White papers: Can a non-scientist write them?

White papers are great marketing tools, but writing them can be intimidating.

White paper question

Here’s what one reader asked:

I’m curious if other readers of your newsletter have similar thoughts / questions about white papers that I do….I’m a little intimidated by the idea of writing a white paper because in a past job (medical device sales rep), white papers were written by scientists doing experiments in the lab. They had a budget, several people working on the research, and they wrote very detailed scientific results to their experiments with many, many footnotes. Often the language of the paper was very difficult to understand.

How can I as a business person write a white paper? (Isn’t that only for scientists?)  What would my “business person” white paper look like? Wouldn’t it have to be super scientific?

My answer

You don’t need to be a scientist or hold an advanced degree to write a white paper.

Here’s what I told my reader:

“White paper” has a broad range of meanings. But I think the key is that it poses a problem faced by readers and offers some sort of solution. You’re certainly capable of doing that. If the term “white paper” intimidates you, think of it as a “special report” or “mini e-book.”

My reader’s reply:

Thanks for your answer! The mini e-book resonates with me. Funny how terminology can affect you!

Still have questions about white papers?

Read “White paper marketing: Walk a fine line” to learn about what makes for a good white paper for an investment, wealth management, or financial planning firm.

If you want to write a white paper, but fear that you lack the necessary budget, read “How to get a white paper written on a budget .”

If you’re on the fence about writing a white paper, read “4 reasons you shouldn’t write a white paper.” This article may help you by talking you out of writing a white paper—or pushing you to satisfy a higher standard with your white paper.

The compelling investment white paper that wasn’t

If you’re like me, you don’t achieve all of your goals. What can stop you from achieving your goal of writing a compelling investment white paper? I see three main problems that derail people.

1. You don’t start your white paper

Everybody is busy. Most people procrastinate about something. This is especially true for white papers when they’re not part of your daily responsibilities. Most subject-matter experts have other, time-consuming responsibilities, such as client work, travel, and face-to-face meetings.


  1. Outsource your white paper. Unload some of the responsibility by hiring a writer to write your white paper. You’ll minimize your load if you choose a writer who does the research, in addition to the writing. However, you run the risk that the writer’s views won’t reflect those held by you or your company. As a writer, I prefer working on white papers where you provide the views—through interviews and background materials—and the writer sticks to writing. That’s reflected in the writing process that I follow. I suggest that you avoid Financial white paper writers who say ‘yes.’”  Here are some tips for “How to get a white paper written on a budget.”
  2. Break your white paper writing into small steps. Smaller steps are less intimidating and easier to start. Ask yourself, “What’s the one step that will advance my white paper?” Start there, without worrying about the rest of the process.
  3. Find an accountability buddy. Sometimes making a commitment to a colleague or friend makes you more likely to act. I’ve written about this in “How a blogging buddy can help your financial planning or investment blog.”

2. It doesn’t attract readers’ attention

Compelling investment white papers should be objective, yet opinionated. This is the bottom line from an investment white paper survey that I conducted and wrote about some years ago. If you fail to pose a problem that readers care about, or if you fail to offer a solution, you won’t have a compelling investment white paper.


  1. Learn what your readers care about. You can do this through talking with them or conducting surveys or other research. I’ve discussed some research techniques in “Financial content: Ask questions of your readers.” It’s important to appeal to your readers’ interests. Pay attention to WIIFM, which I discuss in “Focus on benefits, not features, in your marketing.”
  2. Share robust research. If you work for a large financial firm, you probably have robust resources. You can conduct your own research, use research done by others at your firm, or use outside research. When you use outside research, make sure you don’t violate the researchers’ copyright, a risk I’ve discussed in “Legal danger for financial bloggers: Two misconceptions, three resources, one suggestion.” If you’re at a small firm, you may need to get creative. Perhaps you can write a compelling investment white paper that draws on survey research that you’ve conducted among members of your target audience. Or perhaps you can find and cite academic research that isn’t broadly known. Start a file of background information as soon as you identify a compelling investment white paper topic.
  3. Spread the word about your white paper. People who don’t find your white paper don’t get a chance to judge whether it’s compelling or not. Spread the word about your white paper. Include it in your regular client and prospect communications, such as newsletters. Write teaser copy that incorporates keywords to catch people’s attention when they search online. Write tweets and status updates that will intrigue people who follow you on social media.

