3 keys to writing a better white paper.
Writing a white paper? It should be educational, comprehensive and formal, right? We agree with the first two, but we’re vehemently against the third.
This isn’t to say that when you’re writing a white paper, you should be writing in slang or that the material shouldn’t be presented in a well-organized, easy-to-follow-fashion. But if you want someone to actually read your white paper, you should keep in mind that your reader is a person. And a person, no matter how conservative they are, doesn’t want to read something that puts them to sleep.
First: what is a white paper?
According to our friends at Wikipedia, (and we’re paraphrasing), a white paper is meant to thoroughly explain an issue, thoughtfully solve a problem or aid in the decision-making process. But in that definition, there’s no reason why, when you’re writing a white paper, that you can’t be engaging, interesting and possibly even entertaining.
When most people sit down to write a white paper, they flush themselves of anything resembling personality because they think the more buttoned up they are in their writing, the more credible the white paper will be.
That’s hogwash. And here’s why.
Explaining an issue requires comprehension
If you go into writing a white paper thinking jargon = credibility, you’ll have spent all that time writing it for nothing, because no one’s going to read it.
A probable reason your reader even picked up or downloaded your white paper in the first place is because they don’t understand the issue: most likely due to an inability by everyone else in their personal or professional lives to explain the issue to them.
The last thing they’re going to want is more confusing language.
So while you should prepare heavily, write lightly. Simplify concepts. Choose real-world examples that the average person would get. Break down the issue as invitingly as you can. And don’t be afraid to inject a bit of personality. Like our man Jules Whitfield said, personality goes a long way.
Yes, we’re extremely thorough in our research. Yes, we’re crystal clear on our client’s stance. And yes, we consider the audience we’re writing it for. But no matter the demographic, as we said above, the people reading it are people who want a better understanding, and who don’t want to have to work too hard to get it.
Tip: As you’re writing, ask yourself if you would read it. If you really think you’d glaze it over, the chances are extremely good that someone else will too. And boring your readers is worse that insulting them, because if they’re insulted, at least they’re engaged.
Solving a problem requires direction
We love IKEA for a whole whack of reasons, but a big one is the wordless instructions. As writers (and admittedly non-visual people), we’re blown away by how well they convey concepts. Their style embodies the “pictures say a thousand words” axiom. Mental Floss did a fantastically funny piece about IKEA instructions ¾ definitely worth a quick glance.
But what does IKEA have to do with white papers (besides the fact that IKEA instructions are printed on white paper)? The answer is a commitment to simple problem solving.
Complex problems might require more complex solutions, but that’s all the more reason to present them in the most non-complex way possible. Not many people can take meaningful direction from gobbledy-goop. And if they do, it’ll take far too long.
Tip: If your white paper is of the problem-solving variety, use bullet points wherever you can. They make directions easier to follow, especially if your readers are meant to refer back to it as they solve the problem. Here’s a quick guide to bullet-pointing in business writing from Montana State University’s Bracken Business Communications Clinic (amazing that it’s a “clinic”).
Decision-making requires confidence
Have you ever been staring at a restaurant menu, completely baffled by the descriptions of the dishes to the point where you legitimately can’t decide what to order? In that case, it’s the restaurant putting style before substance, and it usually winds up costing them in the long run (especially if that menu frustration is shared on social media).
Think of your decision-based white paper the same way. You want to give your reader the confidence to say “yes, I will try that tonight,” or “oh my god, I need to learn how to do that.” If you want someone to do something — and especially if you want someone to think something, you have to give them the confidence to think it. And that’s only going to happen if they clearly understand their options, which will only happen if their options are presented simply and fairly.
The more confidence you can instil in your reader, the more likely they’ll be to solve problems. Them doing that is directly related to how well you can teach them. And no one wants to be taught by a rambling, big-worded show-off.
Tip: When you’re done writing, read it over as if you were your ideal client. Do you get it? Do you see the value? If you can answer “yes” to both, you’re in good shape.
Nobody expects to enjoy a white paper
We say it on our website. And it’s 100% true. Buck the trend and surprise your readers.