Writing a white paper is a daunting task:
It must be based on research and driven by data, but how should you go about collecting that data?
And the data must be presented within a well-written narrative arc, but how do you structure such an arc?
Finally, the data and narrative must be framed by professional formatting, but how is that done?
Questions like these make creating a white paper the hardest kind of content to get right. It’s easy to get lost before you even begin your white paper writing.
But we’re going to make the white paper process simple for you.
In this post, we’ll walk you through your white paper planning, white paper structure, and white paper format.
We have broken this down into six major steps to creating a white paper:
Before we begin, let’s clarify what we mean by “white paper.”
There is a lot of confusion over what a white paper is and isn’t. And with the uptick in content marketing over the years, the lines have gotten blurry between ebooks, reports, and white papers.
So, for the purposes of this post, we define a white paper as: a document that uses research to argue for a specific solution to a problem. A white paper should enable the reader to not only thoroughly understand a problem, but make an informed decision on how to solve it.
This definition is based on a combination of our experience here at Magnnetic and the original intention behind writing white papers.
With that being said, there is no one “right” way when it comes to how to make a white paper. So, you have plenty of leeway in how you implement this post. But if you want a sure-fire method for how to create a white paper that gets results, we suggest you trust this process.
When you begin your white paper planning, trying to choose your topic can feel like the whole world lies before you. Yet, instead of being liberating, such freedom can be suffocating.
How do you choose? Especially when your topic is the difference between a great white paper and a dud?
A strong topic must be narrow enough to be interesting and relevant, yet broad enough to allow for adequate research. There are three things to consider during your white paper planning to give you an idea of where to focus.
Who are your ideal customers? What are their major pain points as it relates to your industry?
Think of your past customers and what insights you gained from working with them. Did you find opportunities to educate them on particular things during the sales process? Are there recurring questions?
If you have a sales team, they are a great resource to consult with since they’re on the front lines. Ask them about any common gaps in knowledge between prospects and your product/industry.
What is your product’s unique position in the marketplace? Do you have a particular service that highlights your expertise? Can you expand upon those unique traits to show why your product/service is fundamentally better at solving a major pain point of your audience?
The use of focus groups here can also help reveal insights you hadn’t considered. This would be a guided group discussion about the advantages/disadvantages of your product as it relates to the problems in your industry. You can do these yourself or hire a research firm to conduct focus groups on your behalf
Check the white paper contents of other companies in your industry? Do you see any knowledge gaps that haven’t been adequately covered? Are there any opportunities to build on existing content?
The modern age is remarkable in that we have immediate access to all the world’s information. But that also makes it messy, especially when it comes to writing white papers.
Sure, we can instantly look up how to make a grilled cheese, but doing in-depth research to prepare a white paper is much more cumbersome.
Yet, knowing how to prepare a white paper using modern research methods is a necessity. An effective white paper will require solid evidence in the form of data, statistics, and reputable sources.
Below are several resources and ideas you can use to collect that kind of research:
Interviewing topic experts can be great a great way to get fresh insights from an authoritative source. To find them, you could reach out to your professional network or even use someone from within your company.
Professionally researched data from firms like Forrester or Gartner can provide a fantastic foundation for your white paper writing. However, the disadvantage of publicly available reports is that your competition also has access to it.
Original research is far more powerful. It’s costly, in terms of both time and money, but if you can afford it, it’s the best way we know how to make a white paper that has an impact. To carry this out, you will need to contract your own research firm, preferably one with experience in your particular industry.
Case studies are an excellent thing to include in your white paper contents. They bring data to life for your readers. Your content is much more effective when you can show the impact of your product/service on a real business.
However, this needs to be treated the same as any other data. Collect real figures and stats from past clients and let the data do the talking without being overly promotional.
While an interview is ideal, if your industry has any recognized leaders or big names, then even just a quote from them can add a lot of weight. A quote is a lot easier to obtain than an interview and it’s possible you can take it from something they’ve already said.
Internal research refers to any data your company collects from its own audience or user base. This could include surveys, polls, or general questionnaires. If your company has a sizable email list, this can be a cost-effective way to gather original data.
Figuring out a white paper’s structure can be a tricky step. Unlike the other steps in the white paper process, you’ll have no idea where to start unless you already have experience writing white papers.
As such, a common issue seen in novice (and even some professional) white paper writing is leaning on data as a crutch without maintaining interest throughout the document.