3. It’s not clear or concise

Like you, members of your target audience are busy. They lack the time to slog through white papers that are unclear or wordy. Also, they question your credibility if your paper is riddled with typos and other mistakes. A professional writer should be able to avoid these problems. But sometimes even professionals fall short.


  1. Edit and proofread the white paper yourself. Not sure where to start? Try techniques discussed on my blog, including my first-sentence check, Hemingway.com, or the Writer’s Diet. In my financial blogging class, I discuss how to use mind mapping to analyze a poorly structured piece of writing. To catch typos, use the read out loud feature of Adobe Acrobat or other software. To avoid data errors, follow my tips in “Investment commentary numbers: How to get them right.”
  2. Hire an editor or proofreader. An editor who knows investments will do the best job, especially if your piece is aimed at institutional investors. However, even a recent college grad with a good command of the English language can catch blatant typos. Your choice depends on your budget.
  3. Get a colleague, friend, or client to read your white paper. They’ll probably read and comment for free. The perspective of an outsider—especially one who knows you well enough to point out weak writing or mistakes—can be valuable. This is true even if you’re not on a tight budget.

YOUR tips for writing compelling investment white papers?

Do you have tips for how to write compelling investment white papers? Please comment.

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Quit underlining headings in your documents!

Underlining headings in your written documents used to be common. That’s no longer true, especially because underlined text now leads people to expect hyperlinks.

Underlining headings dates back to the days of typewriters. As Practical Typography says,

Underlining is another dreary typewriter habit. Typewriters had no bold or italic styling. So the only way to emphasize text was to back up the carriage and type underscores be­neath the text. It was a workaround for shortcomings in typewriter technology.

Please stop underlining headings, unless you want to prove that you’re old-fashioned.

Old vs. new style of headings

Sample 1

This is what headings and text sometimes looked like in the old days:


This is the text under the heading.

Sample 2

Here’s an easy, more modern style of heading:


This is the text under the heading.

When you compare Sample 1 with Sample 2, which makes it easier for you to focus on the heading? It’s Sample 2.

That ease is important in encouraging readers to skim—rather than abandon—your content. That’s important now that everyone’s attention spans have shortened. If they continue skimming, perhaps they’ll find a heading that tempts them to dig into the details of what you’ve written.

Use heading styles built into your software

If you only have one level of headings in your document, it’s easy to make them all bold. But what if you have different levels of headings? You’re most likely to need multiple levels in a long document like a white paper.

Different heading styles are built into many types of software.

For example, here is one style you can find in Microsoft Word’s ribbon:
Style ribbon in Microsoft Word



Here’s what these styles might look like in a document:

Word heading style sample


You can learn more about using styles in Microsoft Word on Microsoft’s help page, starting with “Show or hide the ribbon in Office.” (Depending on your version of Word, your steps to find and apply headings may differ.)

Styles can get pretty fancy, but I tend to stick with the basics. I prefer to devote more time to writing than design.

Microsoft Office isn’t the only software with different styles for headings. You’ll also find them in WordPress. Here’s an explanation of headings in WordPress.

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What if my financial article has too many examples?

Examples are great additions to your financial article or white paper. They make your points come alive, convincing your readers of your main points. However, your financial white paper can have too many examples.

For example, imagine an article that has 20 bullet-pointed examples of how a retirement account might help investors. I doubt readers will get beyond six bullet points at most. They may abandon your article because of information overload.

Sometimes it’s true that “less is more.”

How can you fix a financial article or white paper with too many examples? I have suggestions.

Solution 1: Delete examples from your financial article

Sometimes the simplest solution is the best. Identify the most compelling examples and delete the rest.

Don’t throw out those examples, which a small subset of readers may find powerful. Instead, “Save your trash to feed your blog,” as I’ve said before. You can write a narrowly focused blog post or article that addresses the examples cut from your original article.

