How to Write a White Paper
by Michael Knowles
A white paper in the high-tech industry is a technical document that describes how a technology or product solves a particular problem. It's a marketing document and a technical document, yet it doesn't go too far in either direction. A good white paper is informative and is designed to show off the advantages of a product or technology.
White papers are perhaps the most challenging type of technical document to write. They require a deep understanding both of a product's technology and of its application in solving a technical business problem. White papers are tuned specifically to:
- Show that the vendor understands customer problems;
- Describe the vendor's technology; and
- Explain why that technology is the customer's best choice among available products.
One white paper author suggests thinking of your audience as investors, and that's not a bad way to approach writing the paper. An informal tone is best; use acronyms and abbreviations sparingly. Use plain English, no matter how much someone insists on using more technical language. The objective is to educate, inform, and convince, not to geekspeak or marketspeak the reader to death. That's not to say that the white paper isn't slanted -- it is, in the end, an opinion piece. But it also provides real information that the reader can use.
Remember the old training aphorism:
- Tell them what you're going to tell them.
- Tell them.
- Tell them what you told them.
Here's a fairly standard outline for a technical white paper:
- Abstract -- A one-paragraph description of what the paper is about. Do not state the conclusion here; simply tell the reader what the purpose of the paper is. Customers frequently read only the abstract and conclusion of white papers, so provide material that gives them a good reason to read the details.
- The Problem -- Two-to-three paragraphs covering the problem and a little background. Be straightforward and succinct. Avoid obfuscatory language, or what one white paper author calls "hidden assumptions."
- Understanding The Product's Design -- How the product works in general. While this is not the place to describe how the product solves the problem, the section is oriented so that the reader will be able to understand the product's application to the problem. This and the following section are the meat of the white paper.
- How the Product Solves the Problem -- How the application of the product solves the problem. Provide evidence of how the product solves the problem, and why it is the best solution available.
- Conclusion -- A one-paragraph summary of why the product is the best solution to the problem.
There are many good examples of white papers available on the Internet. Do a search on the phrase "white paper" and read a few. Compare how they handle their subjects. By and large, the most useful white papers offer information at the same that they attempt to convince you of their product's worth.
It takes a few attempts to get the feel for writing a good white paper, but once you have it, you'll have acquired one of the most marketable technical writing skills in the business.
Copyright (c) 2002 by Michael Knowles. All Rights Reserved.