Tutorial: how to write a white paper that works

white paper,how to write a white paper,tutorial,business writingWelcome to this HTWB tutorial on how to write good white papers.

In this series we go into some detail so, after reading, you’ve got all the skills you need to do it yourself – brilliantly.

As you know, white papers differ from articles a) because they’re much longer and b) because they’re supposed to be non-commercial studies, essays, reports and whatever.

There are several different theories about the origin of the term “white paper.” I’m not sure where its early roots are but certainly in British Parliament, I believe they are seen as discussion documents that eventually metamorphose into legislation. The “white paper” is an interim document that is developed from the initial “green paper,” after lengthy discussion.

Commercial or not?

Whatever the WP’s exact origins, it must have a relatively academic – if not governmental – ring to it. Essentially then, that means you can’t use them as overtly promotional vehicles for your products and/or services. WPs that are just about the features and benefits of product or service are brochures, not white papers, even if they are written in a vaguely scientific or editorial way.

Readers expect WPs to be impartial and will become pretty hostile towards you and your products/services if that impartiality appears to be missing.

Needless to say the reality is somewhat different and commerciality can creep in, as long as it’s very discreet. Commerciality to an obvious degree discredits your whole piece. However most people in the industrialized world recognize the fact that there is no such thing as a free lunch, so will tolerate an element of commercialism in white papers provided it is “tasteful.”

Choose issues of importance to your audience

When writing a WP your aim should be to set up a problem readers can identify with, examine the issues surrounding it (historical, current, future) and put forward various solutions and their pros and cons. That includes the solutions offered by your product or service, of course. But be fair about your competitors’ offerings.

As someone else once said, “in a white paper, present the facts – don’t make claims like advertisements do.” Analyse the problem and its issues as informatively as you can. Use examples to illustrate the facts, but keep them short. Lengthy examples are boring for a reader because they’re not about his or her own circumstances.

Impartial does not  mean dull and boring

A word of warning, though. No matter how technical or academic your white paper, never forget the golden writing rules of keeping it simple, short, crisp and uncluttered. Box off sections of highly technical data, graphs, charts, figures, etc. Avoid using more than essential online links, especially in view of the fact that many of your audience will be reading offline.

Know your audience – make sure whatever jargon and technical language you use will be understood readily. If you are a technical person and/or an inexperienced writer yourself, try to find a good business writer to have a look at what you have written, smooth over any rough parts, and edit the text so it reads well.

Grab audience’s attention and keep it. No matter how important and relevant your WP is, readers will switch off and get bored if it’s:

  • white paper,how to write a white paper,tutorial,business writing

    White papers should never be dull, boring, overworded, pompous, or badly written.


  • Over-worded
  • Pompous
  • Devoid of “action” verbs and phrases
  • Badly spelled and punctuated
  • Grammatically awful
  • Full of long sentences and paragraphs
  • Without subheadings

This article of mine gives you some detailed tips on writing style and content – check it out if you need some help.

Formatting white papers

White papers are more often downloaded as PDF files or similar and sometimes then printed out to be read later. In theory, then, you don’t have to be quite so careful to structure and style your material to be read from a screen. However people do read white papers on screen, so you need to put them together in a way that works across both media.

If you’re writing a WP to go on someone else’s website, they may well want you to set it up and format it their way. In that case all you may need to do is submit a word-processed document. If you think they may use it as is, though, set it up in an eyeball-friendly font like Times New Roman or Verdana. Bump it up to 14 point and then use bold and one or two colors – no more than that – to cheer it up and emphasize things. This way it will be friendly to read on a screen, but will look OK when printed out, too.

How long is too long?

Experts’ opinions vary a lot on what is the ideal length for a white paper. Personally I don’t think there is an ideal length. The right length depends entirely on the subject matter and the depth into which you need to go to present the whole thing.

Mind you, you don’t want to write a book here. The word count for a white paper shouldn’t really be more than 10,000 words (about 35-40 typewritten A4 pages) and ideally no more than about 5,000. The longer the white paper the more important it is to break the text up into digestible chunks with plenty of subheadings. That way readers can scan the document and get a feel for its content very quickly.

Planning and structure

The best way to approach writing your white paper is the same as with any other long document; careful planning. The more time you invest in planning it carefully a) the easier it will be to write up in full and b) the more effective and valuable it will be as a finished document.

It’s impossible to give you a template that will work for everything, but here is a skeleton that you can probably adapt to suit most WP requirements:

  1. Introduction (why you’re writing this WP)
  2. Overview (short analysis/summary of the major problem you’re tackling)
  3. History (background to present day circumstances)
  4. The problem today (from the readers’ point of view)
  5. Additional challenges (allied problems in readers’ marketplace or field)
  6. Available solutions (overview of solution types)
  7. Specific product/service offerings (yes, yours goes in here along with the rest!)
  8. Which product/service offerings haven’t/don’t work and why (substantiated by facts)
  9. Which product/service offerings do work and why (also substantiated)
  10. Future related problems and issues, and possible solutions
  11. Conclusion

Quoting from other documents etc

If you quote other white papers, books, articles and other reference resources be sure to attribute them to their original authors and publishers. And even if the documents concerned are “in the public domain” it’s a good idea to seek the original authors’ permission for the quotes to be used.

blog,writing,news,blogging,business,#blogversationI have never been refused when doing this; people are normally quite happy to be quoted, especially if you include the URL for their website. The advantage of doing this (even if you don’t need to) is that the people you quote are then likely to help publicise your WP – and may point you towards more useful background information when you contact them.


Once you have written your WP in crisp, non-publicising style, edit it carefully so you remove all extraneous content. Useful detail is great; padding and waffle are not.

Good luck!