How to Write White Papers: Definition, Structure & Content

Instructor: Scott Tuning

Scott has been a faculty member in higher education for over 10 years. He holds an MBA in Management, an MA in counseling, and an M.Div. in Academic Biblical Studies.

A White Paper is an issue-specific document, usually published by an authority on the subject, that presses a particular viewpoint about the best way to tackle an issue. This lesson explores the process of building a framework for a well-written White Paper.

Who Needs a White Paper?

Let's imagine that you are about to open a charming little coffee shop in a small, mountain town in Colorado. Like many small business owners, you plan to work the store yourself from open to close every day. You do, however, have a few part-time employees that will help out during the busy times.

As you prepare to make your first payroll, an unexpected concern jumps into your mind. Specifically, your payroll estimates were projected on the basis of paying your part-timers the minimum wage for tipped employees rather than the general minimum wage. After reviewing your state's minimum wage laws, you become concerned about your previous determination that your employees qualified as tipped employees. How will you go about trying to determine the answer to your question?

What is a White Paper?

One option is to look for a white paper. A white paper's role has transformed somewhat over the years, but its primary function is still to provide guidance, interpretation, or suggestion as to the correct way to address an issue.

Initially a white paper was written to give authoritative or interpretive guidance. Today, they are still used for this purpose, but they are also used as a marketing tool designed to influence customer behavior under the umbrella of dispassionate advice.

Having read this definition, could you rely on a governmental white paper that purports to offer interpretive guidance about classifying minimum wage issues? You absolutely could!

A Framework for White Papers

A white paper is a type of writing called technical writing, which is characterized by a narrow audience, a complex topic, and an authoritative tone. In a white paper, the audience is usually a small group of entities or people who are facing a unique situation that calls for interpretive guidance.

Although both public and private organizations can produce them, many topics associated with white papers are regulatory, and therefore, from governing bodies.

White papers can vary somewhat by organization, but all white papers will contain:

  • An introduction and conclusion
  • A statement containing the background of the issue or problem being addressed
  • A solution and an argument to validate it

Additionally, white papers can also include:

  • A sales pitch if the white paper is composed by a company selling a solution to the stated problem
  • A sources page if content or data was gathered from other sources

Essential Elements of a White Paper

You now know the major sections of a white paper, but what kind of content should you put in the document? The best way to answer this question is to apply it to the coffee shop employee question.

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