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fix a white paper length

Fix a draft that’s too short or too long

I’ve seen everything from a one-page sales sheet to a 100-page book called a “white paper.”

Clearly these are both pretty extreme examples.

Most white papers today are 6 to 8 pages of main body copy (2,000 to 3,500 words).

And most have a few more pages wrapped around the main body:

  • Front matter at start: cover, contents page, executive summary
  • Back matter at end: conclusions, call-to-action, about the company, sources

That means the final page count is usually 12 to 16 pages total.

For more on the ideal length for a white paper, see the White Paper FAQ.

But what if your draft doesn’t fit this format?

What about a draft that’s way too short or way too long? Can you save it?

Yes, you can. And here are some practical tips on how to do it.

 


1-page white paper from ACOM     1-page white paper from HP

 

Two “white” papers that are just one page:

Enough for a blog post, maybe, but not for any deep argument based on facts and logic


Fixing a draft white paper that’s too short

Here are some signs your draft white paper is too short:

  • You have only 500 to 1,000 words
  • The title promises a deep dive, but the draft just skims the surface
  • The argument has gaps and holes
  • Your reviewers say there’s not enough there

Suppose the company sells something for $100,000 a pop. And all you’ve got is 1,000 words.

Do you really think that’s enough to convince a skeptical B2B buyer to part with that much money?

Me neither. It’s just too lightweight.

tape measure short

Remember, B2B prospects want useful info that helps them understand an issue, solve a problem, or make a decision.

What if you get them interested enough to download your white paper, but it’s so short it doesn’t engage them?

Your white paper has just failed in its mission.

Here are some reasons why your draft may be too short 

  • Idea is too small for a white paper
  • Cutting corners on timing or budget
  • Writer juggling too many projects at once
  • Draft submitted too early
  • Not enough research done

Some solutions you can try

Here are seven different ways to add more bulk to a skinny white paper. And none of these involve pumping it up with hot air or silly filler.

1—Reality check: Is your idea big enough?

Your idea may be too small to sustain an entire white paper.

For more on what size of idea works best for a white paper, see this quick tip.

If your idea is too small, brainstorm a more useful or meaty idea and start over.

Did you deal with only one corner of a problem that’s actually much bigger?

Can you expand the scope to cover the whole problem?

2—Review your project parameters

Review your timelines and your budget.

Are you expecting your writer to produce too much, too fast, for too little money?

Can you review your deadlines and lengthen them? Or review your budget and invest more?

3—Talk to your writer

Ask about their other commitments. Do they have too many balls in the air?

Did they send in that draft sooner than they should have? Maybe just to show you they were working on it?

Can your writer commit to expanding the draft to a defined word count? How about 3,500 words?

Make sure to say you don’t want fluff and filler. You want solid ideas, expressed clearly and concisely. You want every word to count.

If your writer can’t commit, can you find another writer?

4—Do more research

If your idea is big but your paper is small, you need to do more research and add more content.

That means doing more interviews with SMEs and more web research. Here are some specifics depending on which flavor you’re working on.

scoop of chocolate ice cream

For a problem/solution (chocolate) white paper:

Dig deeper into the problem.

Come up with statistics that show how big it is and how long it’s plagued the industry.

Get some expert opinions and sound bites.

 

Then look at all the traditional ways of solving the problem.

Express each one in generic terms as a class or category, not a specific product name. Then shows its drawbacks or unintended consequences.

Doing all that will expand your argument and make your paper longer and much more persuasive.

scoop of strawberry ice cream

For a numbered list (strawberry) white paper:

I often devote a whole page to each point.

If you have three or four points wrapped up in a single page, you’re not going deep enough.

 

Rethink your list of points or issues. If you only have three or four, see if you can double that.

Can you split some points in two?

Can you think of anything you left out?

Then for each point, dig in and find numbers, dates, quotable quotes… some sort of evidence that makes a strong case for that point.

Doing all that will lengthen and deepen your numbered list.

scoop of vanilla ice creamFor a backgrounder (vanilla) white paper:

Organize your research around the key features and benefits of your offering.

Some technical benefits could be security, privacy, flexibility, transparency, ease of set up, ease of maintenance, ease of disposal, user-centered design.

 

Some financial benefits could be lower cost, easier learning curve, longer life, lower total cost of ownership, fewer or cheaper consumables, and so on.

Covering more features and benefits will make your backgrounder longer and more compelling.

5—Add front and back matter

Does your white paper have a text-only cover that lists the contents?

Use this quick tip to find a good cover photo and move the contents inside. You just gained a page and made your white paper more attractive.

Of course, you have an executive summary at the start, plus conclusions with call-to-action at the back, right? If not, add them.

Don’t forget to include About the Company at the back. Just paste in the standard boilerplate from your press releases or About the Company on your website.

