Writing a White Paper Like a Pro: 9 Essential Steps for Success

Writing a white paper is the heavyweight bout of content creation. And just like boxing, crafting a white paper requires strategy, finesse, and a game plan. It’s not just about throwing punches — it’s about knowing the right time to jab with statistics, slip in case studies, and use compelling insights and analysis to deliver a decisive hook. Execute it well and your white paper can position your brand as an industry champion who’s adept at addressing your customers’ needs.

Creating this type of content is more of an art than a science, but there are general guidelines you can follow to help you out along the way. Here are some tips for writing a white paper, from choosing a topic to sharing your content with the world.

1. Choose a compelling topic

White paper topics should focus on things people actually want to read about. This seems obvious, but finding the right topic can be your biggest challenge. First, figure out who your audience is; who are you trying to reach? Then, choose an issue that’s interesting to them — perhaps a common problem they’re faced with, or a case study of successful companies in your industry.

Contently recently helped a staffing agency put together a white paper on the current talent landscape. It offered data and insights on how to attract talent, interview candidates, onboard employees, and keep staff happy for the long run. That’s exactly the type of insight the agency’s audience of employers needs to help fill roles. Plus, the white paper positioned the staffing agency as a go-to expert on talent recruitment.

You don’t need to reinvent the wheel to find white paper topics that will resonate with your audience. Take a look at the topics of content you’ve already created, like blogs, social media posts, and podcast episodes, for inspiration.

2. Write an outline

While you might be able to wing it with a blog post, long-form content like white papers require more planning. Knowing how to write a white paper outline can help you organize your content in a coherent way and make sure you cover the topic thoroughly.

Here are some common sections of white papers you can consider including in your outline:

  • Executive summary
  • Introduction and background
  • Description of the problem (or problems) the paper will address
  • Solutions
  • Recommendations
  • Conclusions
  • References

Making sure your white paper is organized upfront can save you a lot of time at the writing stage. It will help you focus on exactly what you need to cover and where.

3. Gather your references

Writing a white paper requires you to use a variety of different materials to make your points clearly and effectively. Gather up everything you’ll need to lay out the problem and proposed solutions. This can include:

  • Case studies
  • Surveys
  • Internal data
  • Industry reports
  • Research from third parties
  • Historical information
  • Academic studies

Some brands also include quotes from their executives or leaders to emphasize points and expertise in their white papers. If that’s a strategy that makes sense for your content, this would be a good time to conduct interviews or ask for quotes.

Having your research and references ready to go can streamline the writing process. You can focus your attention on craft and form rather than trying to dig up another source. Keep the materials organized by subtopic and where you expect to use them in your outline.

4. Craft an attention-grabbing intro

Be captivating when writing a white paper introduction. You want to catch people’s attention right off the bat. Pique their interest, and then tell them what they’re going to learn by reading your white paper. This means writing a summary of your white paper and including an organized list of topics.

Emphasize the value you will create. Your white paper is not a billboard for your business — it is an opportunity to create an image of expertise and insight that will help your readers.

Not sure where to start? Take a look at the most compelling statistics you found in your research. You can use a staggering number that illustrates the problem you’re covering or solution you’re proposing as the hook for your introduction.

5. Start writing

Armed with a body of research and a captivating introduction, you’re ready to start writing a white paper. Get your thoughts down while they are still fresh in your mind. Just start writing.

Your white paper can be as little as five to six pages long or extend well beyond 25 pages, depending on the subject matter and depth of the content. If you’re used to writing shorter pieces of content, it can feel overwhelming to try to fill all those pages.

That’s where your outline can come in handy, though. Think of each section as its own mini piece of content.

Be descriptive and professional. Writing a white paper is not the same as writing a blog. You need to use a business writing style and be fairly descriptive.

In your conclusion, explain how your company can help. If you are selling a product or service that will help your readers, make sure to mention it at the end. You shouldn’t use the body of the white paper to sell your product or service, so make sure to use a catch that is naturally incorporated when you summarize the paper.

