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Writing a white paper is no easy task. If you’ve been asked to write one before, you know this is the case. And if this is your first attempt, you probably have a lot of questions.
Well-written and research-backed white papers can be powerful tools for earning trust with readers and building brand authority. However, marketers often churn them out with an assembly-line mentality, resulting in uninspired content that under-delivers.
Fortunately, you’re about to learn how to approach your project the right way, in order to get the best results. In this post, you’ll learn:
Plus much more. By the time you’re done reading, you’ll be ready to get started with confidence with advice based 100% on real-world experience.
In this post, we’ll dig into the nuts and bolts of writing effective white papers. But first, be sure to grab your free white paper template (Word format). Then, use it to put all the advice in this post into practice.
A white paper is a document that argues a specific position or solves a problem for its audience. While they originated as official government documents, companies, brands, and nonprofits of all types use them to establish topical authority. According to Purdue Owl:
Typically, the purpose of a white paper is to advocate that a certain position is the best way to go or that a certain solution is best for a particular problem. When it is used for commercial purposes, it could influence the decision-making processes of current and prospective customers.
Before you get too far along, you might decide a different format would work better to reach your audience and achieve your goals. Follow this graphic to help decide if writing a white paper is the best approach:
What does a white paper usually look like? They’re generally formatted as PDFs and look somewhat similar to an ebook or typical research report. Here’s an example:
Here are links to more samples:
Let’s figure out what you’re going to write about. This involves several steps.
Or, start by asking a few questions:
White papers are usually fairly long. The same outlining process you’d use for a shorter piece, like a blog post, will work here. You might need to make it a bit longer or more detailed, though, to avoid getting lost in your thoughts partway through. An effective white paper outline should include:
Beneath each sub-heading, include further bullet points clarifying exactly what you’ll write about. Know what you want to say before you try to say it. Consider the following elements:
Here’s what a hypothetical outline might look like:
Good white papers are fact-based and research-driven. You’re not here to throw your opinions out to the world without data to back them up. Depending on what you’re covering, you might get by with nothing more than Google and your company’s own insights. If you want to take things to the next level, though, you’ll need to do deeper research.
This is the most difficult option, but it can provide the most valuable results. If you have access to publically-available information, so does your competition. Original research you produced yourself, however, is uniquely powerful.
Here are just a few benefits to original research:
If you have the time and resources to do your own research study, Andy Crestodina of Orbit Media Studios has a fantastic guide to get you started.
Industry research reports can provide an excellent data-backed foundation for your content. Here are some potential sources to consider:
This can yield information and insight that will help you effectively build your case.
Wolfram Alpha calls itself a “computational knowledge engine.” What does that mean? It’s a search engine for facts and data with calculation functionality built in. It’s an extremely robust and powerful tool for research. They have plenty of help guides and resources to get you on your way. While this video is a bit old, it provides a high-level overview of what you can do with the tool:
Depending on your industry, there are several government websites that might be helpful. Here’s a handful to consider:
We’ve done a lot of things so far. Some of it even involved a little bit of writing. Mostly, though, we’ve spent our time getting ready to write.
Writing a white paper isn’t easy. You’re now staring down an intense and involved project. If you’re writing in an industry where you’re not a subject matter expert, then your preparation (outlining, researching, and working with internal or client SMEs) is going to be even more important.
You’ve got this, though. Flex those fingers, tap into your inner Hemingway, and let’s knock this thing out.
We’ve touched on this a little earlier, but it’s worth repeating here. While there are some similarities, writing a white paper isn’t quite like writing a blog post, case study, research report, grocery list, or … well, you get the point. It’s decidedly it’s own animal and should be treated as such.
White papers should be:
Your headline is the first thing that will sell your white paper to your audience. You want to write something that conveys clear value up front and gets them to click. However, you also want to avoid anything that could be perceived as click bait, or overly casual.
So, your headline should hit each of the following checkboxes:
If you’re going to create crap, just say up front you’re creating crap. Or better yet, don’t write your white paper at all. Commit to quality or stay home.
