4 Elements of a White Paper Outline

A white paper outline keeps your marketing writer from going down the wrong path

White papers — or any long pieces — need direction. Establish that direction before you write the paper. Be sure your writer includes these structural elements in a white paper 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 content marketing writer interviews three subject matter experts for a white paper you’ve commissioned. He drafts the paper around the interviews and sends you a draft.

You read it.

Your dismay is audible.

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

Establish direction and structure

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 — White papers are meant to support an organization’s goal and message, such as thought leadership, lead generation or sales. That means that each paragraph has to move the reader in that direction. If you’re trying to build trust over time, you don’t want content that trumpets “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 a white paper outline.

A white paper outline helps

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

  1. Summary — This is sometimes airily called the “Executive Summary.” (Frankly, we’re all executives now, so let’s stop calling it that.) The summary tells readers what they’re going to get out of the paper, and in a draft it tells you in a couple of paragraphs whether your writer understands your message. Although the draft stage of writing may seem too early to work on the summary, it shows you which direction your writer intends to take readers. If you don’t like it, this is a good time to let her know.
  2. Main messages — Place three (count ’em) bullets in a box either just before or just after the Summary. The first bullet states the problem and why it costs customers time and money. The second bullet mentions the inflection point, or why things are ripe for change. The third bullet 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 — Build the argument with a well thought-out series of bullets. Give readers the impression that they’re drawing their own conclusions from facts you’re presenting. Be sure the bullets include nothing false and omit nothing true.
  4. How to Follow Us — This is homework for you. (Traditionally, this reads “For More Information,” but think different now.) 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 manager 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.”