While white papers are more dense than most pieces of content, a huge part of learning how to write a white paper is making sure it gets read. And the best way to do that is by creating a narrative arc, similar to one you’d find in a non-fiction piece.
A standard narrative arc has five phases, but a white paper structure requires only three:
Exposition: This sets the stage for your white paper. The problem and its background are introduced along with any supporting information.
Climax: This is where the impact of the problem is made real with stats and figures and combated with high-level solutions.
Resolution: This is the ‘ta-da!’ moment where the reader receives a specific, actionable solution to resolve the problem.
A good arc is fundamental when planning a white paper if you want it to engage readers from start to finish and deliver an effective conclusion. But thinking about it in the above terms is much too vague to be actionable.
So, let’s see how this applies to your white paper by breaking down the anatomy of a white paper’s structure:
When considering your white paper’s structure, the title is often an afterthought. This is a risky mistake.
In the copywriting world, the title is regarded as the single most important part of any piece of content. As legendary ad man David Ogilvy once said:
It would benefit you to think of your white paper’s title as having similar importance.
The title is the first impression your audience will have of your white paper. So, it needs to pack a punch and entice them to read further.
Remember, however, that you will need to support your title with facts and data. If you are unable to do so, then choose another title.
Here are some good examples of white paper titles:
Transforming a Data Swamp into a Clear Business Advantage
The Role of Cybersecurity in Enterprise Risk Management
From ‘Bricks to Clicks’ – Navigating the Retail Revolution
These examples work because they call out a specific problem of the target audience and strongly hints that the answer to their problem will be found inside.
Your white paper’s introduction sets up the broader context for the main body. It provides an overview and any requisite background information the reader may need. Like the title, this section should pique the interest of your target audience to entice them to read on.
The introduction should include two main sections:
The overview is also known as an abstract, synopsis, or executive summary. It should summarize the key points of your white paper and detail the main benefits of reading the white paper.
This is particularly important in your white paper structure because people often only read the overview and conclusion of a white paper. So, the benefits that you mention here need to give them a good reason to read the white paper.
Also, this is not the place to provide solutions. You need to encourage your readers to read to the end, so save the best for last!
This sets up the main body by providing any background information the reader will need to grasp the problem and the solution.
You can discuss what has led up to the current state of affairs as it relates to the modern-day problem addressed by your solution. Or, you can discuss a social or economic issue as it relates to an operational challenge your audience may have.
The body of your white paper will make up the bulk of your white paper structure. It must thoroughly establish the problem, then provide a thorough look at the solution. You can think of it as being made up of three sections:
Your discussion of the problem will be a detailed and thorough examination of an issue that’s holding back your target audience. It should represent an opportunity to significantly increase revenues, operational efficiency, workplace productivity, or anything else that aligns with your solution and appeals to your target audience.
You’ll need to back this up with data and cited sources, so here is where you’ll really start integrating your research into your white paper’s contents .
Your review of the problem should be detailed enough to convince your target audience that you truly understand them and the issues they face. This helps position you as an authority that “gets it” and is best able to provide a solution.
The high-level solution is a general plan of action. It should be your solution in its most basic, general form.
For example, if your company sells enterprise software, you’d put forth your general type of software as the high-level solution, not your particular software.
Use your gathered evidence to support and elaborate on the benefits of the high-level solution. It’s good to acknowledge the efficacy of other solutions, but emphasize why they are inferior to your proposed solution.
A persuasive technique you could use in this section is to include a kind of “buyer’s guide.” Detail the key qualities your audience should look for when considering a specific solution. The qualities you define should align with your company, but at a high-level without getting into the specifics of your offering. This sneakily eliminates the competition by setting the standard against which they will be judged.
This is where you get to pitch your particular product or service; however, it can be difficult to transition from a high-level discussion to a very specific one about your product/service without seeming too self serving.
The best way to frame this without coming across as overly promotional is to simply refer back to the high-level solution and detail how they’d go about implementing it using a specific solution (i.e. your solution).
Then, get specific about why your solution is the most capable of solving the problem. While you should never bad mouth your competition, you should draw distinctions. The goal is to convince your audience that your product/service is go-to solution for the problem.
This is perhaps the simplest part of writing a white paper. Your white paper’s conclusion will simply review the problem, recap the solution, and give the reader a few key takeaways.
