Grammar with white papers is an area that creates confusion for many writers (and people who evaluate writers’ work). White papers are typically lengthy documents, and may very well remind you of the research and term papers you wrote in school.

But while both school papers and white papers have a lot of words and paragraphs, they exist for strikingly different reasons. So different in fact that the style of writing is nothing like the stuffy, formal approach taught in high school English and college Composition classes. So different that if your white paper earned an A+ from your toughest teacher or professor, it probably isn’t going to be very effective.

What you need to understand is that writing white papers isn’t about trying to impress strict English teachers or jaded Composition instructors. It’s about selling. Telling. Convincing. Entertaining. Emphasizing. Even infuriating. Doing that effectively demands copy that’s extraordinarily individual and personal. In fact, the more copy sounds like conversation, the more effective it tends to be.

Once you’re outside of school and need to communicate in a persuasive manner to prospects, customers, co-workers, and any other kind of stakeholder, grammar takes a backseat to connecting with the reader and ensuring that your message is clearly understood. 

The most effective way to do that is to be individual and personal, and that calls for a conversational style. Conversation is far more informal than the academic writing style. When we speak, most of us fail to use textbook grammar. We start sentences with conjunctions, and end them with prepositions. We even use sentence fragments. Our teachers would be disappointed with us.

Actually, they wouldn’t. That’s because they know the type of grammar and syntax they’re teaching is for academic writing. It’s the world they work in and are most familiar with, and if you want to succeed in that world, you need to be able to write in a formal style bult upon near-perfect grammar.

But when you’re trying to convince someone to do (or not do) something, to take a closer look at what you’re offering them, to consider what you want them buy, and so forth, using that formal style can actually drive them away. That’s because we’re wary of people who communicate stiffly and formally. We hope other people talk the way we do, and when we see that in print, we’re automatically more comfortable with them – so we’re also more responsive to the message we’re presenting.

Keep in mind that grammar is not a rigid set of rules that cannot be broken. It’s a framework of structure and standards that varies by the type of writing and the audience – and it’s been changing right alongside society. Fifty years ago, a businessman wouldn’t set foot on an airplane or an expense-account restaurant without a necktie. Count the number of ties you see on your next flight. As society becomes more informal, our writing does, too.

Does that mean you should ignore basic rules of grammar and syntax? Not at all. But the degree of grammatical correctness you use should reflect the situation and the audience. If the main audience for your white paper is a group of university professors, you’ll probably want to make it more formal. But if the audience is made up of industrial purchasing agents, you should use the kind of language they use every day.

For example, it’s okay to use contractions (like “aren’t” or “don’t”) because they help copy sound talky and friendly. It’s also okay to start sentences with conjunctions like “and” or “but,” and to end them with prepositions. Even though you learned not to use “you” when writing at school, using it in a white paper makes it seem like a conversation you’re having with the reader.

Instead of writing like you did in those term papers, write to communicate. Match the formality of what you’re writing to the situation and the audience. A memo about the company picnic doesn’t need to be as formal as a white paper directed to college professors. Simply put, focus on conveying the message in the most effective way, not trying to impress your English teacher with your command of sentence structure. Now that’s writing to be proud of.