Solution 2: Organize examples into subgroups

You may be able to organize your examples into subgroups. Imagine that you have 20 examples of the best retirement account choices. If you divide those examples into six categories, your readers can zoom in on the information that’s relevant to them.

For example, you might divide examples into the following categories in terms of whom they help. Categories might include retirement savers who:

  • Are under age 50
  • Are age 50 and up
  • Are nearing the age of required minimum distributions
  • Have maxed out their other retirement accounts
  • Want to buy a piece of property as an investment
  • Are more concerned about passing assets to future generations than saving for retirement

Solution 3: Create a chart, table, or other exhibit

Consider creating a chart, table, or other exhibit that organizes your examples. You can discuss the most compelling examples in the body of your white paper, but refer your readers to your exhibit for more information. The visual aspect of exhibits helps readers to focus on what interests them the most. It also helps them to absorb your information more efficiently.

Another possibility: Create a flow chart that points readers to different examples based on their individual situation and desires.

Exhibits break up the wall of words. Exhibits with more images, such as infographics, are also great for capturing attention on social media.

Solution 4: Dump examples in an appendix

If you can’t bear to edit or organize your examples, then put them in an appendix. There they won’t prevent readers from absorbing your arguments in the body of your white paper or article. Yet they’re available for people who want to review all the relevant information (and more) before making a decision.

Use these solutions and boost the power of your financial article, blog post, or white paper!

Image courtesy of Stuart Miles/Freedigitalphotos.net

Top 5 financial white paper mistakes that sabotage your results

I’ve seen many white papers fail to attract and educate readers. That’s often because they make the top five financial white paper mistakes.

1. They discuss a topic, not a problem.

Bad white papers fail to identify a point and to proceed toward it. In contrast, the best white papers tackle a problem—and offer a solution. They don’t ramble aimlessly about a topic.

A “topic” is “small-cap stocks.” A “problem” is “What should I invest in?” or “Should I invest in small-cap stocks?” These problems are solved by white papers with titles such as “The case for small-cap stocks” or “How small cap stocks can improve your portfolio’s diversification.”

On a related point, white papers shouldn’t originate simply because portfolio managers or other financial professionals have an idea they’re excited about. White papers should be tied to client needs. If you’d like to respectfully rein in portfolio managers, read “Reader question: How can communicators manage difficult portfolio managers?

2. They are brochures, not white papers.

If a paper focuses on its publisher’s products and services, it’s a brochure, not a white paper.

Most good financial white papers wait until the last page to plug their products. Usually the promotion consists of a call-to-action (CTA) statement to contact the firm or to click through to learn more about a product. The CTA is often set off in italics or separated from the body of the paper by other formatting. This visible separation tells readers, “We understand the difference between educating you and explicitly pushing our services.”

Of course, white papers have a marketing agenda. They’re effective because they discuss problems that their products or services solve.

3. They’re too long.

People’s attention spans are limited. They won’t read long white papers.

Attention spans differ for institutional vs. retail audiences. Institutional readers will stick with you longer, partly because, compared with individuals, they require more proof of the points that you make in your white papers. They won’t take your statements on faith.

I’ve seen retail white papers that work with lengths as short as 1.000 to 2,000 words. On the institutional side, I’ve written white papers that run 5,000 words or longer.

4. They’re poorly written.

Bad writing drives readers away, unless the readers are highly motivated to learn about your topic and have nowhere else to turn. Even highly motivated readers will struggle to grasp your message if your white paper is poorly written.

Writing that achieves the 3 Cs of being compelling, clear, and concise make it easier for prospects to become clients.

5. They’re poorly formatted.

Cramped, unattractive white papers make it harder for readers to absorb your message. They also suggest that your firm is less than 100% professional in its approach to communications with clients and prospects.

Good formatting and design are easy on the eyes. They help busy readers to quickly assess whether your white paper can help them solve their problems. They enhance the effectiveness of information that you present in charts, graphs, and sidebars (which are boxes that are separate from your white paper’s main flow).

How to avoid financial white paper mistakes

For industry professionals’ perspective on what makes for a good financial white paper, read “White paper marketing: Walk a fine line.”

