6 tools to help organize your white paper research

I often say that a white paper writer should “think like a lawyer.”

That means building a mountain of research to back up your case.

photo of pile of books

A lawyer needs to keep all the evidence at their fingertips, so they can pluck out exactly the right piece as they argue.

That can spell the difference between winning and losing the case.

By the same token, every white paper writer needs to keep a pile of research impeccably organized, so you can pull out exactly the right piece as you write.

That can spell the difference between a white paper that works and one that flops.

[Tweet "Organized research can spell the difference between a white paper that works and one that flops."]

Six simple tools you can use

Here are six relatively simple tools you can use to keep track of all your white paper research:

  1. Index cards
  2. Microsoft Word
  3. Word + index cards
  4. Microsoft PowerPoint
  5. Evernote
  6. Microsoft OneNote

 


Tip:  I can’t recommend using a database. I’ve spoken to book authors who use databases to organize their research for say, a biography. But that’s overkill for a 10-page white paper with a dozen or so sources.


 

Photo of a yellowed blank index card. Index cards are an option to organize your research.

#1: Index cards

I guess this really is your grandfather’s method.
After all, index cards  have been used since before anyone ever wrote the first white paper.

But many writers still love them, and there’s at least a couple different ways you can use them.

Some researchers recommend using the top left section of a card to write a code number that points to a file of original documents, or even the section of your paper where you would use that reference.

Then you can use the top right for the actual citation: author, title, publisher, date, and page.

And the main body is for the actual quote.

When you’re finished, you have a nice little stack of research in delightfully tangible form that you can shuffle and reshuffle to your heart’s content.

Take #2 on this basic idea is to use large sticky notes, one for each source, and then arrange and rearrange them on a flat surface like a large piece of cardboard, an open file folder, or even your wall.

 

image of the Microsoft Word 2014+ logo. Microsoft Word is an option for organizing research.

#2: Word

This is the most natural way for many writers to organize their research for a white paper.

I generally use this approach myself. I start with some intense web searches, downloading and often printing any articles that look interesting.

When I’ve covered enough ground, I scan through the hard-copy files, highlighting the choice bits, scribbling ideas in the margins, and attaching sticky notes to pages I want to find later.

All this can take a few hour, even a few days.

Then I go through the hard copies in front of my computer, typing all the best quotes into a Word file, one page per source, with precise citations.


Hint: I most often read those snippets into Word using voice recognition software, which is much faster. And it’s easier to hold sources in my hands to read, rather than wrangle them all around my desk.


Then I print out my selected excerpts. This creates another, smaller printout I slip on top my research file.

When I write the white paper’s executive summary, I pull out my excerpt file, knowing I can always dive back into the source material, which is right at my fingertips.

I’m sure some people will find this process hopelessly outdated, because they like to store all their research on their iWhatevers.

But I like being able to sort and shuffle paper—and to get something done even if the power goes off, the iCloud temporarily blows away, or my iWhatever needs a battery recharge.

 

logo for Microsoft Word plus photo of index card

#3: Word + index cards

If you like the tangibility of index cards and the time-saving efficiency of the computer, you can get the best of both worlds. Here’s how:

  1. Type up all your research in Word.
  2. Print your Word file with a narrow line measure like 4 inches wide.
  3. Go through your hard copy to highlight the key sources to use in your white paper.
  4. Physically cut out each source and tape it to an index card.

Then you can merrily shuffle your index cards until you get the perfect flow of ideas. You can even do that in a coffee shop or on the kitchen table.

Then when you come to write, you have your index cards for reference. But all your citations are already in Word, ready to paste into your white paper.

 

PowerPoint logo

#4: PowerPoint

The same way, you can use PowerPoint to avoid scribbling down all your sources by hand.

 

The trick is to think of each slide as an index card.

  1. Type up your original research as a set of slides, one citation per slide.
  2. Then use the Slide Sorter feature (from the View tab) to arrange your slides in the ideal flow.

And you can do that on any laptop or tablet, or at your desk.

