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How to write a white paper as tips

Try Googling a phrase like “7 tips” and you’ll see at least 100 million hits?!

Check out any newsstand and you’ll find “tips” on the cover of most magazines.

Self-help books sell $2+ billion every year. And what is a self-help book, if not a series of tips?

So why do “tips” rule newsstands, bookstores and the web?

And how can you harness this compelling format to write white papers?

Tip-writing tip #1: Never assume busy professionals won’t read tips

Don’t worry. Everyone needs help and just about everyone loves tips. Here’s why.

professional woman reading tipsFor one thing, tips resonate with our can-do spirit.Tips give us hope that we’re not alone…that we can avoid the mistakes others have made…

that we can triumph over our challenges.

And tips appeal strongly to today’s readers, who have a natural tendency to skim, scan and skip.

  • If the tips are summed up in a list at the start, a reader can skim the list to see if anything sounds useful.
  • Once into the document, a reader’s eyes can quickly scan from one tip to the next.
  • And if a reader hits a tip they think is useless, or not applicable, they can quickly skip to the next.

So this type of article appeals to readers by offering help, inspiration and an easy read.

That’s why I firmly believe the “tips” type of white paper/article/special report is here to stay.

Tip-writing tip #2: Structure your title for maximum impact

When you write in the tips format, you get an immediate start for your title, for example:

7 tips on…”

This is a real attention-getter in a list of search results.

Hint: Even if you’re using a style guide that says to spell out all numbers under 10, this is one time to break that rule. Most people’s eyes prefer seeing the numerals 6, 7, 8 or 9 than reading those words in a list.

After the number, follow up with a promise, the key benefit. What are the tips about? That could give something like:

7 tips on selecting a netbook…”

And finally, touch directly on your target audience. Who will this document help? What is their role? What sector do they work in? How big is their company?

That may yield a working title like this:

7 Tips on selecting a netbook for your one-person consulting business

Always spend a few minutes tweaking your working title to make sure it stands out in a list, and appeals to your target readers.

Tip-writing tip #3: Keep your intro short

You can’t afford a long, rambling introduction.

Give them two or three paragraphs, maybe one screen and then get into the tips. Ideally, a reader should see the first tip on the first screen.

If you must include some introductory blah-blah, try to move these thoughts down into a tip.

Anything to get moving with the main attraction.

Tip-writing tip #4: Use action verbs for heads

It’s probably best to format headings like this:

Do this, do that, do the other; don’t do this, don’t do that, don’t do the other. (This is called the imperative mood.)

But what if you’re prescribing something conceptual?

In that case, it’s okay to use verbs like analyze, count on, remember, study, understand. But don’t use more than one or two. Get back to action verbs as soon as you can.

Hint: This approach also makes all your tips run parallel: a nice element of style that unifies your whole document.

Tip-writing tip #5: Keep each tip short

If one tip runs on, see if you can break it in two.

The more granular each tip, the more effective.

But each tip doesn’t have to be exactly the same length. Feel free to vary the lengths of your tips as needed.

Just don’t let the long tips run away with you.

Tip-writing tip #6: Write each tip as a brief,     standalone article

Give each tip its own beginning, middle and end, like so:

  • Start with a sentence that “tells them what you’re going to tell them.”
  • In the middle, “tell them.”
  • At the end, use a final summary sentence to “tell them what you told them.”

Repetition helps build understanding, so there’s no reason not to use a little repetition… especially for a longer, more complex tip.

Tip-writing tip #7: Check each tip against the Reverse Umbrella Test

I learned this from a seasoned newsletter editor, who learned it from his editor.

I’m not sure who invented the phrase, but the point is this:

Never write a tip that’s so obvious the opposite is never true.

black umbrella

Example of a tip that fails the test: If it’s raining, take your umbrella.

No one would ever say: If it’s raining, don’t take your umbrella. Or, if it’s sunny, take your umbrella.

In a business context, no one needs to hear obvious chestnuts like: Watch your cash flow. Hire smart people. Invest in success.

That’s like telling someone to walk by putting on foot in front of the other.

No tip should ever be so obvious, so banal, that it goes without saying.

Tip-writing tip #8: Arrange tips in logical order

Whether they know it or not, readers crave logic. So try to arrange your tips in a logical sequence.

Here are some organizing principles to pick from:

  • Chronological from first to last
  • Priority from most to least important
  • Frequency from most to least common
  • Size from biggest to smallest
  • Familiarity from most to least familiar.

For instance, if you’re discussing how to get the most from a new enterprise software system, you might arrange tips in chronological order, by how to evaluate, purchase, install, configure and then customize the system.

Or if everything else is equal, consider putting the strongest tips at the start and the end. Tuck any weaker ones in the middle. That’s because items at the start and end of a list generally have the most impact.

Tip-writing tip #9: Don’t use a predictable number like 10

Let’s face it, David Letterman owns the Top 10 list in just about everyone’s mind.

So any set of “10 tips” sounds too pat and pre-fabricated.

Instead, use a less-round number like 7, 8 or 9. It still sounds thorough, without being a long read.

For a longer piece, avoid using 15, 20, 25, or 30 for the very same reason.

What do you do if you end up with 10 tips? You can often break one tip in two, or combine two together, or drop the weakest one, anything to push your total to a more convincing number.

Tip-writing tip #10: You don’t have to call it a white paper

man reading tips

I’ve written lots of white papers organized as tips.

But I seldom call them white papers.

The “white paper” label suggests a certain level of formality, or a certain scope that your tips may not match.

Why use a label that gives readers the wrong expectations? You can call it “a special report” or even a “tipsheet” instead.

Or don’t call it anything at all and let your title tell the whole story.

Tip-writing tip #11: Reuse tips in other places

Think about reusing your tips in a trade pub or a blog.

Editors love them, readers love them, they’re short and snappy and they do a lot to build your company profile.

Just ensure that your company name and website appear somewhere in the last few sentences.

For example, if the publication wants a byline on the piece, this is an ideal place to insert your company name, as in:

by Joe Blow, CTO, ACME Technologies

A typical credit line of the end of an article reads something like this:

Written by Joe Blow, CTO of ACME Technologies.
To find out more about [the main benefits of your article] visit

Good luck writing your tips!

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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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