In talking to technical writing friends and colleagues over the years, I was struck by an admission that always amazed me. I kept meeting competent tech writers who confided to me that they would never attempt to write a white paper. Why, I wondered, since they have probably been writing pieces that are very much like white papers their entire lives.
What Is a White Paper?
I would define a white paper as a written piece, usually five to twenty pages, that provides useful information. Here are some of the major types of white papers:
Thought Leader Piece – Often new ideas appear in a technical field that are not yet incorporated into actual products, but companies want to show they are “on the ball” and are aware of these innovations. At the same time, customers or prospects want to read basic information about these innovations. “The Cloud” is a good example of a recent hot topic, and in telecom, LTE is another. Companies who produce or sponsor papers like this make a good impression, and readers are happy to have an easy (and free) way to read about what’s new.
Product Introduction – When companies present new products, they sometimes provide one or more white papers that introduce the technology in the products and discuss the benefits of it, often in contrast to what’s already available in the marketplace. Such papers are useful for publicity and media coverage, and also for interesting prospective buyers.
Techniques – Years ago, I worked for a company that marketed a backup product. I wrote papers on the different types of backups, and the various techniques for performing backups and storing them. Backups are important, of course, because companies experience equipment failures all the time for a variety of reasons, and need to preserve their data. Customers found the information useful; prospects were impressed that we provided all this useful information free of charge.
How Difficult Is Writing a White Paper?
I guess I couldn’t understand why such pieces were considered formidable by my tech writing friends because I felt like I had been building up to writing them since high school. I edited my high school newspaper and spent hours writing short articles on various topics. In college, I wrote for the college magazine, and, of course, I wrote tons of research papers. Maybe the difference was that I enjoyed writing these pieces, and found them fun and a challenge.
Remember: You Never Write a White Paper Alone
If you are a technical writer or a writer who can deal with technology, you should remember that you never write a white paper alone. You are not writing fiction. If you are working for a large company and doing a “thought leader” piece, you will probably have the Chief Technology Officer providing information or an engineer on his or her staff. If you are at a smaller company, the larger companies have probably already written on this subject, so a lot of material should be available.
If you are writing a paper for a product introduction, you will have tons of material generated by the product marketing group. And if you have written the documentation for the product, you probably know more than marketing does about it.
If you are simply providing technical information, you are likely to have both engineering and marketing resources to call on, and very likely technical books and articles that your company may have in its library – and do I even need to mention this? – extremely likely tons of material online generated in papers by other companies or in blogs.