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A white paper on how to write a white paper

by Stephen Wilbers

Author of 1,000 columns
published in the Minneapolis Star Tribune & elsewhere



What exactly is “a white paper,” anyway, and how does one go about writing a good one?


You’d think it would be easy to find information about such a commonly mentioned topic, but to my surprise not one of reference books or business writing textbooks in my home library mentions white papers.  And so I went to the dictionary and the Internet.


According to the American Heritage Dictionary, a white paper is “a governmental report” or “an authoritative report on a major issue, as by a team of journalists.”


According to itpapers.com, which posts more than 22,000 examples of white papers, “In the IT community, a white paper is an informational brief offering an overview of a technology, product, issue, standard, policy, or solution – its importance, use and implementation, and business benefits.”


Furthermore, itpapers.com points out, white papers are becoming increasingly important:  “With the growth of the Internet as a fast and easy vehicle for distribution of information, white papers have emerged as the standard way of communicating more in-depth information to IT and business decision-makers in terms of problems solved and markets addressed – the key criteria for product selection.”


The Appum Group’s Jonathan Kantor (whose article is posted at www.tradespeak.com) agrees:  “Since the implosion of the .com business model, business professionals are no longer leaving the final decision process solely to the IT department.  Most of these business leaders are taking a greater role in that decision-making process with regard to significant technical purchases and partnerships.”


Kantor also argues that the scope of the typical white paper has expanded:  “Whereas yesterday’s white paper was primarily used to educate a reader to a particular technical topic, today’s white paper goes further to include . . . information about the sponsoring company, the competition, return on investment, and contact information including Web site, sales offices, case studies, and in some cases, referral customers.”


So much for defining white papers.  What constitutes a good one?


In its First Annual White Paper Awards, bitpipe.com selected winners based on three criteria:


Editorial Quality  “The level of writing, structure of the writing, flow of the overall narrative, and use of clear language to explain the topic or product.”


Format/Presentation  “The quality of layout of the paper including incorporation of any charts, diagrams, or graphics.”


End User Utility  “The balance between clearly setting out the benefits of [the] product or explaining the issue, while not deafening the reader with overt marketing and sales speak.”


Kantor identifies the following common flaws in white papers:


Unnecessary complexity  Most white papers “seem to be written by technical people” with little attempt to explain or interpret the technical elements for the general reader.


Undefined terminology  “The use of complex acronyms and terminology seems to be a badge of honor that is worn by far too many members of today’s high-tech industry.”


Lack of visual appeal  Many white papers on Web sites are “predominantly text-based (apart from the company logo on the cover).”


Lack of flow  “Too many papers on the Internet jump right into the details of the subject without providing background information . . .  In addition, many white papers jump from one concept to another.”


Missing summary  “Just because all of the facts have been presented on a particular topic doesn’t necessarily mean that your reader has fully grasped all the key points.”


I myself have written countless proposals but never a white paper.  Nevertheless, I hope you’ll accept this column as my white paper on white papers.




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