Consider hiring professionals to help with your white papers. A writer or editor can ensure that your papers are well written. If you’re a small firm that lacks access to a professional designer, consider hiring a designer to create a template for you. Then you’ll have a good layout and some good ideas about how to format graphs and other exhibits. Help makes it a lot easier to avoid financial white paper mistakes.


Financial white paper writers who say “yes”

Do you want a financial white paper writer who says “yes” to everything you write or suggest? I say “no.” Financial white paper writers who push back can be the best friends of companies that aren’t familiar with how to write great investment or wealth management white papers.

Don’t get me wrong. Your white paper writer should respect your goals and desires. However, the best financial white paper writers will push you to create the best white paper possible. They will say “no” when your white paper is weak in the areas I discuss below.

Weakness 1. Problem identification and WIIFM

yes noIf your white paper doesn’t identify a problem experienced by your target audience, then it’s not going to attract prospects or convince referral sources to pass along your name. You need to answer the question of “What’s in it for me?” (WIIFM) for your prospects. You should also understand the WIIFM for your business.

For example, imagine that you pose the topic of “401(k) plan types.” Who cares? That sounds like a dull reference work that could only interest an ERISA attorney or defined contribution recordkeeper. But how about “the 401(k) plan characteristics that boost participation and simplify plan administration”? That’s a winner that will help both participants and the plan sponsor. If your firm helps plan sponsors achieve those characteristics—or if this topic enhances your credibility as a provider of related services or products—then this topic helps you to achieve your business goals.

A good writer will ask the following questions early in their discussions with you:

  • Who is your target audience and what do you want them to do after reading the white paper?
  • What is your topic and why will your target audience care about it?
  • What problem does this topic solve for your readers?

When you and your writer get the answers right, you can attract and retain readers’ attention. Your readers won’t ask “Why the heck are you telling me this?”

Good white papers focus on solving problems, not promoting the firm that publishes them, as I explained in “White paper marketing: Walk a fine line.” If you truly seek a white paper, your writer should say “no” when your draft becomes a brochure.

Weakness 2. Poorly explained concepts

Your experts know what they’re talking about. But sometimes it’s hard for them to explain their ideas in plain English. As a result, your readers won’t appreciate the value of what you write in your white papers.

Take for example, the concepts of “asset allocation” and “diversification.” These are easy for investment professionals to understand. However, they require explanation and perhaps even some examples to make sense to less sophisticated individual investors. A good white paper writer won’t hesitate to push you on this.

Weakness 3. Poor organization and wording

Poor organization and bad wording will confuse your readers. They may even drive them away.

When you give a weak outline to good writers, they’ll fight back. They’ll propose a new, stronger outline that will let your ideas shine. They’ll also polish your wording.

Look for financial white paper writers who say “no”

You need a white paper writer who’ll be responsive to your needs. Sometimes that means saying “no” to the way your ideas are presented. That’s part of the value that good white paper writers bring.

Image courtesy of digitalart/FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Are you crediting your OECD data properly?

You can’t simply grab data for use in your white papers, articles, and blog posts. You may not have the right to use as much of the information as you like, as I’ve explained in “Legal danger for financial bloggers: Two misconceptions, three resources, one suggestion.” Assuming it’s okay to use the data, you need to give the proper credit for it. Some data providers ask for more than others, as I discovered when I looked at the website of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). OECD data is often cited in white papers of investment and wealth management firms.

In this post, I describe some steps you can take to use OECD data according to its guidelines. Please check directly with the organization if you have questions. They’re the authority on the use of their data.

1. Check to see if you need permission

Below is what I found on the OECD website about using its data:

You can copy, download or print content for your own use, and you can also include excerpts from OECD publications, databases and multimedia products in your own documents, presentations, blogs, websites and teaching materials, provided that suitable acknowledgment of OECD as source and copyright owner is given. You should cite the Title of the material, © OECD, publication year (if available) and page number or URL (uniform resource locator) as applicable.

All requests for commercial use and translation rights should be submitted to rights@oecd.org.

