“How long does it take to write a white paper?” It’s a valid question. Even if you’re someone who frequently handles writing as part of your job or volunteer work, you may not have any idea of how long it takes to develop a white paper. That’s because white papers are different from a blog post, web copy, press releases, and the other types of materials that may be a regular part of your job.

Writing white papers takes longer

Do you write regularly as part of your job? If you’re someone who writes the occasional blog post, news releases, brochures, or other materials, you’re probably good at writing things quickly. But writing white papers can take significantly longer. White papers can easily take a month or two depending upon the subject, its complexity, and how many people are involved in the process.

Why does it take more time to write a white paper? White papers typically require more research, drawing upon the knowledge of multiple subject matter experts (SMEs), and selecting the topics of greatest interest to the audience before beginning the process of writing, reviewing, revising, and design. 

White papers for marketing

White papers function as powerful marketing tools. As detailed, time-consuming documents that explore complex issues to educate audiences, successful white papers offer facts and arguments to convince people that your product, service, or strategy offers the best solution for the situation.

White papers tend to work well in today’s business environment, because customers and prospects are hungry for good information at the same time they’re busier than ever. That combination explains why they appreciate practical guidance that’s focused on their specific needs. Most white paper readers are suspicious of advertising, your blog post, or other obviously sales-focused approaches, but they’re more likely to trust white papers that are fact-based and informational.

When the target audience distrusts advertising

White papers offer a significant advantage over advertising and a blog post when it comes to trying to convince your target audience to take action. That advantage is the target audience’s perception of the trustworthiness of the material. They’re looking for serious information and would rather not deal with promotional hype.

When writing white papers, you should focus on information and facts. People read them because they need to know something. Maybe they want to better understand a new technology they’ve heard about. They could be desperately seeking a solution for a problem that’s hurting their business. Perhaps they need support for a recommendation they’re making to their bosses. Whatever the reason, the trustworthy information you use when writing white papers improves their perception of you and your company.

You never want to confuse white papers with brochures. Brochures are usually colorful and lively, because they’re designed to directly sell or promote your product or service as part of the sales cycle. The copy in brochures is typically brief. Most often, it provides just enough information to catch the reader’s attention and motivate them to learn more.

White paper examples, in contrast, are serious, non-promotional documents created to give readers the information they need to better understand something, find a solution to a product, or gather evidence to support a recommendation.

White papers are usually longer

A typical blog post might be 300 to 700 words long (although the average blog post is getting longer these days). Compare that to white papers, which are generally between 1500 and 5000 words long. That typically works out to 6 to 20 printed pages. There is no set length to keep in mind when you create an entire white paper. The topic and information should drive the length, because the quality of the information is more important than its quantity.

White papers have non-promotional titles

Titles of white papers for marketing uses should be serious and straightforward, instead of clever or promotional. A product brochure might use a headline like “Process three times as many radishes with our veeblefetzers.” However, a white paper guy or gal’s work on the same topic might use something more like “Evaluating processing alternatives for radish production.”

White papers focus on issues

Most writing produced by companies is promotional, designed to sell products or services, so it typically talks about the company and what it offers. When you write a white paper, you take a different approach. The white paper should instead focus on the problem or situation your reader needs help with. They’re reading your white paper because they’re looking for information to help them do something (or convince them not to do it).

After an introduction or executive summary, the typical white paper will explore the primary solutions that have been developed for the problem or challenge. A standard white paper format begins with a general discussion of the issue being addressed. As they write a white paper, the writer will normally then examine the advantages and disadvantages of each of the solutions mentioned. In comparing them, the white paper guy or gal should focus on the facts, keeping the content general.

Part of your content marketing strategy

How does that approach benefit your company? It’s simple. You get to choose which facts appear in the entire white paper, so you can choose the facts that put your product, solution, or idea in the most favorable light. If you’ve included the right information and presented it in the right way, readers will come to the conclusion your solution is best on their own, which is much more meaningful than trying to convince them through advertising writing or other kinds of hype.