Let’s take a look at five hypothetical headline examples you can follow:
These examples aren’t wildly creative, but they all include at least one of the following:
Your intro should quickly hook your audience while covering the main points the rest of your document will cover. Here’s everything it should cover:
Once you’ve hooked a reader’s attention with your intro, you’ll want to keep it. So, make sure each section delivers on the promises you made in your introduction.
When you’re writing an (extremely) long-form piece, it can be easy to get lost. That’s why sticking to an outline is so important (and we do hope you spent some time putting one together). With thorough research and a strong outline in hand, you can make the actual writing exponentially easier.
Let’s look at a hypothetical outline:
How to Select a Veterinarian
If we were to write this section, we’d start with a paragraph about the importance of selecting a good veterinarian. We’d then dedicate a paragraph or two (or more) to each sub-point. Following this order will ensure your writing flows well from one point to the next in a logical order.
When writing each section, consider using bulleted lists to make text easy to skim. For example:
Continue until you’ve worked through each portion of your outline.
Your first draft of a large document like this won’t be perfect. So, it’s important to have a sound editing process in place. If your organization has another writer or editor on staff, then work together to polish your draft.
Know who your editor will be ahead of time and develop a set process. In our experience, it’s easiest to use tracked changes in Microsoft Word or Google Docs.
While editing a white paper (or anything), it’s important to edit for content, and not just spelling and grammar. This entails asking the following questions:
This isn’t to say correcting grammatical and spelling errors isn’t important. Far from it. However, it’s just as important (if not more so) to ensure the quality of your information is up to par as well.
If you’re fortunate enough to have a designer on your team, they’ll likely handle design and formatting for you. However, if you’re on your own, don’t worry! That’s why we included a free white paper template in this post. Here’s how to edit it and make it work for you. Start by filling in your title page (it looks like this):
Simple enough. Next, follow the instructions included in the template to fill in each content section:
Now, you might want to adjust the appearance of your fonts and headers. This is easy to do with Microsoft Word. All you have to do is edit your styles. Find the styles pane and right-click what you’d like to change. Let’s start with Normal:
Next, click Modify:
Now, you can change your standard paragraph text:
If you’d like to change your Heading 1, 2, and 3 styles, follow the same process.
Unless you happen to be a skilled designer, it will be best to have a designer create graphics for your white paper. Your designer is likely going to need some direction from you, though, so your work isn’t done yet.
While writing, think about what kinds of images you’d like. Make notes in your doc that include the following information:
That should be enough to give your designer an idea of what to create.
If your white paper is lengthy, you might want to consider a two-column layout. That’s because they’re easier to read and skim, thanks to shorter line length. And if your designer is good, you can get creative with how a multi-column layout might look. Check out this example from LinkedIn (email signup required):
If you’re working on your own, your template can easily be converted into a two-column layout. Highlight your text, find the Layout tab, and select either one or two columns:
You’ve put a ton of work into your white paper. Now, how do you get people to actually read it? The answer is with a comprehensive promotion plan.
The first thing you’ll need to decide is where your white paper is going to live. Do you host it on your website? Your blog? A landing page? There are pros and cons to each. Let’s cover each one:
It might be possible to combine approaches, too. For example, you could create a landing page for your white paper, link to it in a blog post, and then include the actual document in your resource library. That’s maximizing the exposure for your hard work.
If your email list is comprised primarily of professionals interested in the kind of research in your white paper, then send it to them. Keep these thoughts in mind:
Quality white papers take a lot of work to produce. So, make the most of it by repurposing its contents elsewhere. Here are a few ways to do this.
You can likely write an entire blog post based on each section of your white paper. This gives you the opportunity to drill deeper into each specific point. Plus, if you link back to your white paper in each post, you can direct more attention toward it.
Follow this process to help turn one small point into a much deeper and valuable blog post:
Do this for each piece of your white paper, and you’ll quickly have multiple pieces of content promoting your white paper. That’ll help you get the most mileage possible for your efforts.
You probably dug up tons of interesting stats and pieces of information while doing your research. Use that information in other content you write. For example, you could easily:
We’ve now guided you through all the steps to writing an effective white paper. With the information in this post, plus the included template, you should have everything you need to do the job right. Let’s recap quick:
This post was originally written on May 18, 2017. It was updated and republished on Nov. 18, 2019
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