This description is vague enough that I wondered if you can use OECD data in a white paper without paying a fee. After all, white papers seems like commercial use to me. I found a pretty broad definition of commercial use on TheHelpful.com. My philosophy about using copyrighted data is “When in doubt, ask for permission.” I emailed the OECD to ask if it’s okay to use its data in a white paper with attribution.

2. Work within the OECD’s constraints

Here’s the part of the reply I received from an individual in the OECD’s rights area.

Thank you for your message. There are no objections concerning the reproduction of OECD data (values) to create your own graphs/tables/charts provided that suitable acknowledgment of OECD as source and copyright owner is given. The material should be cited as follows : Based on data from OECD, title of the dataset, title of the database, friendly url, date of access

It seems as if you are free to cite some data in your text and even to create your own graphs, tables, and charts using the OECD’s data. Make sure those exhibits are truly your own. You can’t simply reproduce OECD exhibits.

Make sure you give proper credit in your exhibits based on OECD data. I’m guessing that the OECD’s preferred citation, “Based on data from OECD, title of the dataset, title of the database, friendly url, date of access,” goes into more detail than many writers commonly provide. However, you probably should have those details available anyhow to keep your firm’s compliance professionals happy.

3. Contact the OECD if you seek to reproduce materials or make commercial use

Found a great OECD graph, chart, or document that you’d like to reproduce? Play it safe by  contacting the OECD for permission. Here’s what the OECD told me about rights requests.

Should you wish to use OECD data/reproduce OECD published material for commercial purposes, please send us more information about your intended use by completing the following form:

About the OECD material you want to reproduce:
Full title:
Publication date:
Internet address (if applicable):
Exact pages / charts / data to be reproduced:
Will you translate the material? If yes, into which language?

About you:
Full address:

About your work:
Number of pages*:
Planned publication date :
Publisher’s name, address:
Print Run*:
Public Price*:
If published online:
Number of subscribers*:
Price of the subscription*:

* even if approximate

Comments (if any):


Stay safe by following the rules when you cite other people’s data! Contact the OECD if you have any questions.

Image courtesy of adamr at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

4 reasons you shouldn’t write a white paper

White papers can be great marketing tools. Done right, they give web surfers reasons to join your email list and persuade them that you understand—and have solutions to —their problems. However, done poorly, white papers waste your time—and your readers’ time. To help you avoid pointlessly sinking your energy into white papers, I’m sharing four reasons you should not write a white paper.

Reason 1. You haven’t identified the right problem

White papers should solve a problem faced by members of your target audience, as I explained in “White paper marketing: Walk a fine line.” This makes them compelling to your readers. It also helps your white papers get found, as readers conduct online searches for “how do I…?”

A problem and a topic aren’t the same thing, as I showed in “Which investment white paper would you read?” “Small-cap stocks” is an unexciting topic, while “How to profit from small-cap stocks” solves a problem faced by readers who seek to boost their investment returns.

If you don’t know how to identify a good problem, listen to questions your clients and prospects ask you. You can also seek their input through social media, surveys in your e-newsletter or on your blog, or other methods. Identifying your reader’s problem is a key step in the writing process that I describe in Financial Blogging: How To Write Powerful Posts That Attract Clients.

Reason 2. Your white paper focuses on your company’s products or services

Your readers seek objective advice. If you inject your company’s products and services throughout your white paper, you lose credibility because readers view your piece as an advertisement. They quickly stop reading.

Respondents to my “Walk a fine line” survey agreed that references to your company’s products and services should be limited to the end of your white paper.

Reason 3. You lack data to support your points

While blog posts can be opinionated rants, white papers typically feature data or examples to support their points. This is an area where larger companies have an advantage over smaller firms because of their data generation and analysis capabilities. They’re also more likely to have a budget to license data from providers such as Ned Davis Research.

Larger companies don’t always win in this area. For example, I’ve seen some firms generate original content by interviewing members of their target audience.

Also, there’s good publicly available data. However, please be careful to credit your sources and observe the rules of copyright “fair use.” Not sure about what’s fair use? Check the resources in “Legal danger for financial bloggers: Two misconceptions, three resources, one suggestion.”

