WHITE PAPERS:AN INTRODUCTION TO THE GENRE AND ITS EXPECTATIONSWhat is a white paper or “backgrounder” report? What contents makeup white papers, and who reads them? This vidcast explains the genre and expectations of this style of report-writing. By Katie Trauth Taylor In cooperation with the Purdue Online Writing Lab
No matter our profession, we educate ourselvesabout breaking issues in our fields by doingbackground research. Our research might be formalor informal, conducted in the library or at theconference table by asking other people in our field—or in related fields—what they’ve heard about newtopics and trends.
White papers provide background for decisions. Thewhite paper is intended to update long-termprofessionals on current trends and developments. It isoften written by newly graduated professionals whobring new research from their university training. Sothere’s a good chance you’ll want experience writingwhite papers before you start your first post-college job.
Since white papers are written about a variety of topics—from economic approaches to marketing strategies, from new social media trends to legal and governmental updates—they are often profoundly influenced by the particular discipline that they are written within or written for. White paper reports can be internal—which means they are written for people in a private business setting with the goal of informing the company about a current trend in research, or external—which means they are written to inform a public audience within a particular discipline or field.
At your first post-college job, for example, your employer mightask you to write a white paper on new social media trends thatthe company could use to stay relevant and up-to-date in yourfield. In the resulting white paper, you would inform—or update—your company about new online collaboration software likeLinkedIn, Twitter, PB Works, Skype, or Google Docs, asking: How is this new social media changing the nature of business communication and how business is conducted within and outside of my company? How can we (our company) not fall behind in this changing technological landscape?
If you wrote this report internally for your company only, you might overview your particular company’s previous approaches to social media, including their mistakes or embarrassing moments. If, however, you wrote this report for an external audience of people in your entire field (or even publicly for your potential customers), you would likely speak more generally about social media in your field, and avoid discussing your company in any negative light. For this reason, it’s important to be rhetorical about external white papers, anticipating negative associations that your research might have on your company. For example, you wouldn’t want to write an external white paper about marketing strategies that successfully manipulate people. This would represent your company in a potentially negative way to the general public or to your field.
Some businesses—like marketing and research firms that are hired by largercompanies—create informative white papers that are really meant to attractbusiness customers. Such corporate white papers function more likeadvertisements, telling you as a business owner or worker why your company needsto hire their firm. This approach to white papers isn’t necessarily “sneaky,” but itdoes remind us to question the information presented in white papers—becausethey’re often written by companies who have some kind of investment in the topicthey’re presenting on. In other words, white papers are sponsored by businessesand companies, and therefore, we should be cautious of viewing all white paperreports as neutral or objective informative research. • Take, for instance, this white paper written by Best Buy’s CEO about his use of Twitter as a business leader. In this external white paper published in the Harvard Business Review, the CEO writes about his caring interactions with customers and employees, emphasizing the positive aspects of his company.
What does an excellent white paper do? • It takes a unique and clear approach to a specific topic or trend, sharing research that is up-to-date. • It is written to a specific audience using arguments, claims, and information that work well to inform that audience of the topic of trend under discussion. • It provides thorough research, including at least five (5) diverse sources through a variety of research approaches (including internet, magazine, newsletter and book searches, as well as interviews or discussions with professionals in the field).
White papers differfrom recommendationreports and feasibilityreports because theydo not reach adecision about whataction a group should(or should not) take.Instead, they offerbackgrounds uponwhich decisions can bemade, thusfunctioning somewhatlike research papers.
What are the sections of a white paper?Executive Summary •The “executive summary” should briefly introduce and summarize your research, as well as establish reader expectations for what is to follow. Make sure to state clearly here how your research topic is relevant or useful, either generally to businesses in your industry, or specifically to your company. Give me a good reason—as a company executive—why I should bother reading this.Introduction •Your introduction should prepare your readers in more detail for the main issues of the paper. You may choose to begin by defining the major terms in your report, or by giving a specific anecdote of how this topic is important to your company or industry. Avoid “road-mapping,” by which I mean just stating the section headings of the report. Set up your audiences’ expectations for the whole report and especially make its purpose and relevance clear.Previous Approaches •Overview of previous strategies or approaches to the topic, either at your company (for an internal report) or in your larger field (for an external report). For example, if you’re informing your company about new techniques for sampling groundwater, you will need to discuss the techniques that are used most frequently or traditionally in your field. If you’re informing your company about social media trends, you might explain how team members currently collaborate (maybe they use email primarily), and how these strategies could use improvement (maybe there are more organized ways to work online as a team that you plan to introduce in your white paper).New Findings •Your job in the report is to both present and interpret the data on your topic for your audience. Data or research does not speak for itself; it requires that you explain its relevance clearly and directly in a way that is understandable to them, but also respectful of them. What is most important for your ethos and credibility as a researcher is that you make it clear in the report where data has come from (including infographics) and that you integrate it into the report by explaining how it is relevant to your reports stated purpose.Conclusion •This section of the white paper discusses the research findings in comparison to the previous approaches. Although conclusions of white papers don’t have to suggest specific strategies or solutions, they should offer insight into the topic or concern that instigated the research in the first place.Sources/Bibliography •Be sure to list all of your sources and reference materials in a section at the end of your white paper. These can be designed to fit unobtrusively near the conclusion of your report, or can be given their own page. The idea is to make sure that your readers can find the same articles, websites, and books that you cited in your text. While it’s not required that you follow a citation style guide like MLA or APA, such a guide is often familiar to readers and can help them recognize the format and find your sources more quickly.
Overall, your sections don’thave to have these boringtitles—get creative! Name thesection according to theinformation you will presentwithin in. For example, insteadof “Previous Approaches,” youmight write, “PreviousStrategies for CollaboratingOnline” or “PreviousTechniques For SamplingGroundwater.” Your sectionsshould reflect the knowledgethat people in your field shareand recognize, and inspirethem to read each sectioncarefully.
THIS HAS BEEN A PRESENTATION OF “WHITE PAPERS” WRITTEN AND PRODUCED BY | KATIE TRAUTH TAYLOR BROUGHT TO YOU IN COOPERATION WITH THE PURDUE ONLINE WRITING LAB Works CitedPorter, James E., Patricia Sullivan, Johndon Johnson-Eilola (2009). Professional Writing Online 3.0. Available from: http://www.pearsonhighered.com/educator/product/Professional- Writing-Online-Version-30/9780205652129.page. CreditsMusic: “Rhetoric Tranquility” written and performed by Z. Koppelmann, 2011.Images (used with permission): Purdue Business Writing Student White Paper Examples Public Domain and Creative Commons