Use this section to tell your audience who you are. To make an impact, you need to be able to tie the nature of your company to why you are uniquely positioned to solve your industry’s problem.
If you choose to include this section, it’s the perfect place to put a call to action that invites your reader to take the next step in your sales process, such as a consultation.
In any other part of your white paper’s structure, a call to action can come off as too promotional, but here, it’s expected.
Also known as a bibliography, this section is unique to white papers as far as content marketing goes. While including one in any other piece of content might be merely a suggestion, in a white paper they are usually necessary.
White papers hinge on data and credibility, so you need a good number of sources and a reference page to list them. Readers should be able to quickly locate specific sources for further research.
To easily compose your list, you can use Chegg’s citation generator.
Few things are more intimidating that facing a blank screen and thinking about the thousands of words ahead of you. We suspect that’s the biggest obstacle to a good white paper.
But that’s why we broke down the white paper structure in Step 3. Now, you can use that structure as the outline for your own white paper and simply fill in each section.
We’ve even created a white paper template you can reference to make this process easier. Approaching your white paper as one small section logically followed by another makes it a lot easier to tackle.
As you write a white paper, you need to maintain an informational, almost-academic tone.
However, more important than that, is to keep your audience in mind. Different intended audiences will have different backgrounds and perspectives.
Whereas an engineer might be more concerned with technical aspects, a manager may want to know how things benefit the company. Or, if your audience is made up of laypersons, you’ll want to avoid the kind of industry jargon you might use with industry veterans. Or, an audience of busy executives short on time may require simpler takeaways and summaries for each section.
So, the more you know who you’re talking to, the better! You’ll want to consider things such as their professional backgrounds, education levels, rank within the organization, and degree of expertise.
Knowing these things help you to define your voice, form your arguments, and even narrow the scope of your white paper research.
As you include your research in the white paper, be sure to cite your sources within your content. There is no standard for white papers, so you can use MLA, APA, or Chicago Style citations. Here’s a good primer of how you’d cite your sources in-text with APA:
The task of translating complex technical information and dense jargon into an engaging narrative with clear language not only makes writing a white paper hard, but editing it a downright challenge.
When reviewing your work, ask yourself questions like:
Then, pass the white paper around to your colleagues to get some fresh eyes on it. This may even give you an idea of some parts your can add or remove.
After you’ve done you’re own proofreading, we recommend you bring in a professional: hire a copy editor.
Copy editors are paid to tear apart your work and rake over it with a fine-toothed comb. And they are totally worth it. They’ll find things you and your colleagues never could and your white paper will emerge as a much better, tighter piece of work.
If you’re determined to do your own copy editing, then you could always enlist the help of the following sites to help with grammar and readability:
People don’t read white papers for fun. Reading them is work.
So, no one is going to curl up and read it with bated breath like they would a good novel. They will scan and skip around. This is why your white paper’s format and design is a crucial aspect of reader engagement.
If your white paper is a wall of boring text, peoples’ eyes will glaze over as soon as they hit the page. Just as your white paper’s written elements must follow a compelling narrative arc, your design must use engaging visual storytelling.
Formatting a white paper properly brings attention to your salient points and makes it easier to follow and understand. Things like headings, bullets, callouts, and graphics emphasize important information while choices of colors, fonts, layouts, and placements help bring complex information and relationships to life.
While word processors like Microsoft Word are easy to write in, they are not built for design and are especially bad for formatting a white paper. So, you’ll need to transfer the contents of your white paper to a design software like Adobe InDesign to get a beautiful white paper format.
Since white papers contain a lot of text and visual elements, we don’t recommend trying to design it yourself unless you have prior experience formatting a white paper or other documents. Instead, consider working with a graphic designer that has experience with white papers. Or, try a professional white paper design service like us.
Regardless, the most important thing is that your white paper looks polished and professional. An amateurish design and poor formatting will only hurt your company’s credibility—the exact opposite of what you want your white paper to do.
A white paper that’s thoroughly researched, well written, and well designed is explosively powerful for your business.
It will establish your authority in your industry, position your solution as the best answer to your audience’s problem, and generate plenty of interest and leads. That’s why white papers consistently rank as the most valuable and shared type of content among B2B buyers.
And, by using the white paper process in this guide, you will no longer miss out. You’ll be able to take your white paper from blank canvas to masterful piece of content. It won’t be easy, but the rewards will be worth it for years to come.