Tell the truth! Show your white paper sources

What do you do when you finish a white paper?

If you’re like most writers, you send in your invoice, and then take the rest of the day off.

But haven’t you forgotten something?

What about sending your client all the sources you referenced in your white paper?

How about backing up all those claims in your argument with some solid evidence?

photos of Trump and Hillary election 2016
I believe this must become a standard practice for white papers to maintain their stature in B2B marketing. Here’s why.

Can you handle the truth?

We’ve just been through a terribly divisive election in the U.S. And before that, the Brexit vote in the U.K.

It’s fair to say that the winning campaigns on both sides of the Atlantic spewed out a vast number of exaggerations, fantasies, and old-fashioned lies.

Some went so far as to insist that the truth doesn’t matter. Something just has to “feel” true.

Or, as a writer for Esquire magazine put it:

There no longer is any line between information and disinformation, between empirical fact and magical thinking, between truth and Colbertian “truthiness.”

But I’m here to say that the truth does matter.

Nothing is true just because it “feels” true. After all, doesn’t it “feel like” the earth is flat? And like the sun goes around the earth?

But we all know those feelings aren’t true.

By the same token, effective B2B marketing requires separating facts from feelings. A false claim, once exposed, can sink a vendor.

I’ve never had a client ask me to fabricate sources. And I wouldn’t do it if they did ask.

But in every workshop I give, someone asks if it’s okay just to make up your sources. Guess what I tell them?


Back to white papers

One reason white papers pay so well is because clients expect you to do your homework, to dig out authoritative sources and to quote them properly.

How can you prove that you really did that?

The best way is to turn over a set of your sources to your client with your draft.

Why should a writer spend extra time doing something your client never asked for? Or, if you are a client, why should you insist on this?

For all these reasons:

  1. The ability to easily spot-check sources adds quality to the finished white paper.
  2. Having sources on file enables you to deliver them on request rather than scrambling to find them later… after the original webpage might be taken down.
  3. This marks you as a professional who is diligent and confident in your work.
  4. This elevates the level of discourse in your white paper, and in your industry, to rely more on evidence and less on hype.

Use a universal file format:  PDFs

Enough of the preamble, let’s get on to the how-to.

No client wants to deal with sources in a hodge-podge of different file formats: graphics, HTML, PowerPoints, screen grabs, Word, etc.

I recommend making it easy by delivering all your sources as PDFs.

logo for adobe pdfPDF is a universal file format with a free reader.

And as shown in the table below, it’s relatively simple to pull whatever type of source material you need into a PDF.


Source How to save
Blog post Note exact URL, save as PDF
Book (printed) Scan pages to PDF  †
E-book Use ePUB Converter (or similar)
Excel, Word, or PPT files Save as PDF
Printed report Scan pages to PDF  †
Webpage Note exact URL, save as PDF
Written notes Scan notes to PDF  †
†  If your scanner can’t create PDFs, use the free Windows utility iCopy from

How to generate PDFs

From MacOS: Save as PDF or Print to PDF from any application.

From Windows: You can Print to PDF from any application if you own Adobe Acrobat—the paid version, not the free Acrobat Reader.

If you don’t have Acrobat, try the online converter at Just copy in a URL, paste it into the converter, and wait a few seconds for your free PDF.

Numbering PDFs to footnotes

After you have a complete set of PDFs, you don’t want to deliver them as a jumble. You can make each of your sources easier to find.

One simple way is to match the filename for each PDF to the appropriate footnote number.

I like to use the | character to separate the title from the publisher right in the filename:

#–Title | publisher.pdf

For example, you can name the PDF sources for footnotes 1 through 3 in this format:

1–Can-You-Handle-the-Truth | CNN.pdf
2–The-scientific-method-still-counts | Economist.pdf
3–ACME special report on honesty | ACME.pdf

The takeaways

It’s not okay to make up “facts.” Instead, you should do your research. And provide a complete, organized set of sources.

Otherwise, how can you prove that you did your research and quoted it properly?

I believe this is a best practice that all white paper writers should follow. This practice is good for readers, good for clients, and good for writers.


Do you provide sources to your white paper clients? Why or why not? Please leave your comments below. 

About Gordon Graham

Author close to 300 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."


  1. Wilton Blake on November 9, 2016 at 1:06 pm

    Excellent idea. I’ve been delivering sources as a jumbled set of PDFs or links to websites. But I really like the idea of delivering properly organized and named PDFs. I will do that from now on!

  2. Bob Bly on November 9, 2016 at 1:08 pm

    I think all this is overkill. Every fact cited in my copy — white papers, video sales letters, direct mail packages — is sourced in footnotes with URL links to the original material.

    • Gordon Graham on November 9, 2016 at 3:57 pm

      That’s a good start, Bob. But what if the web source gets taken down? That happens all the time as websites get reorganized. With no copy on file, the source is lost. That’s happened to me.

  3. John Cole on November 9, 2016 at 3:45 pm

    How does one apply this principle in the case of a study finding which is widely quoted in other sources, but whose original source, while referenced by those other sources, is impractical or impossible to obtain – a rare, out-of-print technical book or paper, for example, or a commercial research report whose cost exceeds the fee one has charged to write the white paper that will reference it?

  4. Neca on November 9, 2016 at 7:18 pm

    Gordon, I agree that providing source material is important. You made a point that there are often exaggerations, fantasies, and lies that must be checked. I would add it’s also important to check the context of a statement. I noticed your Rush Limbaugh quote, and having listened to him for years, know that quote was taken out of context and he was probably commenting about something or someone else. I’m not making a political argument, just saying that it’s also important to check the context to avoid causing a problem for a client.

    • Gordon Graham on November 19, 2016 at 6:33 am

      Thank you Neca, and I take your point. I removed that graphic about Limbaugh. I did hear him say virtually the same thing on the radio recently, but I couldn’t find the source for that. So out it goes.

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