July 13, 2020 How to write a white paper

By Melinda Jennings

person holding a Samsung Galaxy tablet and white papers

Writing a white paper isn’t for the faint-hearted. If it’s your first time writing one (which, if you’re reading this, it likely is), you might be feeling a tad nervous.

There’s no need to stress though – that’s what we’re here for. We’ve put together this killer guide on how to write a white paper that people will actually want to read. At the end of all this, you’ll hopefully find that the effort you put in is well worth the reward. Done well, and you’ll be able to stand out from the rest of your field as a bonified expert.

If it all seems too difficult still, you can always get in touch with us. We’ve got some seriously skilled white paper writers here at Avion Communications – get in contact with us today to find out more.

What is a white paper?

A white paper is a comprehensive and authoritative guide or report on a specific issue or topic. It delves into a problem (for example, ‘How to keep your business cyber-secure’) and then helps the reader to better understand the issue, solve the problem, or assist them in making a decision. A good white paper also takes into account the various factors that have either led to the issue occurring, or provide historical and societal context.

The purpose of a white paper

The best kind of white paper is both topical and relatable. This is why choosing the topic and issue that you want to explore is so crucial. If people can’t see the benefit of reading your white paper, well… they probably won’t read it.

When executed well, a white paper can engage readers and educate them on a topic that’s either aligned with their interest, or critical to their business. And if you can engage someone through your white paper, you stand to position yourself (or your business) as an authority on the topic.

Elevating yourself as an expert is a great way to stand out from the crowd. Depending on your personal or business goals, there are tonnes of benefits to being seen as an expert within your field.

Hot tips for writing a white paper people actually want to read

So, onto the meaty stuff – actually writing a white paper that will hook people in and keep them reading. Before you start staring down a blank Microsoft Word document, there’s a fair bit of pregame work to be done.

Again, it’s a bit of effort, but it can certainly pay off.

Step 1: Select a topic

To motivate someone to read through an entire white paper, you’ll need a strong topic. Something that engages readers right off the bat, and something they relate to on a level that motivates them to read on.

For that reason, you’ll need to put a fair amount time and effort into the topic selection portion of the task. As someone equipped to write a white paper, hopefully you’ve already got a pretty good grasp on what that might be. But dig deeper than simply, “this topic will do.” This can involve:

  • Figuring out your specific target market (i.e. who you’re writing for).
  • Researching what topics interest your audience. This can involve conducting interviews, doing keyword research to see what people search for on Google, and undergoing an audit of your business’ customer service queries.
  • Thinking about the kinds of problems you or your business can solve through your product or service offering. If that can be expanded out into a problem complex enough for an entire white paper, you might be onto a winner.

Step 2: Research

Did you think you were already done with the research? Oh, no. We’re just getting started!

If you want to be authority on a subject (and have your white paper taken seriously), you’ll need to put the hard yards in. Other white papers are a fantastic resource for research, as long as you remember you’re not supposed to be doing a copy and paste job.

The real skill in researching is being able to analyse it. Although you might be looking at information that’s readily accessible by anyone with an Internet connection, the key difference you can make is in how you interpret and apply the data to your white paper.

You can also consider doing your own research. Primary research can be time-consuming, but it can also give that extra pop of uniqueness and authority to your white paper. Some options for doing your own investigating include:

  • Surveying your customers or target audience.
  • Interviewing experts in your field, which may even include people within your business.
  • Putting together focus groups (or hiring a third-party company to do so for you).

Step 3: Map out your outline and white paper format

Now that you’ve got the topic and research sorted, it’s time to start putting your masterpiece together. When tackling such a hefty piece of writing, it’s important to get the bones right.

The format of a white paper generally goes:

  1. Introduction/Abstract: This should hook your audience in, help them understand what they’re about to read, and motivate them to do so (no pressure). You should include an overview of what the issue or problem is that your white paper explores, and the key points you’re going to tackle. You should also tell your readers how they benefit from reading on – make it clear what’s in it for them.
  2. Background: Here’s your chance to give your readers more context or history to the topic you’re discussing in your white paper. As well as providing a background to the topic at hand, you can use this space to discuss your own process writing the white paper (i.e. how you came to choose the topic, how you conducted original research, etc.)
  3. Solution: After setting up your readers with a solid understanding of the issue, it’s time to give them what they came for – the solution. This can be spread out across various subsections, but should be a clear, comprehensive, and satisfying response to the issue you’re discussing.   
  4. Conclusion: Don’t forget to round it all out with a conclusion, where you summarise the points you’ve made. You can also use this space to make recommendations, if that fits your white paper.

When mapping out your outline, remember to also keep accessibility at the front of your mind. Ask yourself, how easy is it for people to scroll through this white paper if they’re on their mobile phone? Are the sections spelled out clearly? Could someone using a screen reader skip through the white paper easily to find what they’re looking for?

If you want to learn more, check out our interview with an expert on web accessibility.

Step 4: Edit, edit, edit

After you’ve written the final full stop on that page, breathe a sigh of relief. But don’t breathe too long – you’ve still got a heap of editing to do.

You should go over your white paper with fine toothcomb to find potential areas you can sharpen and ensure you’re explaining things in the best possible way. And, of course, you need to look out for pesky spelling and grammar errors. There’s no quicker way to discredit your expertise than to mix up their/they’re/there.

It can be useful to have a second pair of eyes look over your work, too. Whether that’s a trusted friend, experienced colleague, or skilled copywriter, you might be surprised what you’ve missed on your own.

Step 5: Choose the design

Boring copy slapped on a plain background ain’t no one’s idea of a fun time. The design of your white paper can really make or break it, particularly how much people engage with it.

There are many white paper design templates available out there, both free and paid. Or, you can go straight to a professional designer and let them do their magic.

Whatever you decide to do, don’t skip over this part. It’s a sad reality that all those pretty words you wrote probably won’t be given a second look if you don’t have an equally professional design to match.

That’s it! You’re ready to write your white paper

Writing a white paper isn’t a walk in the park, but as we’ve also already mentioned, the benefits it can have are well worth it.

And while the idea of writing a white paper gives some people a headache, it’s where the team at Avion Communications thrive. If you’d like to learn more about how we can produce exceptional white papers for you and your business, don’t hesitate to get in touch!