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What is a white paper, anyway?

Ask any 10 people this question and you’ll likely get 12 different answers.

Here is the best short definition I’ve ever found, after years of looking: a white paper is a persuasive essay.

To expand on that a little, a white paper is a persuasive essay that uses facts and logic to promote a recommended solution to a certain problem.

Beyond that, I’ve heard white papers described as:

a question mark on a sheet of white paper

  • A manifesto on solving a problem
  • A “bait-piece
  • A “buzz-piece
  • The glue that holds together a campaign
  • An information widget to promote a company
  • A way to freeze-dry your ideas
  • A document that is all things to all people

Clearly none of these exotic definitions quite do the trick.

Instead, I like to think about the problem/solution white paper that has evolved over the past 15 years or so.

The content of a problem/solution white paper provides useful information for readers seeking to understand an issue, solve a problem, or do their jobs better.

This can include explaining a certain product, service, technology or methodology.

The form of a problem/solution white paper is somewhere between a technical manual and a glossy brochure… somewhere between a dry-as-dust academic paper and a magazine article in Scientific American.

So there you have it, in a nutshell:

A problem/solution white paper is a persuasive essay, sponsored by a certain organization to provide helpful information about overcoming a certain problem, and formatted to look something like a magazine article.

Of course, there are other types of white papers too, most notably a product backgrounder and a numbered list.

To find out more about these other types, see “How to pick the perfect flavor for your next white paper.

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About Gordon Graham

Worked on 320+ white papers for clients from Silicon Valley to Switzerland, on everything from choosing enterprise software to designing virtual worlds for kids, for clients from tiny startups to 3M, Google, and Verizon. Wrote White Papers for Dummies which earned 60+ 5-star ratings on Amazon. Won 16 awards from the Society for Technical Communication. Named AWAI 2019 Copywriter of the Year.

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