5 Reasons to Stop Writing List-Based White Papers

By Jim Lein

As a relative newbie to the craft of writing white papers and social web content, I have glommed on to all the advice I can find on making the process faster and easier as well as to make the end product more readily consumed.

Renowned among my friends and co-workers as a prodigious talker, one of the attractions of writing is that your audience doesn’t have to read what you write—there’s no, metaphorically speaking, “gun to the head”.  They can stop reading whenever they want.

In conversation, your audience may listen out of politeness or a sense of duty while thinking, “Geez this guy can really talk—how am I going to get out of this without a) hurting his feelings or b) losing his business, as the case may be.”

It is really an honor when someone actually reads something you write. Thus, I approach writing as less of a job and more of a privileged craft.

As many in my trade are now inclined to do, I have fallen back on mentally defaulting to a white paper format that is list based.  This seems to be a pervasive tendency in our culture.  But lately, I’ve become concerned about the long-term effects of this phenomenon on our trade and present these 5 Reasons to Stop Writing List Based White Papers.

Reason 1: We’ve become too predictable with our number of tips.  Ever notice how the number of tips is always an odd number or an increment of 5?  Once our readers catch on, they might start to wonder if we have some secret writers’ cult like the Free Masons or Skull and Bones in which it’s heresy to use an even number that’s not an increment of 5.  Marketing executives don’t typically assign budgets to resources they suspect to be working in a basement with painted floors with Ouija Boards on our desks.

Reason 2:  What If a Competitive Paper is Published with One More “Tip” or “Challenge”? Let’s say you publish a paper, “7 Tips For Making Workplace Facebook Posts More Efficient” and the next week your competitor publishes a similarly themed piece but with 10 tips?  In this metrics based performance economic environment, does that mean they win?   I can see it now, sales reps of competitors meeting with your prospects and saying, “We’ve got 10 and they only have 7.  How could you even think about not selecting us?”.  Or, if you post a blog, “5 Challenges Facing Today’s Llama Ranchers” and your competitor blogs about 7 challenges those same sales reps will be telling their prospects, “Those guys don’t have clue how to address 6 and 7!”

Reason 3: We’re Stuck in a Rut. I like to think of writers and editors as creative creatures from whence innovation flows.  If we don’t nip this trend in the bud think of where it will takes us.  Centuries from now will the Galaxy Wide Web (GWW.) feature posts such as, “10 Tips for Easing the Hassles of Interplanetary Teleportation”?  Sure, we won’t be round to see it but we should have some pride in the legacy we leave behind.

Reason 4: The Threat of Radical Pricing Model Reform. Once Marketing decision makers catch on to this racket, they might want to rethink the way they pay us.  Instead of a buck a word they could start charging by the size of your list.  Think about it—at a buck a word, a 3,000-word paper that covers five “Tips” pays $3,000.  That’s $600 a tip, which just sounds exorbitant.   And the ripple effect is staggering.  For example, those brainy Microsoft Word developers will have to add “Tip Count” and similar functionality to the Tools dropdown menu to go along with “Word Count” and “Thesaurus”.

Reason 5: The Negative Impact on Our Personal Lives. I don’t know about you, but this list-based craze has impacted my personal life.  As a home-based worker, I don’t’ get out as much as when I used to commute into the city.  I’ve had some close calls that could have been embarrassing, like pulling into Staples and realizing I’m still wearing sheepskin slippers.  Or glancing in the mirror as I head out to my daughter’s high school basketball game and seeing my Grizzly Adams-like unshaven reflection.   The other day, after fuming in line at the Safeway deli counter, I stepped up and announced, “I can think of 7 ways to improve your lunchtime deli counter efficiency”.  The clerk was not receptive to my suggestion of suggestions and I think he skimped on my $4.99 Three Meal Deal portions.

Hopefully, I’ve presented a compelling case for snuffing out this trend.  Resolve today that your next project won’t have a number in the title.  The credibility of our trade depends upon it.

Let me know if you have any good ideas…I’m very impressionable.

About the author: Jim Lein is Marketing Director for a large software provider.  When not writing riveting white papers, case studies, and fluffy web content, he wanders the Colorado mountains in search of questionable characters with quirky life stories.  See  http://www.linkedin.com/in/jimlein

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  • JeffSexton

    Too funny, Mike,

    I totally agree with the “odd number or multiple of 5″ rule. I've even purposefully tried to make a list of 8 just to throw 'em for a curve, but in truth, number 8 was often a “wash, rinse, repeat” tip, making the real number 7 – Doh!

    Unfortunately we live in an age of lists, quick tips, etc. I blame Letterman, personally ; )

    Still, what would you suggest as the top alternative to list-based white papers?

    - Jeff

  • http://www.socialmediaexaminer.com Michael A. Stelzner

    Hey Jeff – That was actually written by Jim, not me. I am NOT a fan of list-based white papers. I prefer the problem solution approach and it's what I lay out in detail in my book. – Mike

  • JeffSexton

    Hey, Mike,

    Sorry about that, didn't see the byline on this post. Still, thanks for recommending an “alternative” format. Do you think that list-based white papers are popular not only because they are easy to write, but because of the implied promise of brevity? If I read a white paper titled “7 Critical Features for Any Blogging Platform” or some such, I can pretty much guess that this thing isn't going to run more than, say, 10 pages tops, and is probably closer to 5 pages. On the other hand, if I read a title like, “Overcoming Data De-duplication Challenges in a Virtual Storage Environment,” I suddenly get a mental image of a 30-page tome.

    Obviously there are ways around this, but what has been your experience?

    - Jeff

  • patrickritter

    I am new to writing white papers … starting the first job next week in fact. I've been writing newspaper columns, books, screenplays and other stuff, but I agree with the thought … keep it fresh and put yourself into the text. Write it like it should mean more than just “a list of” because all topics, especially the ones you get paid for, are worth your best effort … or you're not really a writer.

  • http://www.reportcontentwriter.com/ Rachel Agheyisi

    My guess is that many list-based white papers start out as separate articles that somehow get grouped together into a “white paper”.

    Interestingly, I seem to recall a couple of the speakers for the upcoming WPSS are not altogether opposed to the idea of writing white papers as “tips” or lists. I wont name names — in case they’ve changed their positions in the last day or so!

  • http://www.riverwoodwriter.com RiverwoodWriter

    Well, the impact on your personal life was the clincher. I will DEFINITELY stop using list-based papers…oh, but the siren-call of an easy 5 (10, 15?)-step solution to one's problems is so alluring!

  • http://samuraiwriter.com/blog samuraiwriter

    The top 'n' lists are still popular in online articles and even in blog posts ;-)
    Making lists the centerpiece of a white paper in the corporate world smacks of being a trifle lax in the ideas department.

  • http://www.inthe.am/ Greg

    Lists are hugely popular right now and I wonder what the next evolution of this format might be. Perhaps lists but… with color!

  • gordongraham

    I found this piece amusing, but not persuasive. I have no problem with list-based articles… though I hesitate to call them “white papers.” Why do readers love this format? Because a list is easier to scan than narrative text, it promises a quick read, and it has an explicit organizing principle. I'm not going to stop writing list-based articles any time soon.

  • gordongraham

    I found this piece amusing, but not persuasive. I have no problem with list-based articles… though I hesitate to call them “white papers.” Why do readers love this format? Because a list is easier to scan than narrative text, it promises a quick read, and it has an explicit organizing principle. I'm not going to stop writing list-based articles any time soon.