Reason 4. You can’t write in a reader-friendly way

Today’s readers are impatient. If you don’t write about a compelling topic in a way that’s easy for them to absorb, they’ll quickly stop reading. For tips on how to make your writing more reader-friendly, see “5 steps for rewriting your investment commentary.”

Anything else?

I’m curious. Can you think of any additional reasons why you shouldn’t write a white paper? For examples, do you think that the less formal approach of an e-book, which I discussed in “E-book or white paper: which is better?”, would better suit your audience?

E-book or white paper: which is better?

“What’s the Difference between an E-book and a White Paper? (And When Should You Use Them?)” is the title of a chapter in Content Rules: How to Create Killer Blogs, Podcasts, Videos, E-books, Webinars (and More) That Engage Customers and Ignite Your Business by Ann Handley and C.C. Chapman.
It’s a great question. Sometimes what one person calls a white paper, another calls an e-book. I agree with the author’s statement that the main differences are in style and tone. A white paper is typically more formal and data-oriented. However, some people might call the exact same piece a white paper, while others call it an e-book.

The kind of e-book that Handley and Chapman discuss is, as they say:

  • “Broken into smaller chunks”
  • “Visually heavy main text is supplemented with callouts, bulleted lists”
  • “Casual and collegial; a conversation among equals”

In my opinion, you might lean towards a white paper if you have lots of original data and are addressing an audience that prefers a formal style and has an appetite for detailed analytical support of your statements.

On the other hand, an e-book (at least the kind of e-book created as a marketing tool, as described by the authors) might be better if you want to portray yourself as a friendly person who presents information in a way that’s easy for regular folks to absorb. An e-book will be less technical than a white paper. It may be better  for selling to consumers than businesses.

Personally, I prefer communications that combine the best of white papers and e-books as described above as they help their readers to solve a problem.

Your opinion?

How do you see the difference between white papers and e-books? I imagine that some of you have different opinions. For example, Chris Koch, editorial director at SAP, referred to “an e-Book, an insight-rich short slide deck” in “Don’t Kill the White Paper Just Yet” in Chief Content Officer (August 2014), p. 45.

Disclosure: If you click on the Amazon link in this post and then buy something, I will receive a small commission. I only link to books in which I find some value for my blog’s readers.

Which investment white paper would you read?

Your white paper will attract more or fewer readers based partly on your decisions. Your title—and the way you position your topic—are critical.

I’ve listed some titles below. Think about which you find most appealing. If you understand what boosts the appeal of these titles, you can generate strong titles for your white papers. I welcome your comments on how to approach white papers and their titles.

Which of these white paper titles is best?

  1. Small cap stocks—this white paper could discuss any aspect of small cap stocks. The broadness of the topic cuts its appeal.
  2. Investing in small cap stocks—this title is more specific than #1, but not as specific as the titles below
  3. Why invest in small cap stocks—this title and the two that follow promise that they’ll make a case for me to invest in this asset class.
  4. The case for small cap investing
  5. The benefits of investing in small cap stocks
  6. How small cap stocks may help you boost returns, while reducing risks—this title is more specific about the benefits, which may attract readers interested in those benefits. The title is a bit long and it may make your compliance professionals nervous. Check with compliance before using any title that makes you stop and say, “Is this okay?”
  7. Opportunities in small cap stocks—this title suggests benefits without getting specific. It may be vague enough that your compliance professionals will allow it, assuming you have the proper disclosures in the body of your white paper.
  8. Your short-term opportunity in small cap stocks—”Short-term” adds a sense of urgency. If you don’t act soon, you may miss this opportunity.
  9. A 50-year opportunity in small cap stocks—I’m throwing this in because “Dan Fuss: The 50-Year Opportunity in Bonds” was one of my most popular articles for Advisor Perspectives. Of course, the name of legendary bond manager Fuss contributed to the article’s appeal.
  10. New research boosts the appeal of small cap stocks—if the title refers to proprietary research from your firm, this will help your white paper stand out from the many other white papers on this topic.

What’s YOUR take on these white paper titles? Can you suggest a better alternative? I’m interested in learning from your insights.

For more on what makes for a great white paper, read “White paper marketing: Walk a fine line.”