most.
Moving from tech writing to doing white papers is a big transition.
You will need to:
- Understand the key differences
- Research with a different focus
- Rework how you use language
- Think of effective visuals
- Practice writing in a different way
Fortunately, you can research all about writing white papers right on this site.
And for practice, try writing pieces just for yourself.
Can you do it? Yes, you can.
That White Paper Guy himself moved from tech writing to white papers and tells us he enjoyed the transition.
So whether you want to help your company with an occasional white paper, or write these for clients as a freelancer, the opportunities are out there.
With study and practice, any tech writer can learn how to write white papers too.
Have you moved from tech writing to white papers? What tips do you have for anyone on this path? Please leave your comment below.
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