Abstracts in white papers trigger debates

Abstracts in white papers is a subject often up for debate. Also called “executive summaries,” abstracts tend to be most commonly used in scientific research and professional journals. They’re short summaries — generally no more than two or three brief paragraphs — that explain the purpose of the paper or other document.

In our increasingly busy environment, many people advocate the use of abstracts because they believe it makes it easier for readers to grasp the key messages without having to read the full content. I disagree for two reasons.

Most readers already skim

First, most people don’t read white papers word for word. They skim through the white papers and read the sections that interest them most. White paper writers recognize this and use subheadings, bold lead-ins, and other techniques to guide the reader through the white paper.

Abstracts in white papers are only a partial message

Second, a white paper is a carefully structured argument for someone’s point of view. Getting the full value of the white paper requires taking the time to read it. When you present a simple summary of the argument and conclusion, readers are less likely to grasp your full position and how you came to it.

Encourage readers

You’ll hear people claim that nobody takes the time to read these days, but that simply isn’t true — especially when it comes to white papers. While we’re overwhelmed with different types of media and messages these days, we crave useful, understandable information that will help us make important decisions. That’s exactly what white papers are all about. So how do you ensure people will take the time to read your white paper? There are two steps:

1. Make it enjoyable to read

Forget what you learned in high school English or your college Composition class. Your white paper probably shouldn’t be a formal, stuffy, academic-style document. Instead, it should be written in plain, easily understandable English. Write in a conversational style and don’t be afraid of using contractions or following grammar rules to the nth degree. Your goal isn’t to get a B+ from your teacher or professors — it’s to make sure the reader gets the message you want to convey.

2. Build in navigation

As I mentioned earlier, it’s a good idea to guide the reader through the white paper. You can do that by setting the white paper up with a logical structure and using subheadings, bold lead-ins and similar tactics to help the reader better understand what each section is about. They may not read every word of your white paper, but they will take the time to concentrate on the information that matters most to them.

When to use abstracts in white papers

As with so many questions, there are times when it’s appropriate to use an abstract or an executive summary. If your white paper is on a highly technical or scientific matter, or if the use of abstracts is standard in your industry or field, you can include one. If you do, keep it short and don’t give away all the key information. Instead, do what writers call “teasing” the topic: sharing just enough information to encourage the reader to review the entire white paper.

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