format a white paper

How to format and outline a White Paper

Creating a white paper outline is one of the simplest and most effective ways to improve a white paper project outcome. An outline forces the writer to think critically about what is included in the draft – and what is ultimately published.

Because of the length and complexity of many white papers, a common issue is rambling content that strays away from the paper’s primary purpose.

Together, a writer and marketer must balance a staggering amount of interesting research, the temptation to include too many sales or promotional messages and the challenge to writing to too many audiences.

By formatting a white paper with a simple outline, the paper stays on track. I often call it the paper’s “North Star” because it is a guiding document that keeps the research, conversation, writing, editing and promotional discussions moving in the same direction.  It helps a marketing team say “no” to ancillarcy points or writing tangents and creates a filter for deciding which edits and team feedback to include.

Many writers ignore an outline at the project’s peril. For every white paper project I work on, it is an essential part of the project. A few examples why:

  • Turns white paper draft writing into weeks, not months.
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  • Reduces the number of revisions due to a writer, marketer and project sponsor not “being on the same page.”
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  • Saves time by focusing the research effort; I know exactly what I need to research and don’t get caught going down Internet search rabbit trails
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  • Promotes professionalism and reduces generalities during interviews. My outline lets me ask pointed questions to executives and other primary research interview sources.
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Outlining a white paper doesn’t have to be a chore. Here is a summary of my white paper outlining approach.

First, STOP. Before you begin your outline, answer Key Questions. The outline is built from your problem or opportunity statement. To define this, you need to know who you’re writing the white paper to and what you’re trying to answer. Try questions like:

  • What is the goal or purpose of the white paper?
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  • Who will read our white paper?
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  • What outcomes do we want to deliver to readers (Example: knowledge gained, research provided, awareness sharpened, outreach promoted).
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Writers and project sponsors need to agree to these and then draft the outline with these top-of-mind. Then, the outlining can begin.

Executive Summary – 1 page.

Try writing your executive summary before you write your paper. While this doesn’t have to be publicly shared, your ability to tell a crisp story will be tested here. If you have holes, make leaps in your narrative, or get stuck, you likely aren’t clear on what you’re writing, to whom, and why. It may be counter-intuitive, but this isn’t a mystery novel. Hit your key message early and then let the reader self-serve to understand the conclusion further throughout the rest of the paper.

Introduction – 1 page

Lay the groundwork for the story by framing what has happened/is happening that makes this white paper topic relevant. Consider discussing market changes, trends or gaps – especially if you are writing a white paper covering technical features or benefits of a particular product or service.

Main Body – 4-6 pages

This is where you tell. Depending on the purpose of your white paper you may build the business problem, provide a problem and solution discussion or deliver specific product or service details. This should not be a sales pitch, but a useful source of research for a discerning prospect. Prove your assertions. Offer actionable insights. Your level of detail and chosen approach will depend on the awareness stage of your prospect (e.g., target reader). As well, you should address the answers to your key questions one-by-one here. Use a steady dose of headings and subheadings to create natural, categorical or thought breaks.

Conclusion – 1 page

Here, a writer recaps what has already been shared. The key takeaway messages should be reinforced here to remind the reader what they should now know/do/think.

Appendix – 1-2 pages

Optional: consider including an appendix section to feature important research, data or more technical analysis that would otherwise bury a reader or hurt the narrative flow. 

Option B

If this seems like a lot and you would just like to save some time, then you can always hire a white paper writer instead.