Marketing with White Papers: Secret #3: How to Write a White Paper in 4 Steps

Four secrets that guarantee white paper success


The 3rd secret to white paper success is how to actually write a white paper.  Seems obvious, right? You’re a white paper writer and this should be a breeze. But maybe you struggle to get the work done efficiently and effectively. It always seems to be far too much work.

So how do you write a successful white paper efficiently and effectively? Defining a process makes writing white paper a more manageable task.

What is the process to write a successful white paper? The third post in the series Marketing with White Papers: Four secrets that guarantee white paper success, focuses on Secret #3: How to write a white paper in 4 steps.

Secret #3: How to write a white paper in 4 steps

As we learned in last week’s post, a white paper plan is a key secret in ultimate white paper success. As a writer, the white paper plan provides valuable information and direction. Refer to the plan often to keep on track and on theme.

Read on to discover a step-by-step process for writing a white paper, based on a white paper plan.

Step 1: Research the problem and the solution before you write

The first step is to completely familiarize yourself with the solution to be showcased in the white paper. Although you will have produced the high-level outline as part of developing the white paper plan, go back and drill deeper into the information. Start adding details to the outline.

Talk to the SMEs

At this point you will have questions that the written material did not answer. It’s time to talk to the client’s Subject Matter Experts (SMEs). Depending on the product and the client, there may be more that one SME you need to interview. Organise a time to talk to each expert. Respect that they are busy and have your questions ready. It is a good idea to send through the questions beforehand.

Carry out further research

Discussions with the SMEs should lead to further research. Using the sources supplied by the client, look for competitors’ solutions on their website, industry-specific forums discussing the problems faced by your client’s customers, and referenced-journal articles documenting the problem and proving the solution.

Keep track of sources. You will you need to cite any information you use that is not public knowledge. Citations add to the credibility of the white paper as well.

Step 2: Draft a title to provide focus while you write

Now that you understand the problem and the solution, it’s time to nail down the title. The title is the headline when promoting the paper so its important to get it right. The headline must, first and foremost, establish a clear benefit to the reader.

Grab interest, be specific, be brief

Research shows certain headlines catch readers’ attention better than others. The ever-popular How to…, is popular for a reason. It works! Other phrases work too:

  • The truth about… (e.g. The truth about clarifiers)
  • Facts you should know… (e.g. Seven facts you should know about aerators)

The headline should be specific. The white paper is about a specific solution with a specific benefit to the reader. Keep the title specific too.

Keep the headline as short as possible. It’s best if it will fit in search results displays. Even before the internet, research proved a title of 8 words or less is most effective.

Establish a clear benefit

This is important enough to say again. The headline must establish a specific benefit to the reader. Inspire your prospects to download the white paper.

Step 3: Create content with the audience in mind

Marketing with white papers is NOT about the hard sell.  A successful white paper persuades using simple language and a logical flow. Logical flow starts with picking the right structure and then filling it in with quality content.

Write the white paper in a professional tone, using a formal, almost academic-style of writing. Don’t take that too far by relying on industry-specific jargon and techno-speak. Keep the language simple. You can download an article about writing using plain language here: Five simple steps to start the conversation: How plain language benefits the water industry .

Structure the white paper

How you structure your white paper depends on which type of white paper you are writing.  Go back to the white paper plan and make sure you’re on track.

At the top of the sales funnel you most likely want a Problem/solution white paper. That structure would look like this:

  • Executive Summary
    • Introduction
    • Problem
    • Available solutions
    • Your new and innovative solution
    • Conclusion
    • Call-to-Action

At the bottom of the funnel your readers are looking for details.  In that case you want to use a Technical backgrounder-type white paper. The structure changes slightly:

  • Executive Summary
    • Introduction – Problem and available solutions summarized
    • Key features of your new and innovative solution
    • Technical specifications of your solution
    • Conclusion
    • Call-to-Action

In the middle of the funnel, create controversy and maintain interest with a Numbered list white paper. The structure is just about the list. After the Introduction, order the sections in a logical way.  Put the more important or controversial information up front in the first couple of numbered sections.

Content for a white paper

The content of a white paper needs to do four things:

  1. attract the right audience,
  2. engage the reader
  3. inform your prospects, and
  4. persuade readers to take action.

Start by maintaining a logical flow through the paper. Start with the high-level outline developed for the white paper plan. Copy that outline into a new document and start filling in each section. This keeps you on track with the approved outline for the paper.

As you research your topic, put relevant information and its source in the appropriate section of the outline. Keep fleshing out the outline until you have summarized all available information.

Once your research is complete, transform your notes into a compelling story.

Visuals improve understanding

It is important to demonstrate your solution through data visualization. Did you know people process visuals 60,0000 times faster than text? By visualizing your data, you showcase your results and prove your solution. By understanding your data and data relationships you can pick the chart that will let your data sell the story.  Find out more about data visualization in the post: Case Study to Success Story – Building Trust in the Water Industry: Thing 4: Let Your Data Sell the Story

Add credibility and trust

A critical task of the content of the white paper is to establish credibility and build trust. Not through the hard sell but through robust research and compelling case studies. People love a story so make sure the case study is written as a success story. Keep the story brief in the white paper. Showcase it in a sidebar or call-out.

Discussed above, visualised data help demonstrate the credibility of your solution.

Pictures are powerful too. Better than just shots of your product, incorporate images of the solution in use, with a happy customer, if possible.

Step 4: Format the white paper for easy reading

Now that the white paper is drafted, think about formatting. You may not want to know this but not all your readers will read your entire white paper.  Many readers (43%, according to Hubspot) admit to skimming content.  Rather than being offended by this, play to those readers.  Cater to all readers with the design of the paper.

White space

Dense blocks of text can intimidate readers. Clever use of white space – areas with no text or graphics – will lessen the stress. Put in a few pull quotes to add variety to the blog’s visual flow. 

Headings and subheadings

Headings and subheadings help maintain the logical flow of the paper as well as providing a break from blocks of text. Skimmers can get the gist of the topic without having to read the entire paper. Optimize headings for keywords where possible.

Bulleted or numbered lists

Break up blocks of text with bulleted or numbered lists.  They cater to skimmers and help organize information into short concise portions.

write a white paper


Photos, graphs, charts, and tables add visual appeal while providing in-depth.  Keep graphs and charts relatively simple.


White papers are complex documents. Even with a white paper plan, a writer can get lost in the complexity of the problem and its solution. The way to avoid this is to make writing a white paper a step-by-step process.  This post laid out a 4-step process for how to write a white paper based on a white paper plan:

Step 1: Research the problem and the solution before you write

Step 2: Draft a title to provide focus while you write

Step 3: Create content with the audience in mind

Step 4: Format the white paper for easy reading

Next week the final of post in the series Marketing with White Papers: Four secrets that guarantee white paper success, looks at the importance of promotion to white paper success: Secret #4: Six Essential Channels to Promote your White Paper.

Are you looking for a white paper writer for your next product launch? Why not hire an expert?

A persuasive white paper, special report, or e-book uses simple language to explain complex solutions.  I understand the science and technology behind your product, your services.  I can translate that complexity into easy-to-read content for a lay audience.

I know when to leave the jargon in and when to take it out.

Contact me to plan your next successful white paper!