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.
But then, a lawyer has to be able to access it efficiently.
They need to keep all the evidence at their fingertips, so they can pluck out exactly the right piece at exactly the right time as they build their argument or fend off a cross-examination.
That can spell the difference between winning and losing their 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.
Seven ways to get organized
Here are seven ways you can keep track of all your white paper research:
- Index cards
- Microsoft Word
- Word + index cards
- Microsoft PowerPoint
- Microsoft OneNote
The first four methods are a little Old School, using tools you’re probably quite familiar with: index cards, Word, or PowerPoint.
The final three use apps you may have to learn: Evernote, OneNote, or Zotero.
Tip: I can’t recommend using a database. I’ve spoken to book authors who use databases to organize their research for say, a detailed biography. But that’s overkill for a 10-page white paper with a dozen or so sources.
Organizing research method #1: Index cards
This really is your grandfather’s method. After all, index cards have been used since before anyone wrote the first white paper.
But many writers still love them. And there are at least a couple of 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:
And then you can use the rest of the card for the actual quote.
When you’re finished, you have a nice little stack of research in a 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 in place of index cards.
Again, use 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.
Organizing research method #2: Word
This is the most natural way for many writers to organize research for a white paper.
I generally use this approach. 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 in thick documents that I want to find later.
All this can take a few hours, even a few days.
Then I go through the hard copies in front of my computer, reading in all the best snippets using Word’s Dictation feature.
Tip: For a free cheat sheet on dictating to Word, see my article “Tips on using dictation to write.”
Then I print my selected excerpts. This creates another, smaller printout I slip on top of my research file.
When I start writing the white paper, I pull out my excerpt file. And I always know I can dive back into the source material because it’s right at my fingertips.
I’m sure some people will find this process hopelessly outdated.
But I like being able to sort and shuffle paper—and to keep working even if the power goes off or the iCloud temporarily blows away.
And for me, that process of reading and typing and printing helps me think about the material in a deeper way and build a stronger argument.
Organizing research method #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:
- Type up all your research excerpts in Word.
- Print your Word file with a narrow line measure like 4 inches wide.
- 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. And you can do that in a coffee shop or on the kitchen table.
Then when you come to write, you have your index cards for reference, with all your citations in Word, all set to paste into your white paper.
Organizing research method #4: PowerPoint
You can also use PowerPoint to help keep your research straight.
The trick is to think of each slide as an index card.
- Type up your original research as a set of slides, one citation per slide.
- 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.
Or you can print out your slides, cut them apart, and then play with the arrangement that way.
Now when you need a citation, you already have it in PowerPoint, ready to paste into your white paper.
Organizing research method #5: OneNote
Now we’re into using new apps that require some learning.
To me, the most likely candidate is OneNote.
It’s effectively free, bundled with most versions of Microsoft Office.
That appeals to me since that means I’m still working in the same MS-Office interface with a ribbon and styles.
So I feel like I can sit down and start using OneNote instantly.
Plus, a major theme of the product is keeping notes for school projects.
I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: White papers are a lot like college essays. So why not use a tool that was designed to help students with their essays?
I haven’t used OneNote much yet, so I can’t give it a glowing recommendation base on my personal experience.
But I think it’s the next app I will seriously try for organizing research.
You may feel the same. To find out more, here’s a good 10-minute overview on YouTube.
Organizing research method #6: Evernote
If you want to use a cloud-based app to manage your white paper research, one popular choice is Evernote.
Fans appreciate that—like OneNote—it comes in versions for Windows, macOS, different mobile devices, and various Web browsers.
You can use Evernote to save ideas, web pages, 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.
I’ve looked at Evernote a few times, but I have to admit I’ve never made it through the learning curve.
Maybe that’s because my office already looks like a hodge-podge hit by a hurricane, with books and papers piled everywhere, and I don’t want my online world to look that messy too!
But don’t be put off by my hesitation.
People who use Evernote really love it.
And for a great introduction to using Evernote, see this article from the Content Marketing Institute.
Organizing research method #7: Zotero
Zotero is described as “a personal assistant” and “a free, easy-to-use tool to help you collect, organize, cite, and share research.”
That sounds exactly like what we’re talking about, doesn’t it?
One intriguing thing about Zotero is that’s developed by a nonprofit—Corporation for Digital Scholarship—not a commercial software firm.
That means Zotero is open source and free, and no one will ever come sniffing through your research so they can show you ads.
Zotero is not exactly a cloud app; it runs on a PC under Windows, Mac, or Linux.
And it pops up as an extension to various browsers and Google Docs, and an add-in to Word.
Here are a few of Zotero’s many features, which are too numerous to list:
- Drag-and-drop to set up a directory of all your sources
- Search the web and many academic journals
- Find, store, and notate PDFs
- Generate citations in every conceivable format
Zotero can even warn you if you try to cite an article that’s been retracted. Wow. Try that, Google!
I’ve seen Zotero in action on a white paper, and it was very impressive.
For sure, the software is powerful. But there’s the rub.
The app’s own website admits it may be “too complicated” for some people to learn and use.
But if that doesn’t deter you, give Zotero a whirl!
My personal view on research methods
An effective white paper is not built from research alone.
So I’m concerned that using a tool like Zotero would unbalance the process and make it all about wrangling my research…
and less about connecting the dots with powerful logic and nuanced writing.
It’s like a movie director who pours so much attention into CGI that they forget to tell a compelling story.
(George Lucas and The Phantom Menace: Need I say more?)
So would I use Zotero for writing a PhD thesis? Sure.
But for a 10-page white paper? Again, I find that overkill.
I feel the same about Scrivener, an all-in-one research tool, document planner, and word processor.
I’ve bought Scrivener in the past, peeked around, and thought, “I’ll check into this someday…” which means “never will I ever.”
For client projects, I prefer to stick to industry standards like Word, GDocs, or PowerPoint.
And that’s not because I’m afraid to learn new software.
For example, I learned the LaTEX typesetting system for a white paper for the Linux Foundation.
HTML? I set up the first version of this website in hand-coded HTML in 2005.
And today I’m avidly learning new apps for creating online calculators and assessments.
So I have nothing against learning new software when it’s the only way to fly.
But after using Microsoft Word for 30+ years to research and write literally thousands of documents, my natural instinct is to stick with what I know.
You’re welcome to agree or disagree with me.
The upside: I stay in my comfort zone with no learning curve for a different tool of the trade.
The downside: I may get fossilized in unproductive habits and fall behind the times.
Conclusion: Take your pick
So there you have it: a whole set of ways for organizing a mountain of white paper research.
I’m sure there are more, but these seem to be the most popular approaches.
There’s no right and wrong here.
Just use whatever method feels right to you.
And keep an open mind.
If you feel like it, consider a different approach. Spend an afternoon trying it out.
Picture whether it could save you time once you learn it.
And most of all, good luck keeping everything in order!
This article was originally published in October 2016.
Last updated 27 April 2022.
How do you organize your research for a white paper? Please leave your comments below.
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