“I Asked You For a Chainsaw. You Gave Me a Cuisinart.”

Chainsaw Cuisinart short white paper

A marketing manager told me about a short white paper project gone awry. How many errors do you see in this chain of events?

  1. The VP of Marketing wanted a short white paper and told the marketing manager what he wanted the title to be.
  2. The marketing manager called his regular copywriter and told him about the project.
  3. The writer said, “I can write a white paper,” and quoted a price.
  4. The marketing manager accepted.
  5. The writer attended the interviews, then wrote a draft and sent it to us.
  6. The marketing manager reviewed the draft and forwarded it to the VP of Marketing.
  7. The VP hated it, saying, “This is dull. Nobody’s going to read past the first page.”
  8. The marketing manager bailed on the first writer and found a second writer.
  9. The second writer looked at the draft and said, “This isn’t a white paper. It’s a magazine article. A good magazine article, but a lousy paper.”

After that, the errors stopped, even though everybody had lost a lot of time and tempers were getting short. Ultimately, the second writer massaged the article into a short-ish white paper, the VP was satisfied and the paper was well received.

A short white paper project with a multitude of errors

Looking through that chain of events, here are some of the things that went wrong:

  • Event #1 – Starting with the title is a bad idea. It’s better to start with a theme and a goal, then write the paper, and let the title rise from the paper. Sometimes you get painted into a title because of a print ad campaign, but avoid this whenever possible. Having your hands tied on the title is a bad place to be.
  • Event #2 – Your regular copywriter may not be the right person for a white paper. White papers don’t just go away after a couple of hours; they can take weeks of grinding, then reviews, then more grinding. A writer accustomed to brochures or web copy may not have the experience you need. Don’t assume that simply because a white paper involves writing, all writers can do one.
  • Event #5 – After the interviews, there should be an outline, not a draft. The first writer skipped that step because she had a magazine article in mind all along, and that doesn’t require an outline. Without the outline, the writer went too far down the wrong path and the result disappointed everyone.
  • Event #6 – The marketing manager should have known it was a bad paper and kept it from getting to the VP.

The biggest error of all, though, was in mistaking a good magazine article for something that would work as a white paper. They serve different audiences and they rarely flow in the same way. Besides, people are reading them for different reasons.

The moral of the story

When your organization is asking for a chainsaw, don’t come back with a Cuisinart. And vice versa.

photo credit: Juhan Sonin


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.”