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So you have to write a white paper…

Got a white paper project on your hands?

But you’re not sure where to begin?

Here’s a quick-start guide that explains all the basics, and points to some handy resources to help you avoid the most common pitfalls.

Why go back to basics now?

We’ve covered some advanced topics recently, so we wanted to change it up. We wanted to publish something that would help people new to the field. And a refresher for people who have written a few white papers already.

This article gives you all the best practices that are the keys to success in writing white papers.

hra[hic showing 3 phases of writing a white paper

The three Ps of writing a white paper

To get started, it’s important to understand that a white paper project has three main phases.

First you plan, then you produce the actual document, and finally your client promotes the finished white paper.

You can think of these as the “three Ps” of any white paper.

You can’t always tell this when you see a finished publication paper, but a white paper is a big, complex project with many people involved.

Beginning white paper writers often get a couple of surprises on their first project.

Surprise #1: Even though we call it “writing a white paper” the writing is only one of a dozen steps along the way. Few of these involve composing or revising text. Most of them involve something else.

Surprise #2: As the writer, it’s up to you to manage the project. Whether your client tells you or not, they’re pretty much counting on you for that. If you don’t do it, nobody else will.

So let’s take a deeper look at each of the three Ps.


Phase 1: Planning is vital, and doesn’t take long

icons for phase 1 of a white paper or planningEvery white paper should start with a friendly discussion to make sure you and your client are on the same page.

First, find the purpose

  • Why does the client want to publish a white paper, anyway?
  • What is the marketing challenge they’re trying to overcome?
  • What are they hoping to achieve for their organization?
  • How will they measure success?

The answers here serve as the compass to guide all your efforts.

Then get a fix on the intended audience

If the company has developed any personas to represent their key target markets, get them and study them.

If not, try to discover three key things about your readers:

  • Demographics: Facts such as age, education, job title, size of company, location of company, and anything else you can put a number on
  • Psychographics: Attitudes, hopes, and dreams, anything more qualitative than a number. See more on psychographics here.
  • Technographics: What device(s) will people use to view the white paper? That could be a desktop, laptop, tablet, smartphone, hard copy on paper, or some combination of all the above?

If there are several audience segments, go through this exercise for each one. But make sure you understand which is the primary audience.

And if your client doesn’t have any precise ideas about these, a guesstimate can be close enough. For example, if the audience will be a mix of people with all  different backgrounds, that’s good to know.

But if the audience will be 80% women in their 30s and 40s, that’s powerful.

For example, if your client intends to print out a few hundred copies of the white paper for an upcoming trade show, that’s good to know. That means the page design, big colorful graphics, and pagination will be important.

But if your client expects everyone will simply download the PDF and scroll through it on their screens, the pagination is less important. And the graphics may need to be smaller and simpler.

There’s no right and wrong answers here. The goal is simply for you to understand who you’re writing for.

Pinpoint the customer journey

You must learn how far along your primary audience is on their customer journey.

  • Are they at the start of the process, still exploring the range of possible solutions to a business problem?
  • Are they somewhere in the middle where some tips, advice and encouragement can help them focus their plans?
  • Are they near the end of their journey, ready to compare several competing vendors and choose one to go with?

Pick the right flavor

photos pf three types of ice cream cones to represent the three types of white papersKnowing all this, you can pick the perfect flavor for your white paper.

You may be familiar with my three ice cream flavors for white papers:

  • Strawberry for a numbered list, the most light-and-lively of all
  • Chocolate for a problem/solution, the most dense and long-lasting
  • Vanilla for a backgrounder, the most traditional and product-oriented type

Once you pick the right flavor for a white paper, you’ll know what to put in and what to leave out.

infographic on 3 flavors of white papers from White Papers For Dummies


For more details, I describe all this in depth in 100+ pages in my book, White Papers For Dummies.

For a condensed version, get my free 4-page infographic. Just click on the thumbnail to download the 4-page PDF. 

This PDF includes an overall section-by-section guide to what to include in a white paper of each different flavor. I often give this a quick glance whenever I start a new white paper.


Don’t skip this phase

You wouldn’t hire a contractor to build a house without any plans, right?

So if you skip planning and simply start writing, you’re taking a big risk.

The good news is that planning doesn’t take long. And the more you do, the faster you’ll get.

For example, to plan out a white paper, I usually need a one-hour phone call with my client, a few hours of web research, and a few minutes to stare off into space and think.

You can do all that inside of a week.

At the end of this phase, you can deliver a document several pages long that spells out a high-level plan for the white paper.


Phase 2: Production = creating the white paper

icon for phase 2 of a white paper: productionWith the planning all done, you’re ready to start creating the white paper. This includes several steps:

Remember that as the writer, it’s up to you to manage this process and bring everything together into a successful document.

I’ve found that if the writer doesn’t do it, nobody else will.

Document your sources

Research is hard, slogging work. A few writers try to get away with making up evidence or manufacturing quotes.

To reassure your client that you haven’t done that, carefully source and footnote all the facts and quotes in your draft white paper.

I go further: I submit a complete set of PDFs of all the sources I found on the web. That only takes a few minutes. And I believe it sets me apart from other writers.

