What Working with Expert Gordon Graham Taught Me about Writing White Papers

Different color wooden blocks labeled mentoring, support, training, motivation, and direction stacked on the table

I was traveling down a winding rural road from Indiana to my home in Arkansas when I got “the call.”

On the line was Gordon Graham! He was asking if I'd be interested in working on a White Paper project with him, because he was quite busy with other projects.

Now, if you're not familiar with Gordon, he's That White Paper Guy — one of THE top White Paper writers around.

His book — White Papers for Dummies — has a place on my library shelf and in my Kindle app.

And he called me! Can you imagine?!

The client was an Arkansas association and the White Paper topic was their pensions. After viewing my LinkedIn profile, he thought I could be a good match for this project.

Honestly, writing about pensions is not in my niche and this was all new to me, so I thought about turning the project down … for a couple of seconds, that is. But of course I agreed to the opportunity.

Treating the project as an apprenticeship

I was up front with Gordon about my lack of experience, and his response was that this could make an excellent sample for me. It could help sway future clients in my favor.

We were going to split the work on this project. Gordon sent a spreadsheet on how it would be divided. My main tasks would be researching and writing the paper, and I was included in every step of the project, including the initial client phone calls.

He would spearhead the project, create the White Paper plan, and edit my work. And I could learn his roadmap for how to work on this type of project. From initial contact to pricing to finished product, it’s a valuable experience to learn from an expert.

So, what is a White Paper?

Before we got started, I thought a White Paper was nothing more than a long-format B2B sales letter. I'm not really comfortable with writing that type of piece and I was a bit hesitant.

But once Gordon "took me under his wing," he laid my fears to rest. In fact, it turned out they were really enjoyable projects!

To better understand what a White Paper is, let's first look at what it isn't. A White Paper:

  • Isn't a sales pitch,
  • Isn’t an advertisement, brochure, or direct-mail piece,
  • Isn't a blog article or case study, and
  • It doesn't have a "Buy Now" button.

Gordon shared this short definition: "A White Paper is a persuasive essay that uses facts and logic to promote a certain product, service, or viewpoint."

They’re used for products which are expensive, hi-tech, complex, or innovative or new to the market. White Papers range from six to eight pages in today's market, much shorter than in the past.

White Papers can be quite flavorful

If you search the Internet, you might find a plethora of White Paper types. I started to get confused on which type to use in each situation. However, Gordon simplified the choices for me.

He explained that almost all of them boil down to three distinct "flavors," and each has a defined purpose in the buying cycle.

Chocolate: Problem/Solution White Papers are used at the start of the cycle to inform prospects of a solution to a business, technical, or manufacturing problem they're having.

Vanilla: Backgrounders help persuade prospects near the end of the buying cycle that choosing this particular offering is the best option. They can also be useful to support a product launch when given to news media, analysts, and other information gatherers.

Strawberry: The Numbered List is popular because of its versatility. It can be used throughout the sales cycle, and even before. The numbered list is a great attention-getter because it's "snackable" content. This White Paper often highlights key viewpoints surrounding a major issue. This strawberry-flavored "listicle" can also be smoothly blended with either the Problem/Solution or Backgrounder White Paper flavors.

No hype … just the facts

Since White Papers aren't direct sales pieces, facts and logic are the main tools in the White Paper toolkit. Features and benefits are presented on an even keel.

You'll often use citations in the White Paper. Make sure to include where you found the information and who presented the facts. You'll need that to validate you’re quoting from credible sources.

Keep a list of resources in a format that’s handy and easily accessed. I’ve found that Evernote works admirably for this. I clip a page and it automatically records the information as well as the Internet URL or address. Other digital notebooks also work for this.

While research is essential, keep this in mind. Too much research can be just as deadly as not enough. Not only might it slow you down, but it may also confuse the issues.

When I started to get overwhelmed with all the subject matter I found, Gordon explained that I might be doing too much research. That it was bogging me down, keeping me from the real task of writing the paper.

He helped me narrow it down to just the information I'd need to write a persuasive piece.

He pointed out that not everything you've found needs to be included in the White Paper. Use only those sources and arguments that strengthen your thesis or idea. With his help, it was like a fog lifted and what I needed to write became clearer.

Is a White Paper in your copywriting future?

If, like me, you haven’t been geared toward writing long-form sales letters, White Papers may be more your style.

As mentioned, they normally run between six and eight pages. For a new writer, they can be completely written and finished in as little as a month to six weeks.

And the payoff? The fees run between $2,000 and $7,500. Some may pay even more, depending on the content and industry.

Honestly, I'd never considered writing White Papers before Gordon taught me the ropes. His expert guidance opened a new and profitable world of writing for me to explore.

It's definitely another powerful tool in my copywriter's toolkit. It could be in yours too.

Do you have any questions about getting started writing White Papers? Please share with us in the comments.

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Published: October 9, 2019

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