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How to Write a White Paper

By Gordon Graham

You’ll likely know what makes a “classic” white paper: at least five pages of narrative text that delivers useful information about a business issue or technical problem, not a sales pitch.But there’s another approach to writing a white paper: the numbered list. You know what I’m talking about—documents with titles like “5 Secrets of…” or “6 Steps to Success in…” or “7 Ways to Boost Profits with…” I’ve written pieces with all of those titles.

They’re popular, because busy people love skimming, scanning and skipping their way through these documents.

“If I know there are five secrets, and I’m already on number three, there are only two more to go,” noted one technology executive recently. His comments echo what others have told me: when you have too much to read, too much to do and too much to remember, a list-based white paper is a welcome relief.

But a numbered set of tips is very different from a classic white paper.

While a classic white paper aims to provide real insight, a numbered list aims only to deliver quick how-to tips. These can be useful, but they may not add up to the same detailed coverage that goes into a classic white paper.

What does this mean to a content writer or marketer?

If you have a complex issue to discuss or you want to create a thorough analysis you can use for the next year or two, a classic white paper may be a better choice.

But if you need a quick, useful piece of content for a blog or to fulfill some scheduled marketing commitment, you can likely come up with a numbered list very quickly.

Design guru and author Roger C. Parker explains how.

“You take a number and a concept, and you just brainstorm. The number provides a framework for you to complete,” advises Parker. “Once you know you need six steps, your brain will help you get to those six.”

Here’s a four-step process illustrating this approach.

#1: Find a basic concept.
This can be anything your audience wants to gain or anything they want to avoid—including a set of “best practices,” and the opposite, “deadly mistakes to avoid.” For example, network administrators want a secure network with maximum uptime; they want to avoid intrusions, malware, and downtime.

#2: Add a number.
If you take the concept “maximum uptime” and add the number “five,” you get a title like “Five Ways to Guarantee Maximum Uptime.” Take the opposite concept and the number “six,” and you get “Six Secrets of Avoiding Downtime.”

#3: Add a subtitle to position the document.
Your subtitle can touch on a specific job role, such “A Special Report for Network Admins.” Then your complete title reads like this:

Five Ways to Guarantee Maximum Uptime: A Special Report for Network Admins

#4: Fill in the blanks.
Fill in with great content for each point. As you write, you can easily add or drop points. Anything between five and nine is probably fine; 10 sounds a little forced, like a “Top 10″ list.

Another nice thing about writing a list-based white paper is that you don’t need to develop the same step-by-step logic as in a classic white paper. A list is less linear and more modular, so you can pull in more material without building every point into a cohesive whole. Your material is held together by the spine of the list.

What’s the downside to this format?

Well, if your document doesn’t back up your title with great content, you will anger your audience whose time you just wasted.

Don’t think you can write these pieces without attending to your research, proof points, and clarity. Remember that the list-based document is just another tool in your toolkit. Use it when the situation calls for it, not every time you sit down to write.

About the Author: Gordon Graham helps B2B software companies tell their stories with crisp, compelling white papers. He’s the founder of, and a frequent poster on the forums.