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You can make lots of money as a white paper writer. Read up on the different types and formats of white papers in this post.Tweet
At Fancy Comma, we’re skilled in writing white papers: here are five reasons you should hire us to write your next white paper. We’re excited to share our expertise in this post about different types of white papers.
This article is by no means an exhaustive list of white paper types. For a comprehensive discussion of all things white papers, check out White Papers for Dummies by Gordon Graham.
Keep reading for insights on white paper formats and goals to help you ace your next white paper.
What Are White Papers?
Oftentimes, especially in the business and finance worlds, people use white papers to convey information. You can think of a white paper as a portable document that contains everything you need to know about a specific subject. White papers are often timely and novel: for example, a white paper may be about an up-and-coming technology for which there are not yet many published works yet; it may detail a way that someone solved a problem (for example, reform to streamline and improve governmental processes) to help others dealing with a similar issue; it can even give an overview of the latest challenges in the finance space or provide actionable insights on issues to help drive policy. White papers are typically developed for a specific purpose: usually to educate, inform, provide analysis, even help sell a product.
In terms of their format, white papers are short reports, often 2,500-5,000 words, that educate and inform behavior or decision-making around a topic. They are written for politicians, executives, researchers, investors, or the average person.
If you are writing a white paper as a science writer, coming up with what you want to say and how you want to say it can be the toughest part. To put it simply, the way you approach writing a white paper should reflect your audience, topic, desired focus areas within your subject, and the outcome you want.
In this blog, I’ll talk about a few different types of white papers based on style and purpose. Keep in mind that you don’t have to stick to just one format discussed here; you can use different elements of the various white paper structures outlined below to come up with your own structure to fit your needs. Let’s get to it!
3 Different White Paper Formats
There are many kinds of white papers. They vary based on what you want to say and how you want to say it. Three different formats for white papers are: backgrounders, numbered lists, and problem/solution. Which of these you choose depends on your audience, the information you’re presenting, and the goal of your report. Here are a few examples.
White Paper Format #1: The Backgrounder
The backgrounder white paper format provides detailed (but often simplified) technical information to readers. Essentially, you are providing the reader with the “background,” or technical details of something (whether it’s a subject, a project, or a product you are trying to sell), so that they will understand what it is, how it can be used or put into practice, and why it is valuable. This structure provides in-depth, jargon-free information.
The backgrounder format is most useful when you are writing to convince people: for example, to promote an existing project or product or to launch of a new project or product. The idea here is that people won’t seek out what they don’t understand, so providing a summary can help them better find the relevance of the white paper subject to their lives, whether it is a product, project, or something else.
White Paper Format #2: The Numbered List
The numbered list structure for a white paper can be thought of as similar to a listicle – this white paper structure is organized around key points. Unlike the backgrounder format, the list format is not focused on providing detailed information, but rather on providing key or “big picture” takeaway points. In this structure, headings can be used to guide readers to specific topics that are most relevant to them.
The numbered list structure is optimal for providing your readers with tips about project completion or product usage, or essential information. This structure provides guideposts and helps make the white paper easier to skim, which can be an advantage for busy readers.
White Paper Format #3: Problem/Solution
The problem/solution white paper structure provides pointed and decisive guidance for decision-making. This structure starts with a specific issue and walks the reader through a proposed solution. This structure relies heavily on research, usually statistical or interview data evaluating the functioning of a project or product.
Perhaps it should go without saying that the problem/solution white papers are best suited for subjects which involve a novel solution to a challenge. This structure provides results, so it’s uniquely suited to conjure public or investor support for a solution. Case studies are often written in the format of problem/solution white papers.
White Papers Can Have Different Goals
The format of your white paper should match the needs of the organization or individual for whom you are writing the white paper; help advance the goals of your target audience; and make the case for your subject.
Whether in backgrounder, numbered list, problem/solution, or some other format, white papers can be used across a variety of purposes. They can inform readers, help drive policy, or market a new product. A single white paper can have multiple different goals!
For the most effective white paper, it’s important to write with a goal in mind. Ask yourself, “What do I want the reader to do after reading this?”
Thought leadership white papers are designed to demonstrate your role as the go-to expert on a particular topic. They are best suited for addressing a debate or contradictory opinions on an issue, product, or project. These white papers are designed to provide your audience with definitive conclusions and guidance.
They usually include:
- executive summary
- author background that demonstrates expertise
- each side of a debate or dominant opinions
- authoritative conclusions
Educating/Informing Your Audience
Educational white papers educate, inform, and/or increase awareness of an issue, product, or project. They are generally written for the public or at least non-experts on the subject. Educational white papers include how-to guides as well as more formal explanations of how something works – an event, a process, a project, or a product. Such a white paper may overview the subject: why it exists, or how best to utilize, manifest, or avoid it.
These types of white papers usually include:
- an introduction that contextualizes your topic and why it matters
- several credible (expert) sources
- sections that carefully explain all major aspects of your topic — in other words, the basics of what your reader needs to know to be informed
The market research white paper is intended to “sell” an issue, product, or project to designers, users, or investors. The market research white paper presents information related to costs and benefits (monetary or otherwise), user satisfaction, quality testing, and other aspects that demonstrate value and demand.
The following are usually included:
- statistical and polling data demonstrating benefits and demand
- cost-benefit analysis (for example, on monetary, environmental, societal, and/or individual levels)
- quality testing outcomes (issues and proposed improvements)
- user reviews (pros and cons)
Problem resolution white papers provide an authoritative explanation of an issue and a definitive path to resolve it. The point is to demonstrate why your solution is the best. These white papers provide a clear but thorough explanation of the issue and a pragmatic, step-by-step resolution implementation guide.
They usually include:
- clear and comprehensive explanation of the issue
- overview of any previous attempts at resolution
- explanation of how your resolution plan is unique
- step-by-step “action plan” for resolution implementation
Technical informational white papers are similar to educational white papers, but differ in their audience and content. These white papers are designed for audiences well-versed in your topic. As such, these papers include technical specifications and jargon that educational white papers should avoid. These white papers are meant for experts in a given field.
These white papers usually include:
- exact specifications of the attributes of a product or project
- field-specific technical language (“jargon”)
- high-level explanation of research method
- high-level discussion of research findings
Visionary white papers are like thought leadership white papers, but with a focus on the future. They should set you apart as not only an expert but as someone who can see the long-term, big picture and provide direction to sustain and evolve an industry-leading product or project into the future.
The following are usually included:
- a mission statement
- long-term big picture goals
- analysis of product or project sustainability over time
- specific, pragmatic plans for both the near- and distant-future
White papers should position you as a go-to for the topic and provide a brief but comprehensive “snapshot” that shapes how your audience views the issue, product, or project. These short, information-packed documents should convey your issue, product, or project in the most practical and effective way possible.
The way you structure your white paper will make a difference in how it is received, so take the time to think about your goals as a writer when coming up with a white paper format.
Hire us to write your next white paper!
If you are an individual or organization looking to hire an experienced, talented white paper writer, we can help. Fancy Comma, LLC helps communicate highly technical subjects in science, technology, business, finance, policy, and/or health. Learn more about our white paper writing services.