You may be tempted to get into great detail about what makes your Model SD60M the best product in the universe when you write a white paper. Unfortunately, that kind of content will destroy the impression of objectivity you’ve worked so hard to create. It’s better to end your white paper with a short section describing your product or service, and an even shorter description of your company.

White papers need deep subject matter expertise

Subject matter experts (SMEs) play an important role in developing white papers for marketing or educational purposes. That’s because white paper SMEs are the people who have the knowledge needed to develop the white paper. Rarely do white paper writers already have all the information they need on their own (and generally, that’s only when the white paper writers work within an organization).

Who are the SMEs?

One of the first steps in the white paper planning process is identifying the right SMEs for the white paper. Generally, SMEs for white papers fall into one of two categories: internal and external. Internal SMEs are employees of the organization developing the white paper. Most are either company leaders or people whose jobs require specialized knowledge, such as engineers or technical salespeople. External SMEs are, as the name would suggest, people who work for other organizations (or themselves) who have important knowledge about the industry, the products, or the process to be discussed in the white paper. Either way, you should be able to count on the SME to provide up-to-date information.

Contacting white paper SMEs

Once the SMEs have been identified, the next step is for the white paper writer to interview them. Some people just try to call SMEs to see if they have time to talk. I find its far more effective to schedule interviews in advance. SMEs tend to have busy schedules, but setting a time in the future allows them to prepare for the interview, making it less stressful. Taking time to work with their schedule is also a sign of courtesy and respect. Interviews can be conducted in in person, or over the phone or video platforms. (If the SME is too busy for a real-time interview, an alternative is to conduct the interview through a series of emails. However, that approach is usually less successful than a real-time conversation.)

Prepare to interview the SMEs

Whether you conduct your interview with the SMEs in person or via technology, preparing for the interview will help you make the most of the person’s busy time and reduce the possibility you’ll forget to ask something important. Make a list of the questions you intend to ask and write them down in the order you plan to ask them. Be sure to prioritize them, because you may not have time to ask all your questions. It is generally a good idea to prepare extra questions in case the SME is one of those people who gives short answers.

Conduct the white paper interview

I always like to begin interviews by asking the SME if the agreed-upon time is still convenient. Sometimes, things come up that make it difficult for the SME to talk when they originally scheduled. Asking is also a friendly gesture that demonstrates you respect the SME’s schedule. Keep the interview to the scheduled time. If it appears you’ll need more time, ask the SME if they have the time or they would prefer to schedule a second session. It’s better to take the extra time instead of trying to rush too quickly through your questions.

Record the SME interview

Many people like to take notes from the interviews, but I strongly recommend recording them. That allows you the opportunity to go back and listen again, and it makes it more likely you’ll capture the SME’s words accurately. You can even have the interview recording transcribed. I use a transcription website called rev.com that provides fast, economical transcriptions. Another advantage of having the interviews transcribed is that you can copy and paste quotes directly from the transcript into your white paper draft.

Determining how long it takes to write a white paper

If you’re planning a schedule for the entire white paper process, you may find it helpful to develop a chart like the sample one that follows. Start by outlining all the steps that will be involved, then enter how much time each step will take, and finally, apply that to the calendar.

TaskDays of workEstimated completion
Develop concept/title211/3
Get management approval111/4
Identify SMEs111/5
Interview SMEs411/11
Compile interview notes211/13
Gather additional research311/18
Develop an outline111/19
Write the first draft511/25
Team reviews first draft312/2
Write the second draft212/4
Team reviews second draft212/8
Team approves draft112/9
Develop layout for paper412/15
Team reviews layout112/16
Make changes112/17
Final approval112/18
Post to website112/21

Planning how to write a white paper

Writing a successful white paper doesn’t begin when you start drafting sentences and combining them into paragraphs. The key to writing a great white paper comes in preparation. The more you do upfront, the better able you’ll be to write a great white paper that will achieve your objectives.

