How to Write a White Paper for an IT Audience: Finding the best writer and a tried-and-true approach to getting the job done

This is Part 4 of our 5-part series covering all the steps required to write a quality white paper, from defining the target audience and creating a compelling package to getting it in the hands of prospects.

Read Part 1: How to define your target audience Part 2: Refining your topic, deciding on an approach and assembling supporting information Part 3: Coming up with an inviting format that’ll draw readers in

Finding the best writer and a tried-and-true approach to getting the job done.

If you’ve come this far, you’re likely on board with the importance of white papers in educating prospects and to lead-generation efforts. By now you’ve learned how to define your target audience and choose an appropriate topic (Part 1), assemble effective content (Part 2), and present it in an inviting package (Part 3). Now we’ll talk about the process for actually writing the paper and your options for who should take on the job.

Getting it Done

In terms of who will write the paper, you’ve essentially got two options: using in-house resources, or outsourcing some or all of the job.

The do-it-yourself approach

Lots of companies rely on in-house subject matter experts (SMEs) to write white papers. If you have such people on staff, and they are willing and able to write effectively, that is certainly a viable option. Before going this route, though, you may want to consider a few questions:
  • Does the SME really have the time to give the paper the attention it warrants, or would his/her time be better spent on other endeavors?
  • How will the writer react to potentially critical feedback from various reviewers?
  • Will reviewers be comfortable offering honest feedback to the writer?
If you do decide to write the paper in-house, you should at least enlist an experienced copy editor to review the finished document for proper grammar, punctuation and the like. If you’ve got an internal style guide, you’ll need to follow that. Next comes the task of laying out the paper. You may have your own graphic designers in-house who can perform this task. That’s certainly a viable option, and one that will ensure your paper has the same look and feel as your other marketing materials. And given that a white paper is typically considered a marketing document, it likely does fall within the graphic designer’s job description to handle white paper production. For companies without internal graphics and layout expertise, plenty of third-party companies can handle the task at reasonable rates.

The outsourcing option

If handling all those chores in-house doesn’t sound appealing, or you and your in-house experts just don’t have the time, outsourcing the task may be the better option.

Finding a writer

The first step in outsourcing white paper production is to find a writer with expertise in your market. The IT industry includes a vast community of freelance writers, many of whom will be more than happy to take on your white paper project. The trick is finding one who will do the job well. Word of mouth is a good way to find reliable writers. Ask other marketing folks who they’ve had success with in the past, and of course, think about your own experiences with outside writers. Just keep in mind that many freelancers in the IT space often spend the majority of their time writing objective news and feature stories for magazines and websites. Such writers may not be well-suited to handle a white paper, which by nature is a custom writing project. It’s best to find a writer who specializes in producing custom content for IT vendors.

The process

Once you’ve secured a writer, you’ll want to have a kick-off meeting to discuss the paper. You should have a topic in mind, but you can refine it with the help of the writer. Next, assemble as much background data on the topic as you can, including existing white papers, data sheets, case studies and website pages. After that, schedule time for the writer to talk to one or more of your SMEs about the topic.  For an experienced writer, it should take no more than one or two one-hour interviews to garner all the required information – assuming the writer asks the right questions. Between the background information and the interviews, the writer should be able pull together an outline of the paper for your review. As noted earlier, it’s crucial that anyone who will ultimately have to sign off on the paper review and comment on the outline. It’s much better to find out at the outline stage if the writer isn’t in sync with what you expect of the paper, so you can get on the same page before any actual writing begins. It’s far more difficult and time-consuming to rework a completed draft that misses the mark than it is to change an outline. Once the outline is approved, define a deadline for completion of the initial draft. The writer should be able to come up with an initial draft in one to two weeks. At that point, it’s time to send the draft out for review. Ideally, you’ll have all reviewers look at the same document, so they can see one another’s comments. Give reviewers no more than one week to review the document; any more than that, and they’ll likely set it aside to do later and never get to it. It’s best if you can keep the number of reviewers limited to three or four. Adding additional reviewers chews up an inordinate amount of time in the review cycle, as you work around varying schedules, and it will likely become more difficult to please all of them. If you must include more reviewers, allow for additional review time in the white paper schedule. Similarly, it’s best if you can limit review cycles to no more than two. After that, consider appointing a single point person to work with the writer, as the proxy for all other reviewers, to keep the project moving along.  (One caveat: If the initial draft was far off the mark, additional review rounds may be warranted.) Even if you outsource the job of writing your white paper, you may still use internal personnel to lay it out. Alternatively, some contract writers offer a turnkey service, enlisting a designer to lay out the paper for you. Read Part 5 of our series: Getting your paper in front of your target audience – without breaking the budget
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