4 Elements of a White Paper Outline

Keep your marketing writer from going down the wrong path

White papers – or any long pieces – need structure, and you need to agree on the structure before you write the paper. 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?

For example, your marketing communications writer interviews three subject matter experts for a white paper you’ve commissioned, then writes up the interviews and sends you a draft. You read it. You scream.

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

White paper draft gone astray

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

  • Off-topic – “This isn’t what I wanted you to write about,” you complain. “I don’t want the paper to describe the history of the industry. I want it to describe our technology.”
  • Off-fact – Does the draft cover the facts I want in it? Think Thomas More in Utopia: “Include nothing false, omit nothing true.”
  • Off-message – The white paper supports an organization’s goal and message – thought leadership, lead generation, sales support – and each paragraph needs to move the reader in that direction. If I’m trying to build trust over time, don’t give me content that bellows “Buy Now!”

You need to see structure before you see the draft. A good writer will take care of that for you by first providing an outline.

White paper outline

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

  1. Summary – Sometimes airily called “Executive Summary” – hey, we’re all executives now, so let’s get over this – 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, most people would argue that draft-stage is too early for a summary, but it shows you which path your marketing communications writer intends to take the reader. If you don’t like it, this is a good time to let her know.
  2. Main messages – 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 vaguely 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 – A reasonably well thought-out series of bullets that build the argument yet give readers the impression that they’re drawing their own conclusions from facts you’re presenting. Be sure they include nothing false and omit nothing true.
  4. For More Information (How to Follow Us) – Homework for you. The writer isn’t responsible for what you want readers to do once they’ve finished the paper; that’s your job. By including this in the outline, the writer is giving you time to talk to Customer Service or your sales team or your Web team and put the plumbing in place for readers who want to take the next step.

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?

photocredit: pfly

Author: John White

John White of venTAJA Marketing is a content marketing writer for technology companies. He posts about technology writing from the perspective of the marketing manager. It’s a dirty job, but somebody has to do it. Download his eBook, “10 Questions to Ask When Hiring Your Content Marketing Writer.”