Doing all this will add four pages to your draft. And those four pages won’t be  filler or fluff; they’ll be useful components that should be in every white paper.

6—Rethink the typography

Sometimes a white paper is too short because the typesetting is too severe, with no white space at the edges, tiny type, and run-on paragraphs.

Add more white space all around. Set your line width to 75 or so characters. If it’s at 100 or 120 characters, that’s too hard to read.

Break up long paragraphs. Start a new paragraph after five lines max.

These measures will expand your draft and make it far easier to scan and read.

7—Add graphics

Is your draft a wall of text, unrelieved by any visuals? This is a golden opportunity to make it more appealing and longer at the same time.

Can you think of an infographic that sums up the whole point of the paper in one illustration?

Can you simply reuse slices of the cover graphic as visuals inside?

Can you find some inexpensive stock photos to sprinkle throughout?

Can you use any screen shots from your software?

Can you even pose some reasonable photos yourself? Or even hire a professional photographer to take some?

 

Following some or all of these tips will make your white paper longer and far more effective as well.

 


Fixing a draft white paper that’s too long

white paper so long it falls over

 

 

Here are some signs that your draft white paper is too long:

• The draft is 25+ pages
• The text seems rambling and verbose
• The argument is roundabout and unclear
• Your reviewers can barely get through it

 

 

I often see this problem when a company does their first white paper.

They want to do too much with one document.

They want to speak to people from start to finish of their customer journey.

And they want to generate leads, engage customers throughout a complex sale, and help win out over competitors to make the sale.

So they throw in everything but the kitchen sink.

The problem is, prospects at different stages of their journey need different types of information. So one paper can’t do everything.

Some technical audiences will read a white paper that’s 30 or 40 pages, as long as it provides useful information.

But most B2B business people won’t put up with that.

They want to get useful info that helps them understand an issue, solve a problem, or make a decision. And they don’t have all day.

That’s why most white papers are 12 to 16 pages, total.

tape measure long

Here are some reasons why your draft may be too long 

  • Idea too big for a white paper
  • Trying to cover too much
  • Draft submitted too early
  • Verbose writing style needs copyediting

And here are some likely solutions you can try

Here are four different ways to slim down a white paper that’s too bulky. And all these tips will help make your white paper more effective.

1—Reality check: Is your idea too big?

Are you trying to appeal to prospects at every point on their customer journey?

Can you focus on one part of the journey only?

Are there any side issues you can drop?

For more on what size of idea works best for a white paper, see this quick tip.

If your idea is really too big, see if you can you scale back the scope. Are you trying to “boil the ocean” by discussing some massive problem?

2—Cut it in two

Here’s a great piece of advice I heard years ago: Make every white paper as granular as your budget allows.

In other words, if you have the money to do two white papers, don’t try to cram every possible detail into one.

So if your draft is too long, see if you can split it into two or three papers.

Then each paper will be shorter and more accessible. And you’ll get three chances to impress prospects instead of only one.

3—Compress the text

Ask yourself, “Do they really need to know this?” Or can you drop some details that only 10% or 20% of your readers care about?

Once the scope is reasonable, cut and polish the remaining text.

The easiest way to compress text is to use shorter words, shorter sentences, and shorter paragraphs.

To see how, check out this quick tip.

Try to compress the draft by at least 10% on every pass through it.

PassWords before10% reductionWords after
16,0006005,400
25,4005404,860
34,8604804,380

See how quickly these cuts can add up?

In just three passes, you can cut 1,620 words or more than one-quarter (27%) of the original draft.

You can make this like a game, seeing all the places you can cut a word or two without losing any meaning.


Tip: Here’s how NOT to reduce the size of a white paper: Shrink the white space or reduce the size of the type. That just makes the same rambling text harder to read, without doing anything to solve the problem.


 

professional copywriter

4—Hire a professional editor

If your team can’t do this kind of copyediting, consider hiring a professional editor who knows the white paper format.

You can even give an editor a target word count.

“Here’s our 6,000-word draft. We need you to compress it down to 4,000 words.”

They’ll do it.

For example, over the years I’ve edited newsletters, newspapers, and nonfiction books… plus dozens of white paper drafts that clients brought to me.

See more about my white paper revision services here.

Conclusions

Following these tips will help your draft end up at the sweet spot for a white paper today: 6 to 8 pages of main body, or 12 to 16 pages total.

A white paper that length will meet your prospect’s expectations, with enough depth to develop your arguments, but not so much detail it’s overwhelming.

Good luck!


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About Gordon Graham

Worked on 300+ 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 50+ 5-star ratings on Amazon. Won 16 awards from the Society for Technical Communication. And named AWAI 2019 Copywriter of the Year.

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