Writing a white paper is a long process. It can take 20-40 hours for a professional writer to create a single medium length paper—and that’s working on it full time. When you’re a subject matter expert working on other projects at the same time—all bets are off.

Why does it take so long to write a white paper?

Well, first of all, it doesn’t take everyone that long. I’ve talked to other professional writers who take considerably less time. The issue then becomes how close do you want the writer to come on the first draft. If the writer doesn’t take enough time up front, you may have to pay at the back end by going through multiple rounds of revisions with them.

What goes into creating a paper that hits the mark by the first—or at most second—draft?

A good paper requires considerable research (or deep subject matter expertise) to provide context and the writer must work hard to tell a cohesive story.

The Need for Research

Whenever I start a white paper, I interview the client to get basic information, including the audience, the goals of the project, the one key message the client wants readers to remember, and the key supporting messages (which usually relate to the benefits of the solution being described).

My job as the writer is to flesh out these high-level messages into something that leads the reader to understand why the problem is important and what steps can be taken to solve it. This involves the following:

Providing context. People don’t know what they don’t know. To get them to read more, you need to start where they are. Describe some issue that they can relate to, and then lead them into a discussion of something they hadn’t considered related to that issue.

For a white paper, this usually means starting with a description of a key strategic issue that the target audience faces. For example, the paper might address a new regulation that has an industry quaking in its boots.

I recently wrote a white paper for a company that helps hospitals comply with audits from Medicaid, Medicare and private insurance companies. Targeting hospital audit managers, operations managers and CFOs, this paper documented the prospect of an exponentially increasing number of audits that are arising due to the success of Medicaid Recovery Audit Contractor (RAC) audits. This particular paper quoted the rising number of audits faced by one medical center. In other cases, I use quotes from high-profile industry analysis, such as the Gartner Group or Forrester Research to document a trend.

Opening the knowledge gap. Once you’ve described a problem the reader already knows they have, you can describe a new area where they have a gap in their knowledge. In a white paper that talks about a technology solution, this often means describing what’s missing in existing solutions that customers/readers may already be using. Again, this can require considerable research to adequately describe these problems.

Providing context around the solutions. Once you give people a clear idea of the problems they face and why existing solutions don’t truly address those problems, you can then begin to introduce your take on the solution. And yet, as you discuss different aspects of the solution, you still need to provide enough context so they can understand you.

For example, if I’m writing a white paper on how an ERP solution improves productivity, I might discuss how it centralizes data from throughout the organization and how it automates business processes. I would need to provide the additional context to explain how data was not stored centrally before and what problems that caused (i.e. the need to constantly rekey information into multiple systems, which is a time-consuming and error-prone process).

Providing context is time consuming. Even though I have an extensive background in many types of hardware and application software, it’s important to include the most up-to-date information, including the very latest trends as they apply to a particular industry, role or buyer persona. That can take considerable time sifting through trade-industry articles and interviews to understand the full story. Finding proof points from industry analysis can be time consuming—again because not only must the research be on topic, it also must be timely.

Even providing context about the individual benefits of a relatively generic solution can take a fair amount of effort. I like to find several sources to ensure that I understand each issue completely and can describe it fully to my readers.

The Art of Good Writing

The second time-consuming aspect of writing white papers is assembling contextual information in a way that makes sense for the reader and compels them to read further:

Tell a coherent story. You can’t just include blobs of content. People want to read a story with a beginning, middle, and an end. Usually for thought-leadership papers that educate potential customers at the awareness phase of the sales cycle, the story will need to include the following:

  • A beginning that describes a problem that our fearless reader needs to solve. In a white paper, this is usually a business condition that the customer must overcome if he or she is to succeed in meeting business goals. For example, the business challenge might be an uncertain economy that is leading the CFO to clamp down on IT budgets
  • The middle will often describe obstacles in the way of our fearless reader solving that problem. For example, say your paper is on tape-backup consolidation. Here’s where you can talk about why current tape-backup systems contribute to inefficiency in the business.
  • The end is where the reader is introduced to a solution to their problem. Here’s where you talk about all the ways tape-backup consolidation improves efficiency.

Tell the reader why you’ve included each section of the paper. Not only must the paper attempt to tell a story, it must make the different parts of the story obvious. You need to include an executive summary telling readers up front what the paper will be about (so they can decide whether or not they want to read it). You need to introduce each section. As I draft the rough versions of my papers, I often use subheads that state the purpose of each section—problem, obstacles, solution, benefits etc.—so I keep them clear in my own mind as I’m writing. Only when the draft is 95% complete do I change the subheads to more clearly represent the actual content of the paper. I might change a section called “The Challenge” to one called, “The Need to Improve Efficiency.”

Eliminate anything that doesn't contribute to the story. One risk of doing a lot of research is that while you’ll gather a great deal of information that’s important as background, but that won’t necessarily apply to the topic at hand. When you go to write the paper, however, you need to be ruthless about cutting anything out that doesn’t directly contribute to your story or the reader will get confused. For example, in my white paper-editing example, a key topic was the future of business intelligence. Yet, in many places, the paper wandered into a discussion of the Internet. While it’s fine in this context to talk about how the proliferation of Internet use will impact business intelligence, I cut out all references to how the Internet impacts telephony.

So in answer to the initial question, the reason white papers can be time consuming to write is that you must do your homework to get the context necessary to explain the issues thoroughly and then you need to craft a single, coherent story that includes only relevant information.