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This post was written by TCCS member, Eve Vickerson


The dos and don’ts of writing your first white paper

“Who, me?” you ask yourself.

Not realising you’ve said it out loud, you’ve gone and disturbed your co-worker (aka the dog) from doing important work (aka sleeping). Fortunately, he’s an excellent worker, and is quickly back and focused on the job.

You, on the other hand, are freaking out because a prospective client has just asked for a quote to write a white paper.

If you’ve never written one before, don’t panic. Take a deep breath, and then read on to learn how to write a white paper.

As someone well-versed in imposter syndrome, I’ve got you covered. And after reading this article, you’ll be writing your first white paper like a pro in no time.

The dos of white paper writing:

Brush up on white paper formats

The purpose of a white paper is to inform, and it’s usually a longer piece of writing. There are three main white paper formats as popularised by the pioneer of professional white paper writing, Gordon Graham (aka “That White Paper Guy”):

  1. The Backgrounder gives a detailed explanation of the features and benefits of a product, service or innovation. It can be useful as a marketing asset to support a product launch.
  2. The Numbered List is basically a long listicle blog article.
  3. The Problem/Solution focuses on key challenges or pain points for the audience, and then explores different solutions.

Personally, I think the Problem/Solution format is the most powerful because it’s so focused on your target audience’s needs.

To get more of an idea about the finer details of white paper structures, do an online search for any white papers your client’s competitors have written. You’ll get to learn about your writing topic and the industry.

If you can’t find any, look for examples of white papers in other industries and save those you found the most helpful.

Or you could skip that last step and watch Clare Hastings’ superb masterclass The Dark Art of Whitepapers, which is available to members of The Clever Copywriting School. You’ll not only learn about white paper structures but also get a swipe file with examples to get you started.

Understand your audience’s needs

Think about the best present you’ve ever received. Chances are what made it so brilliant is the fact that someone had taken the time to learn what makes you tick and what you really wanted.

The same thing goes for your audience when writing white papers. Knowing your audience is essential. You need to figure out:

  • who they are
  • what they need
  • their pain points
  • the language they use when talking about your topic.

Go on a research binge (but do so responsibly)

One of the reasons I love copywriting is being able to quench my insatiable curiosity for learning new things. Research is where the copywriting magic happens. And it’s critical when it comes to writing an effective white paper. You need to offer meaningful insights to add value. So dig deep with your white paper research. But as with all things, moderation is key. If you spend too much time on research, it can quickly eat into your profits.

Create a blueprint for your white paper

As with other longer-form copy formats, it’s best to create an outline for your client to approve before you complete the detailed writing. Use a bulleted list with working headings to show your client the key messages and information you intend on covering in the final version.

(You’ll find more tips like this to ensure your project runs smoothly in The Ultimate Copywriting Process Checklist, which is full of copywriting process gold.)

Interview the experts

Expert quotes can add real gravitas to an article. They give it unique value, and help convince the reader your points are valid.

To find suitable experts, you could try:

  • asking your client if they know any subject matter experts who would be willing to be interviewed for the white paper
  • using source-finding websites such as SourceBottle or Help a B2B Writer
  • searching your LinkedIn connections, or putting the call out in a post.

The don’ts of white paper writing:

Don’t panic. You can do this.

Writing a white paper can be intimidating. They are usually long, require meticulous research, and tend to have a more authoritative tone. But don’t let that stop you.

Make the project less overwhelming by breaking it down into a series of smaller steps. And remember: all copywriters grapple with imposter syndrome. It’s almost par for the course, and learning to overcome it is one of the must-have qualities of a successful copywriter.

Don’t be too salesy

A white paper isn’t a long-winded sales brochure. Make it worth your audience’s time to download and read it. Write about their pain points, and then provide solutions backed up by data, research, and expert quotes.

There’s room for a little sales content at the end of the document, but limit it to that.

Don’t use dodgy data

Ever found an amazing statistic cited on loads of blogs with a source that’s rather suspect? Despite being complete rubbish, people obviously loved it so much they just ran with it.

Don’t do what they did. High-paying white paper clients exist for a reason. Quality research takes time, but it’s worth it because it gives people helpful, evidence-based information without having to sift through irrelevant or junky content.

Don’t forget to include a case study

I realise I just said not to be too salesy in your white paper. But remember me saying there’s room for sales content towards the end? Yep, that’s right: make room for a case study in your white paper. It shows your audience how the ideal solution to their pain points works in practice while also highlighting your client’s product or service.

Don’t leave out the visual elements

While white papers are primarily text-based, visuals can make your content more readable and engaging.
I’m not suggesting you need to become a graphic designer. But add extra value for your client by providing some design suggestions to support the text. For example, you could highlight certain statistics, and recommend that they be turned into infographics, charts, graphs or diagrams.

Time to start doing

Alright, the time has come. Now that you’ve gone through all the tips and resources, you’ve got a decision to make. You can either keep researching how to write a white paper. or get in there and start writing your first one now.

I believe in you.

Now go forth and let your white paper copywriting genius shine.

Of course, if you need a little more support, help is available via The Clever Copywriting School’s supportive Facebook group. It’s one of the many membership perks on offer. You can ask a question there and get quick answers from your fellow copywriters and industry experts.

Over to you

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About Eve Vickerson:

Eve VickersonJust like taking your medicine, eating well and exercising, working with Eve Vickerson from Described is good for you. How? Because she’s a freelance health writer and marketer who can help you connect with your target audience through clear, caring and credible content.