What is a White Paper?

A white paper is a deeply researched report on a specific topic that presents a solution to a problem within an industry. It is usually written by a company to illustrate their knowledge and expertise through facts and evidence; however, it should not advertise or endorse a company’s product.

Why write a white paper?

A white paper shows the authority and expertise a person or company has about their respective industry. Its purpose is to persuade readers, through in-depth analysis of evidence and information, that a particular solution to a problem is best. Furthermore, it illustrates to readers that the writer (or company) responsible for the white paper is a trusted expert in the field.

While a white paper should not specifically mention, advertise, or endorse a product or service, the level of expertise exhibited can certainly have positive indirect effects on the reputation of a company or writer.

Who is the target audience for a white paper?

White papers are written to an audience that is outside of the industry. Readers may be somewhat familiar with the topic, or they may be looking to learn more about the industry in order to eventually select a product or service, so a white paper strives to provide trusted expertise, experience, and guidance through credible research and reasoning.

What makes a white paper different from a business proposal or even an industry blog?

The primary difference between a white paper and other texts is ultimately the depth of research.

Business proposals differ in two important additional ways:

  1. Self-promotion: While business proposals are essentially sales pitches written by members of a company to promote their own services, white papers persuade readers that a company is a trusted expert within the industry. This may indirectly motivate readers to choose their services, but a white paper should not overtly try to gain customers or contracts.
  2. Audience: While the readers of a business proposal are often the investors or executives signing off on a deal, white papers target a broader audience of non-experts who may only be trying to learn.

Industry blogs can serve the same ultimate purpose as a white paper – to persuade an audience of a solution based on expert reasoning and research. However, the research requirements for a blog are significantly lower than for a white paper. An industry blog should be professional, but a white paper should be both professional and academic. For this reason, a blog can be informally written; a white paper must maintain a formal tone.

What is the correct structure for a white paper?

White papers do not have one single, exact structure, so be sure to consult your instructor’s prompt and guidelines. However, as a general rule, a white paper should have the following components:

  • Title page
  • Introduction (including “Problem Statement”)
  • Background (research-heavy)
  • Proposed solution
  • Conclusion
  • References or citations

Note that, unlike most academic papers, the solution (ultimately, the main argument) should appear at the end, after the information has been presented and analyzed.

What are some other formatting and style considerations for a white paper?

  1. Length

    If you are writing a white paper, be prepared to compose a long document. Depending on your industry, a white paper can extend beyond 25 pages. However, it will not usually be this long in the academic context.

    If your instructor asks you to write a white paper, follow their instructions regarding length. Be prepared to write a minimum of five pages.

    Note that images should be used as supplements to the written word, not substitutes. In other words, one page of content is 300 words on average; if your assignment requires 10 pages, you should write 3,000 words in addition to any images you have incorporated.

  2. Detail

    Unlike some business documents that are easily scannable, a white paper is more academic in nature. Its paragraphs will be dense and complex, and the facts, evidence, and information provided will receive thorough explanation and analysis.

  3. Appearance

    White papers often include visuals, such as tables, graphs, charts, and images, in order to clarify and strengthen their main ideas. Be prepared to add these if you are required to do so as part of the assignment instructions. Even if there are no stated requirements to incorporate these visual figures, consider doing so to convey your point in more than one manner.

    Remember that images are used to supplement written content, not replace it. Their use does not affect the amount of written content you are asked to produce.

    For help creating tables, images, or other visual figures, please see our Tables, Images, & Appendices resource.

  4. Style

    Since the goal of a white paper is to exhibit a high level of expertise in a field or industry, the tone of the writing must be formal and professional. Be sure to edit carefully, as the writing must be authoritative and trustworthy.