4 Steps to Successful White Paper Outlines

By John White

White papers need structure, and smart marketing managers work out the structure with an outline early in the writing process.

Be sure your writer includes these elements in an outline.

How often do you get started down a path in your work, only to realize you have to backtrack and go down a different path? Is there anything more frustrating than discarding work you’ve already done and restarting it?

Suppose your marketing communications writer interviews three customers for a white paper you need, then writes up the interviews into a paper and sends you a draft. You read it and realize it’s mostly wrong.

“No!!!” you holler. “This isn’t where I want this to go. We have to tear this down and start over.”

Too soon for a white paper draft?

Here’s what can go wrong when the writer just dives in and goes straight to the draft:

  • Off-topic – Your writer may simply miss the point. “You spend three pages on background information,” you complain. “I wanted this paper to describe our technology, not our history.”
  • Off-fact – Does the draft cover all the facts I want in it? Think Thomas More in Utopia: “Include nothing false, omit nothing true.” The job of the paper is to persuade, and facts are at the heart of that persuasiveness.
  • Off-message – You want your white paper to support an organization’s goal and message – say, thought leadership or lead generation – so every paragraph needs to move the reader in that direction. If I’m trying to use this paper to build trust over time, I don’t want “Buy Now!” content.

You can avoid these pitfalls if you can see structure before you see the draft. A good writer will take care of that for you by first providing an outline.

4 White Paper Outline Elements

Look for these four elements in the outline of a business or technical white paper:

  1. Summary – This will tell readers what they’re going to get out of the paper, and in a draft it tells you what the writer understands about the subject. Frankly, many people would argue that draft-stage is too early for a summary, but it’s a very good way to see the path down which your marketing communications writer intends to take the reader. If you don’t like that direction, this is a good time to make changes.
  2. Main messages – These are three (count ‘em) bullets in a box either just before or just after the Summary. Bullet 1 states the problem and why it costs customers time and money; bullet 2 mentions the inflection point, or why things are ripe for change; and bullet 3 describes the new solution and how it will help customers save time and money. The writer must get these right, and you must agree with them.
  3. Bullets for the rest – Most of the outline comprises bullet points that build the argument yet let readers draw their own conclusions from your facts. Be sure they include nothing false and omit nothing true.
  4. For More Information (How to Follow Us) – It’s your job – not the writer’s – to determine what you want readers to do once they’ve finished the paper. Fill out a form? Retweet? Pick up the phone? By including this section in the outline, the writer is reminding you to talk to Customer Service or your sales manager or your Web team and get ready to fulfill.

Isn’t this the kind of structure you want when you’re spending big money on a project like this? What do you put in place to keep your writer from going too far down the wrong path?

John White of venTAJA Marketing posts about technology writing from the perspective of the marketing manager. It’s dirty work, but somebody has to do it.

photo credit: pfly
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  • TimPrizeman

    Some good pointers – far too many alledgedly thoughtful white papers turn out to be nothing more than thinly disguised sales leaflets – no doubt turning the reader off the organisation that sent it.

    Tim P

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    Thanks for sharing~

  • http://writingblog.johnwhitepaper.com/ John White

    Tim: Right, but that's not my point. A draft without an outline is like a train without tracks.

  • http://writingblog.johnwhitepaper.com/ John White

    Tim: Right, but that's not my point. A draft without an outline is like a train without tracks.

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