Now when you need a citation, you already have it in PowerPoint, ready to paste into your white paper.

 

a photo of the Evernote app logo. Evernote is an option to organize your research

#5: Evernote cloud app

If you want to use a cloud-based app to manage your white paper research, one likely choice is Evernote.

Fans appreciate that it comes in versions for Windows, Mac OS, different mobile devices, and various Web browsers.

You can use Evernote to save ideas, web articles, scanned articles, photos, graphics, status reports, or anything else you come across in your research.

And you can sync all your devices, so all your notes are with you no matter which device you have at hand.

For a great introduction to using Evernote, see this article from the Content Marketing Institute.

 

Logo for OneNote app

#6: OneNote

As an alternative to Evernote, there’s always OneNote.
It’s free, bundled with most versions of Microsoft Office.

And apparently the latest versions are much improved.

I confess I haven’t used either Evernote nor OneNote, so I can’t speak from personal experience. But many writers do, and they’re happy with their choices.

So there you have it: a good set of tools and tips for organizing a mountain of white paper research. Good luck keeping everything in order.

 

How do you organize your research for a white paper? Please leave your comments below.

 

 

 

About Gordon Graham

Author of 275 white papers on everything from choosing enterprise software to designing virtual worlds for kids, for clients everywhere from Silicon Valley to Switzerland, for everyone from tiny startups to 3M, Google and Verizon. Also wrote White Papers for Dummies which earned 50 5-star ratings on Amazon. Reviewers call it "a must-read... fantastic... outstanding... terrific... phenomenal... the best book of its kind."

7 Comments

  1. Sravani B. on October 6, 2016 at 12:08 pm

    Nice article. I just create a “dump file” in Word, where with each source as a section, just cut and paste the research content relevant to the paper. Along with that quotes and data points those could be used in the paper. So when writing the outine, I need to refer only to this dump file.

    Looking forward to learn other efficient techniques.

  2. Lynn M. Little on October 6, 2016 at 1:25 pm

    Hi, Gordon, I must confess, I have not yet written a White Paper. But I am a retired college professor who has written dozens of scientific and other scholarly papers. My favorite choice is #2, Word, which I am very comfortable using and permits me to cut-and-paste vital information, which I then put into my own words and expand (or contract) as needed. I also keep a log of useful websites to go back to, as needed. I am completing my website and expect to launch my career as a B2B copywriter at AWAI Bootcamp, in a couple of weeks. I already have your book, so I feel that I am all set for the challenges ahead. Thanks for this article!

    Lynn M. Little
    Lynn M. Little Copywriting

  3. Judith on October 6, 2016 at 1:49 pm

    Thank you, Gordon, This is a very helpful article. I’ve been using Word – and really like your suggestion to combine that with the use of Index cards. One of the problems I have is keeping track of websites that have information and related links for possible future research. I tend to lose track of them. I’m going to set up a cross-reference system with the help of those handy index cards!

    Best regards and repeated thanks,

    Judith
    JB Copywriting

  4. catharina endrejat on October 7, 2016 at 1:22 pm

    Thanks for this article. I’ve always used Word only, but I like the idea of combining it with the index cards. I think that might help with “organizing” my ideas better.

  5. casadebear on October 7, 2016 at 6:42 pm

    I’ve just gotten my first white paper client, so these tips are very timely. Thanks, Gordon!

  6. Chris Quirk on October 8, 2016 at 11:29 am

    Very helpful, thanks. Also, I use Scrivener for some longer form pieces. It’s designed for books, but I have used it for projects as small as 1,500 words and found it useful. It has a kind of index card feature, and it’s pretty easy to import and consolidate a lot of source materials of various kinds. The search feature keeps me from sifting through a pile of papers looking for “that one phrase I need right now.”

  7. alidir on November 2, 2016 at 1:40 pm

    I’m glad to see someone else using PowerPoint. I used the slides for sources and for sections, even paragraphs if necessary. And I love the outline feature for working with my designer. But I’ll admit, when in Word, I’m a dump and drag writer.

Leave a Comment