Most writers provide URLs for their sources. That’s fine until a webpage is moved or taken down. What then?

And really, is a URL enough detail for a footnote? Most researchers don’t think so. That’s why proper footnotes include a lot more information than just a link.

Write carefully, and then rewrite

White papers are somewhere between marketing and journalism, somewhere between a well-researched academic article and a passionate call for action.

No one can dash off a first draft and think their writing job is complete. (So don’t procrastinate until you are backed up against the deadline. Start sooner rather than later and use this method.)

You must sleep after writing that first draft. Then rewrite, rethink, polish, and then sleep again. The next day, polish it some more. Have a trust partner or reader-friend go through it too. My wife, Angie, has been my “secret weapon” for almost a decade now and recently. As we’ve grown, she’s become the managing editor here.

All this to say, I routinely do four or five drafts of every section of every white paper before I deliver it.

You must make every word count. Make every word work hard. A white paper has no room for any lazy thinking or flabby writing. Give your client your very best, every time.

Work closely with the designer

At some point, you will hand off your text to a designer who will create the graphics and format the pages. For best results, work closely with them.

Some writers may say, “I’m a word person, not an artist. I’ll leave that to them.”

That’s not the best approach. Not every designer has worked on a white paper. They may have some very wrong-headed ideas about this type of document.

To help make the white paper a success, tell the designer about the audience you’re trying to reach. And provide them with:

  • Formatting hints typed right into your text file, like “Figure 1 goes here”
  • Rough sketches for possible graphics
  • Ideas for stock photos

Talk to the designer about the basic do’s and don’ts of white paper formatting.

If you do, you will help your white paper to succeed. If you don’t, you risk having it fail because it has become an unreadable wall of grey.

And don’t worry about being too pushy. No one likes to work in a vacuum.

In my experience, any truly professional designer will appreciate having a better idea of what you’re trying to achieve.

graphic designer working on a white paper

Be diplomatic with your client

At several points, your client will review your drafts to give you comments from themselves and their team.

Don’t be grumpy and defensive about their feedback. Every draft from every writer can be improved. The fact is, most comments won’t hurt a white paper.

To push back on something you see as seriously misguided, refer back to the purpose, audience, and scope you defined in the plan.

Phrase your responses with respect, something like: “I’m concerned that this will take away from the success of this white paper.” Not: “This will NEVER WORK!”

Refocus your client on promotion

You don’t want your client to waste their time micromanaging the writing, illustration, or design of the white paper.

Some clients think this is the fun, creative side of the project and they’d like to be super-involved. That’s understandable, but you’ve got this.

And they have better things to do that only they can do (hint: promotion.)

If necessary, try to refocus their efforts on their upcoming promotions. Those can be really fun and “creative” as well.

At the end of this phase, you want to deliver a finished white paper that your client can post on their website ready to download.


Phase 3: Promotion gets a white paper in front of the right people

icon for phase 3 of any white paper: promotionsPromotion is often overlooked by clients.

Some clients simply post the white paper to their website, check that item off their ToDo list, and wait for the downloads to start.

Does that sound like enough? Of course not.

In our noisy world, with hundreds of things competing for every prospect’s time and attention, your client needs to make sure your white paper gets noticed.

There are two types of promotions: direct and indirect.

Direct promotions

These tactics send a white paper straight to the inboxes of some key audiences:

  • Your client’s sales force
  • Your client’s channel partners
  • Any other stakeholders in the company
  • Every analyst, journalist, and blogger covering your client’s space

Indirect promotions

These tactics help get the white paper noticed by Google, so the search engine results show it to prospects interested in what it covers. This is one part planning and one part SEO.

Any white paper that ends up on the first page of Google for your client’s keywords is going to be a success. Any paper that doesn’t appear until page 5 or 10, not so much.

Must-do promotions

Some promotions are must-do, and some are optional depending on your client’s audience and your budget.

To learn the basic must-do promotions, download a free 18-point checklist you can share with your client.

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About Gordon Graham

Worked on 300 white papers on everything from choosing enterprise software to designing virtual worlds for kids, for clients from Silicon Valley to Switzerland, from household names like Google and Verizon to tiny startups with big ideas. Wrote White Papers for Dummies which earned more than 50 5-star ratings on Amazon. And named 2019 Copywriter of the Year by AWAI, the world's leading training organization for professional copywriters.

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  1. Wendy Howarter on April 17, 2019 at 10:54 am

    What a tremendously helpful explanation of the White Paper process. Thanks for breaking it down into logical steps and providing lots of supporting articles to flesh out the details. I guess that’s why you’re The White Paper Guy! I’m looking forward to meeting you next month in Delray Beach. Cheers!

  2. Zee Salinas on May 19, 2019 at 7:26 am

    Wow! Some great information, especially for a beginner like me. These points were explained quite clearly, and I’ll keep it nearby to refer to it again & again.

  3. Ruthie on May 27, 2019 at 12:10 pm

    I really enjoyed reading this post. I clicked over on the link about sourcing your sources. And that article was great too! This was great information as I prepare to do my first couple of white papers. I already purchased the book! So this makes me more excited to receive it!

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