May 17, 2011
White Papers: What You Need to Know
White papers are a form of corporate writing that falls somewhere between journalistic articles and marketing materials. At the recent American Society of Journalists and Authors (ASJA) annual conference in New York, three professional white-paper writers discussed the ins and outs of writing white papers, including what they are, what writers should be asking before taking the assignment, and tips for writing them.
- Susan B. Weiner, CFA, writes and edits articles, white papers, investment commentary, Web pages, and other communications for leading investment and wealth management firms. Her credits include AdvisorPerspectives.com, Bottom Line/Personal, CFA Magazine, Financial Planning, Journal of Financial Planning and Louis Rukeyser’s Mutual Funds.
- Randy B. Hecht is a bilingual (English/Spanish) reporter and editorial consultant whose clients include print and online media, corporations, NGOs and foundations in the U.S., Latin America, Europe, Africa and Asia. “Unconquered,” her book about contemporary indigenous people in Latin America, will be published in 2012. Her portfolio also includes magazine articles, multilingual Web portals, blog posts, annual reports, public policy studies and white papers.
- Pamela Oldham is a 25-year veteran and award-winning marketing communications writer and reader advocate who has written dozens of white papers for Fortune 500 companies, leading nonprofits and government agencies. She specializes in translating technical and highly complex concepts into terms easily understood by non-technical audiences. Her marketing communications clients have included Verizon, Spring/Nextel, Merkle, AT&T, CognitiveDATA, US Navy, the EPA and many others. Her business, marketing and consumer credits include The Washington Post, Family Circle, Deliver Magazine, Direct Marketing News, MSN.com and others.
Following are highlights from the presentation.
WHITE PAPERS DEFINED
According to Oldham, white papers are the most frequently downloaded media type, the most utilized to evaluate new technology, and the most effective in delivering return on investment.
White papers are an attractive market for writers because they pay well, said Weiner. And because they are used by a variety of organizations — companies, nonprofits, government agencies, think tanks — there are a wide range of prospects.
There are three characteristics of a white paper:
- Provides unbiased information and analysis
- Presents a problem and a solution
- Proposes and argues in favor of a solution to the problem, based on sound research.
The standard format is:
- Opening summary
- Explanation of the problem
- Suggested solution
- Closing summary
- Signature (author’s bio, company profile)
- Contact information
White papers are typically 7-10 pages long (including graphics, so about 5 pages of text). Highly technical papers can be as long as 20 pages.
There are often several individuals involved in the white-paper process, including a project manager, subject-matter experts, the writer, an editor and proofreader, and an illustrator or designer.
Keep in mind that you will not get a byline on a white paper, as you are ghostwriting for the organization.
WRITING WHITE PAPERS
Before beginning the writing process, make sure to define the assignment. What is the objective? What is the topic? Who is the target reader? What is the problem that will be addressed? What is the proposed solution? Is there any primary research on the topic?
Oldham suggests compiling a statement of work (SOW) to help with the logistics of the project and avoid any misunderstandings on the scope of the project. Define what is expected:
- How many pages, words
- How many revisions, rounds of editing
- How many interviews to be conducted
- How many sidebars, call-outs, and where will they appear
- Who will create graphics
- Deadline (typical time frame is 30-45 days, minimum)
Once you’re ready to write the paper, you’ll want to follow these nine steps:
- Assess needs
- Have a kickoff meeting
- Acquire information
- Integrate content and layout
- Organize content
- Review, revise and approve
Oldham shared the following tips for writing white papers:
- Write clearly and concisely. Avoid jargon, buzzwords and other “insider” language.
- Write in the third person and mirror the client’s voice and personality. Make sure the white paper makes a compelling case for the reader. “Be a reader advocate!”
- Address readers with the least knowledge about the subject. Use visuals (call-outs, sidebars) to keep readers interested.
- Use good journalistic practices, including taking the steps necessary to fact-check your sources.
- Stick with the facts and real-life examples. Avoid including opinions or editorializing, and resist attempts to include unsubstantiated claims. When possible, cite third-party information, which can bolster your credibility and demonstrates depth of knowledge.
- If factual descriptions of a client’s products/services are included as part of the solution, present them in the last third of the white paper, to enhance credibility and keep the reader with you.
- Resist the urge to write in a promotional voice. You want to convey information, not sales pitch.
- Practice the craft of writing white papers, and stay up-to-date on techniques. Read other white papers.
If you are not already an experience white-paper writer, you will need to sell yourself as a writer in this specialized area.
Not all organizations will require previous experience writing white papers. Some will accept reports you’ve written or other writing assignments that required investigating a topic or helping readers understand a difficult topic.
Figure out what your best niche is and target those topics and industries in which you have high-level expertise, said Hecht. “Don’t position yourself as a writer who can cover any topic; generalists are a poor fit for white papers.”
Target those sectors that are most aligned with your area(s) of expertise. Market out to existing clients in those sectors, including agencies and custom publishers. Look beyond corporate clients to government agencies, NGOs, research institutes, hospitals, professional associations, etc.
Don’t be afraid to use your connections, advised Hecht. If you already have corporate clients, think of some areas for a white paper and see if they would benefit from it. When talking to editors, ask them if they have a corporate group you can contact to see if they have a need for white papers. If you write in a certain industry, contact a professional association in that industry.
You can also work through a marketing firm or PR agency that corporations contract for white papers.
It’s also important to network with people in the industry for which you want to write white papers. “Don’t just network with other writers,” said Hecht. “Get known as someone who knows the industry.”
Writer Maria Perez is director of news operations for ProfNet, a service that helps journalists connect with expert sources. To read more from Maria, including recaps from other ASJA panels, visit her blog on ProfNet Connect at http://www.profnetconnect.com/profnetmaria/blog/
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