Don’t worry about editing until you have completed the draft. You will have no problem going back and making everything flow well afterward. If you can’t think of ways to make a smooth transition between sections in your first draft, you can add them later.

6. List your sources

Citing your sources is not only important for crediting the sources of the research you used — it also helps establish transparency and credibility to your white paper. Showing that you looked at high-quality reports and research helps build trust with your audience.

You have a few different options for citing sources in a white paper. For its white paper, “Why Learning is Pivotal to Business Transformation,” Conduent used footnotes at the bottom of each page. This method gives white papers a more academic feel without interrupting the flow of the text.

You could cite your sources at the end in a “references section.” While this minimizes visual distractions in your white paper, it comes with the trade-off of forcing readers to flip to the end to see where you got your material.

Some white papers opt to use in-text citations. It’s a more editorial style that can make your white paper read like a magazine story. However, it adds a lot of extra words to the text, so avoid this method if you have tons of sources to cite.

The method you use depends on the style of your white paper and your audience. But as long as you cite your sources clearly and consistently, you’re in good shape.

7. Proofread your white paper

After writing your white paper, it’s time to break out your (digital) red pen and proofread it to perfection. Go back over your draft and see what needs to be done to make it read better.

Ask for other people’s opinions, because they may be able to catch mistakes you overlooked. Read it out loud to ensure there are no run-on sentences or awkward phrases.

If you have the budget, consider contracting with a professional editor or proofreader to give it a final read. A white paper is a powerful sales and marketing tool, so you’ll want to make sure it’s polished, professional, and free of typos.

8. Invest in a visually stunning design

The design of your white paper can make a big difference in motivating people to read it. Don’t take the term ‘white paper’ too literally — it’s often full of color and design elements that make it more enjoyable to read.

Start by choosing a clean and professional layout that aligns with your brand’s identity. Use consistent fonts, colors, and formatting throughout the white paper to maintain consistency. Make sure your heading and subheadings stand out to increase readability.

Break up big blocks of text with other visual elements. Images can go a long way to driving a point home and keeping your audience engaged. Incorporate graphs and charts to help data stand out. You can also use pull quotes from leaders at your brand to build expertise throughout the white paper.

Pay particular attention to your title page, too. It should include your company logo, the title of your white paper, and an eye-catching photo or image. This is your chance to make a great first impression, so use this space wisely.

9. Put it out in the world

After you’ve put the final touches on your white paper, it’s time to publish and distribute it. Promote the white paper to your network. Create enticing teasers to generate curiosity and drive traffic to a dedicated landing page where visitors can download the white paper in exchange for their contact information. This turns your white paper into lead-generating content.

Consider collaborating with industry influencers or partners to expand your reach and tap into their networks. This helps your white paper reach a wider audience and make a bigger impact.

You can also repurpose the content from your white paper to make it even more engaging. The insurance company Travelers transformed its white paper on managing the risks of AI into a multimedia webinar. Get creative, and think about ways to turn your white paper content into social media posts, videos, infographics, and even podcast episodes. It gives your audience more ways to interact with the content you’ve worked hard to create.

Writing a white paper is your brand’s chance to shine like a beacon of authority. With strategic planning, compelling content, and a striking design, you can grow your audience and spark genuine interest in what your brand has to offer.

Ask The Content Strategist: FAQs About Writing a White Paper

How can a brand measure the effectiveness of a white paper after it has been published?

Brands can measure effectiveness through metrics like downloads, social shares, and website traffic, while gathering feedback through surveys or feedback forms to assess reader satisfaction and comprehension.

What are some common pitfalls to avoid when writing a white paper?

Common pitfalls include lack of clarity in defining objectives, overloading with technical jargon, insufficient evidence, neglecting audience interests, and ignoring visual appeal.

How can brands ensure that their white paper content remains relevant and up-to-date in a rapidly evolving industry landscape?

To maintain relevance, brands should monitor industry trends, update content regularly, engage with experts for fresh perspectives, and encourage feedback from readers.

If you’re looking for more examples of great content, check out Contently’s case studies page.

Image by Thaikrit

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