Photo of Gutenberg printing press

How to write a white paper with Google Docs

White papers are team projects.

So why do we all work on separate PCs?

Why do we all look at separate drafts, and e-mail around separate comments?

Isn’t that a little… old-fashioned?

icon for Google Docs

 

About 10 years ago, I wrote a white paper for the first time with Google Docs.

It was a challenging document with many reviewers: a sure prescription for version-control headaches. But with Google Docs, it was a smooth, even exhilarating experience.

And since then, I’ve done several more white papers using GDocs. Here are some observations I’ve made.

 

The biggest difference of all from using Word on a PC: You create an online version of a document that all reviewers can access… and that changes a lot.

From waterfall to river

The traditional white paper process involves a series of deliverables: notes, draft outline, draft text, comments, revised draft, and so on.

In software, this is called the “waterfall” model.

Forget that: In Google Docs, there are no neat and tidy stages. That white paper went through an ongoing flow of refinements more like a river… or like the Agile method for developing software.

Photo of waterfall turning into river

From flat comments to active discussion

When a reviewer goes through a Google Doc, their comments show up in text boxes in the margin. You can answer comments in the same place.

It doesn’t seem like much work to review a doc online, so reviews tend to come in faster. Comments are often shorter and easier to handle.

And since everyone’s comments appear in real-time, you can achieve a consensus faster than by e-mailing around multiple drafts.

From writer and client to collaborators

To stop all this openness from degenerating into a Wikipedia-style edit war, someone has to manage each document. In Google Docs, that tends to be the person who created the file and shared it with others.

My client was a very good writer in her own right. So we worked shoulder-to-shoulder on drafts, and passed “ownership” of the document back and forth. With such close collaboration, the writing felt strangely light and effortless.

 

photo of hands and tool working on wood

The right tool for the job

Google Docs is clearly modeled on the key features of MS-Office, so that most writers can use it with no learning curve.

To find out more, there are online videos and a training center available right from the Help menu.

But it’s not an all-or-nothing choice.

Nearly everyone in business has Microsoft Office. So it’s really a matter of picking the right tool for the job: desktop or online. (I’ve found the online version of Word lacks some critical features, so I consider it a desktop product.)

Which is better: desktop or online?

That all depends on which stage of your white paper you’re on. The ideal may be moving back and forth between desktop and online to match the right tool to the job.

The table below sums up my views of which tools are faster or better for various tasks in producing a white paper.

 

TASKONLINE TOOLSDESKTOP TOOLS
BrainstormingBETTER
(Google Docs)
ResearchBETTER
(Google)
WritingSAME
(Google Docs)
SAME
(MS-Word)
ReviewingBETTER
(Google Docs)
FormattingBETTER
(InDesign, Word)
PromotingBETTER
(E-mail, social media,
websites)

As you can see, I believe the only area where the clear advantage still lies with desktop software is in the final formatting.

It’s remarkable how the momentum has moved away from the desktop to the cloud so quickly.

By the way, I wrote this article in Google Docs… can you tell?

 


Have you ever written a white paper with Google Docs? How did that work out? Please share your comments below.

About Gordon Graham

Author of close to 300 white papers on everything from choosing enterprise software to designing virtual worlds for kids, for clients from Silicon Valley to Switzerland, from tiny startups to 3M, Google and Verizon. Also wrote White Papers for Dummies which earned 50 5-star ratings on Amazon. And Gordon was recently named 2019 Copywriter of the Year by AWAI.

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