What’s the right white paper length? It’s a question we hear frequently. While a brochure might contain a couple hundred words, white papers are generally between 1500 and 5000 words, which typically works out to 6 to 20 printed pages. In other words, there can be significant differences in white paper length, depending upon the purpose of the white paper.

White paper length isn’t arbitrary

There’s no “best” length for a white paper, so don’t start with an arbitrary length as a target. Instead, let the information drive the length. One thing that makes white papers different from many other marketing and communications channels is that they normally focus on giving the reader an in-depth understanding of something. Depending upon the subject of your white paper, that may take 8 pages or it may take a dozen.

Information determines white paper length

Instead of choosing an arbitrary length, just go ahead and develop your white paper. The quality of information in your white paper is more important than the number of words and pages, so concentrate on getting the message correct.  People rarely pick up white papers for entertainment. They read them because they need the information the white paper promises to provide.

White paper length is affected by structure

The length of your white paper will be affected by how you structure the document. One of the most effective structures you can have is to use the elements of this white paper approach in this order:

  • Serious title. The title of your white paper is particularly important. It should be serious and straightforward, instead of clever or promotional. If you were writing a product brochure, you might use something like “Process three times as many radishes with our veeblefetzers” for the headline, but something that promotional is less effective in a white paper. Instead, consider informative titles like “Evaluating processing alternatives for radish production” or “Cross-cutting and spiral-coring: an engineering comparison.”
  • Explain the main issue. Start with a short section describing your customers’ problem or challenge. Using an opening like this helps to builds a bond with readers, who see you have a solid understanding of what’s keeping them awake at night.
  • Explore solutions. Describe the types of solutions people have developed in response to the problem or challenge and discuss the advantages and disadvantages of each. Keep the content general and focus on facts at this step. Remember that you get to select the facts that present your product or service in the best light. If you’ve included the right information and presented it in the right way, readers will come to the conclusion you have the best offering on their own — a far more compelling result than trying to tell them how to think.
  • Add sidebars. Want to highlight a particular concept or something interesting that doesn’t fit within the body of the white paper? Sidebars, which are smaller articles, text boxes, or lists that are separate from the main copy add visual interest, draw the readers’ eyes and enhance their knowledge.
  • Don’t get promotional. End your white paper with a short section describing your product or service, and an even shorter description of your company. Giving in to the temptation to talk about what makes your Model SD60M the best product in the universe will turn a helpful, informative tool into one more exercise in hype.
  • Look serious. White papers are serious, non-promotional documents, and the most effective ones are designed to reflect that. When companies and graphic designers try to make them fancy and colorful, it’s counterproductive, as it makes white papers appear to be advertising materials. Many common white paper audiences (like engineers, CFOs, and CEOs) distrust materials that appear to be more “salesy” than informative. If your message lends itself to charts or graphs, they can add strength. It’s okay to include photographs if they support your message, but adding those stock photos of happy people in business meetings isn’t necessary.
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