Skip to content

How to write a white paper, by the numbers

Let’s talk about a different way to write a white paper: as a numbered list.

You know what I’m talking about—any document with a title like:

  • 5 Secrets of…
  • 6 Steps to Success in…
  • 7 Ways to Boost Profits with…

I’ve actually written white papers with all of those titles, and dozens more.

Sometimes called “listicles”—a portmanteau of “list” and “articles”—this format is extremely popular. Busy people love skimming, scanning and skipping their way through these documents.

Since the whole structure is visible in the numbering system, you always know where you are. And readers can actually “count” through the numbers to the end.

These can be useful, but they may not be able to accommodate the more detailed coverage that goes into a problem/solution flavor of white paper.

What does this mean to a content writer or marketer? 

If you have a complex issue to discuss or you want to create a detailed analysis you can use for the next year or two, a numbered list may not be the best choice.

But if you need a quick, useful piece of content for a blog or to fill your editorial calendar, you can usually come up with a numbered list very quickly.

Design guru and author Roger C. Parker explains.

“You take a number and a concept, and you just brainstorm. The number provides a framework for you to complete,” advises Parker. “Once you know you need six steps, your brain will help you get to those six.”

Here’s a four-step process illustrating this approach.

1: Find a basic concept

This can be anything your audience wants to gain or anything they want to avoid, including a set of “best practices” and the opposite “deadly mistakes to avoid.”

For example, network administrators want a secure network with maximum uptime; they want to avoid intrusions, malware and downtime.

2: Add a number

If you take the positive concept “maximum uptime” and add the number “five” you get a title like “Five Ways to Guarantee Maximum Uptime.”

Take the opposite concept and the number “six” and you get “Six Secrets of Avoiding Downtime.”

3: Add a subtitle to position the document

Your subtitle can touch on a specific job role such as “A Special Report for Network Admins.”

Then your complete title reads like this:

Five Ways to Guarantee Maximum Uptime:
A Special Report for Network Admins

What network admin wouldn’t want to see that?

4: Fill in the blanks with great content

Remember to fill in your outline with great content for each point. As you write, you can easily add or drop points.

Anything between five and nine is probably fine, while 10 can sound a little forced, like a “Top 10” list.

Another nice thing about writing a list-based white paper is that you don’t need to develop any rigorous step-by-step logic.

A list is less linear and more modular, so you can pull in more material without linking every point into a cohesive structure. Your material is held together by the numbering system itself.

What’s the downside to this format?

If your document doesn’t back up your title with great content, you will waste your audience’s time.

Remember that the list-based document is just another tool in your toolkit. Use it when the situation calls for it, not every time you sit down to write.

While it’s easy to come up with a numbered list, there’s no substitute for hard work. Don’t think you can just dash off a numbered list off without bothering to find any proof points. And you’ll still have to rewrite to make every sentence crystal clear.

Remember that the list-based document is just another tool in your toolkit. Use it when the situation calls for it, not every time you sit down to write.

For more on numbered lists, see my special report called “How to Pick the Perfect Flavor for Your Next White Paper.”

Want to hear whenever there’s a fresh article on this site? Subscribe here to stay in the know on long-form content. From time to time, we’ll also send you word about some great new resource or training. And you can unsubscribe any time.  

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.

If you liked this post...

white paper ? to !

How can I help with your next white paper?

Whether you're a B2B marketer or a content writer, you can benefit from my experience....
White Paper World llogo new Oct 2023

White Paper World 40: April 25, 2024

Shun the TIONs: Part deux Guest tip: Excise the IZEs! Mini-review: The Elements of Technical...
placard reading Excise the IZEs!

Guest tip: Excise the IZEs!

The tendency to add IZE to nouns is an old story in English. The practice...

Leave a Comment

This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy Policy and Terms of Service apply.