Goals for your white paper

Start by identifying the goal of your white paper. Is its primary purpose to generate leads for your company? Is it to educate prospective customers who have been using a competitor’s product or service? Is it simply a matter of making sure others become aware of something you see as critically important? If you don’t know what your goal is, you’re not likely to achieve it, even if it’s a relatively generic solution. Even if you have multiple goals, you should identify the one that’s most important. Before you start gathering information and drafting your thoughts, know what your primary objective is.

Planning to write a white paper

The next steps as you prepare to write a white paper involve two kinds of planning. The first of these is a plan for all the activities associated with the white paper. For example, you may need to perform research, conduct interviews with internal subject matter experts, or find people in your industry who can contribute valuable information. You’ll want to set a target date for beginning to write the paper and think through the process of who will review it and how long it will take. You also need to think about the format the particular paper will have. Will it be printed? Made available as a PDF? Are you planning to post it online?

The second type of planning is for the concept itself. You don’t need to develop the formal kind of outline your high school English teacher made you prepare, but it’s wise to determine how the white paper will flow and what it will address, so you can make sure you gather all the information you need.

Create the outline for a white paper format

For example, an outline for a typical white paper about the advantages of a certain formulation for car wash detergent might use a white paper format outline like this:

  •             Introduction
  •             Challenge: Smaller margins for car washes
  •             Information: How detergents work with water
  •             Information: What is “hard” water and how does it affect detergent performance?
  •             Information: Strategies for softening water
  •             Information: The benefits of using softer water
  •             Product: Sudzo Detergent includes chemicals to soften water
  •             Benefits: Car washes can wash more cars using less water and detergent
  •             Information: Brief description of Amalgamated Industries, maker of Sudzo

Begin to gather information

Before you start writing the white paper, gather all the information you’ll need. That may include everything from doing research online, to reading trade industry articles and a blog post, to setting interviews with subject matter experts. After you accumulate all that information, organize it to follow your white paper outline. Review the outline before you begin writing. You may discover that some of what you’ve obtained really isn’t of value or won’t provide key supporting messages to the white paper. Or you may find that you need additional information to complete one of the sections. For example you might need to know more about your company’s product that automates business processes for private insurance companies.

Start writing the white paper

Now that you’ve gathered all the information together, it’s time to start developing the white paper itself. As you write a white paper, focus on conveying the information in ways that readers will understand. Most of the time, that involves writing in a conversational style, rather than using technical language or the type of somewhat academic style writing you were expected to use when you were in school.

After you complete your first draft, walk away from it for a little while and then read through it. You’ll probably see opportunities to edit and improve it. The typical professional white paper guy or gal puts as much effort into revising and fine-tuning when they write a white paper as they put into developing that first draft.

Get approvals from everyone

Once the white paper meets your standards, it’s time to take it through the approval process. At some companies, that may involve simply showing it to your supervisor or a single department. At other organizations, white papers may need to be approved by a variety of departments. Much depends upon your company’s content marketing strategy. Be sure to keep track of who requested which changes. If you disagree with a requested change, go back to the person or department who made the request and see if there is a mutually acceptable way to address their concerns.

After everyone has had a chance to review the paper, it’s ready for final formatting and publications. If you’ve gone through all these steps, congratulations! You’ve just written a great white paper.

Want to write a white paper in less time?

Working with a professional white paper writer can be an effective way to speed up the process of writing a white paper. Even if you consider yourself to be a skilled writer, it’s going to take longer for you to develop materials than it would for a professional writer. And what’s going to happen to the rest of your workload while you’re spending hours trying to find the right words and organize them into sentences and paragraphs? Is someone else going to step up and help or are your workdays only going to get longer?

Turning to a professional white paper writer will take the time-consuming work off your hands and demonstrate your business processes or sales cycle more effectively.