5 Reasons Your White Paper Project Will Take Longer than You Think

February 13, 2017 by

It seems like I encounter this problem at least once a year…

Last October 17th, I emailed a client about a possible project. I’d written a white paper for him the previous February to promote a software app, which had been in beta testing at the time. I’d learned his company had just closed the beta in anticipation of commercial release. I was writing to find out if he might need another white paper to support the launch.

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My client wrote back the same day, telling me, “This is good timing, as I am currently planning this exact whitepaper!” (Actually, I’d suggested a backgrounder white paper, since that’s the type best suited for supporting a product launch, while what he wanted was a problem/solution-type. But that’s a topic for another essay.) Then he added, “I'd like this out the door and to the press by November 1st at the latest.”

Now, if you’re a B2B marketing manager or content writer who’s been involved in a few white paper projects, I’m sure you see the problem already. If you’re not… well, you might not. Like I said, I see this problem at least once a year.

What’s the problem? It’s the dates: October 17th, I check with my client about starting a white paper; November 1st, he wants to publish. Two weeks.

Two weeks is simply not enough time to develop a good white paper. That’s especially true when you want a problem/solution white paper – the best type of white paper for generating leads, but also the most difficult to create – and even more so if you don’t yet have a writer under contract. Gordon Graham, in his book White Papers for Dummies, says,

“I estimate a minimum of four elapsed weeks for creating a problem/solution: one week each for planning, researching, writing, and reviewing. And these tasks can often take six to eight weeks, especially when numerous interviews or reviewers are involved.” [i]

And that’s from Gordon Graham, That White Paper Guy, who’s written over 250 of these beasts!

Now, if you’re a busy marketing manager who has had limited experience with white papers, you might ask, “But… why does it take so long?” And that’s a good question. Because if you haven’t written or overseen the development of a white paper, the answer isn’t entirely obvious.

That’s why I’d like to look at five tasks which are essential to the creation of an effective white paper, and explain why they often require more time than marketers allocate for them.

In the discussions that follow, I’m going to assume a skilled white paper writer will be hired for the project. While such a writer will need some time to familiarize himself with your offering, that time will generally be far less than what an in-house copywriter or subject matter expert (SME) would need to acquire the requisite skills for developing an effective white paper.

1. Planning

Planning is a phase of the white paper development process that’s too easily dismissed. Some marketers (not my client, by the way) seem to assume they can simply identify a topic, jot down a few notes for their writer, and they’re done. White paper planned.

Such an approach is a recipe for disaster. White papers tend to be complicated projects with many people involved. Careful planning is crucial to keeping them on track for on-time delivery.

Planning a white paper requires thought and thoughtful decisions in several areas, including:

  • Marketing objective
  • Type of white paper to create (a function of marketing objective)
  • Target audience
  • Key messages to communicate
  • Topic
    • Clear definition of the problem or issue to be addressed
    • How it accomplishes the marketing objective
  • Team
    • Writer
    • Designer & Illustrator
    • Subject Matter Experts (SMEs)
    • Reviewers
  • Known evidence that supports the argument for the solution
  • Call to action

Above all, you need consensus within your team on the scope and direction of the project. Disagreement amongst writer, SMEs and reviewers on how the topic should be handled can slow the project and result in costly scrap and rework.

The approach I recommend is to create a white paper plan. Have your writer draft it, and circulated it amongst all your reviewers. Allocate at least a week for draft, review, revision and approval of this formal plan. Then stick to the plan throughout the project.

2. Interviews

Interviews are another area where there’s more time involved that one might expect.

I always try to schedule interviews as soon as the white paper project kicks off. SMEs might have meetings, conferences or business trips planned. They may have important deadlines of their own. Finding a good time isn’t always easy. Getting interviews scheduled as soon as possible minimizes unnecessary delay.

Once interviews have been scheduled, however, there’s preliminary work to be done before they can be conducted. Interview questions need to be planned carefully. To do that, the writer must do some research and familiarize himself with the offering, the audience and the issue to be addressed – find out what he needs to learn from the SMEs he’ll interview. So even though I call early to schedule, I try to leave some time before the interview itself, if possible. I also like to send my interview questions to the SME a day or two ahead of time, in case she needs to look something up before answering a particular question.

Conducting an interview normally takes about an hour. But then your writer needs time to “digest” the material he has consumed in the interview.

When I’m interviewing an SME, I’m concentrating on what she’s saying – figuring out what follow-up questions I need to ask, so I can dig for additional information or get clarification on points she’s made. I’m taking notes, but they’re often sketchy. That’s why I – and most other white paper writers I’ve spoken with – like to record SME interviews and send them for professional transcription. Turn-around time for online transcription services is typically 3 business days.

Having a full transcript of the SME interview makes it easy to review my interviewee’s responses and see where I need to follow up by email. Plus, I can copy and paste text from the transcript document into the notes document I reference when outlining and writing the white paper. (And yes, I’ve tried working directly from the recording itself. Believe me, it takes much longer.)

Following up after interviews can take some time, as well. An SME may not be able to respond immediately to an email from the writer. The writer may then need further clarification, spawning additional emails. It’s easy to overlook interview follow-up in white paper planning, but it is not always an insignificant task.

In short, while it may take less than an hour to conduct an interview, the total time involved in the interview process is considerably longer, with numerous delays for the writer. Fortunately, the writer can fill in those delays by working the next process I’ll describe in parallel with interviewing.

3. Research

White papers need lots of proof. You need to show your reader solid evidence that the problem you’re describing is a real threat to their business. And you must back up any claims you make about the solution you’re advocating with similar evidence.

In other words, you need to build an air-tight case for your solution.

But if you don’t already have a lot of it on hand, good proof can be tough to find. Searching online can be tedious and time-consuming. Logical search terms may not yield great results. Promising articles may not provide good proof points. Your writer might have to wade through a sea of literature to find the statistics and quotes he needs.

The research process often takes longer than even the writer expected. It’s best to budget at least a week for this phase of the project, as Graham indicates.

4. Writing

The writing phase of a white paper project is best performed not as a single phase, but in three phases, which are:

  • Outlining
  • Writing the first draft
  • Editing and rewriting

Before the actual writing begins, it’s always best to create an outline – just like we did in school, when we learned to write research reports. Outlining allows the writer to map out details, toy with structure, and find the best way to present the case for your solution.

I make it a practice to submit an outline for client review and approval before starting a first draft. This adds to the early middle of the schedule, but tends to save time overall by heading off disagreements which might disrupt the final review and revision phase of the project.

Writing the first draft will probably take less time than you expect. A good writer knows that writing and editing are best performed as separate processes. Working from his outline, he will likely pump out a first draft within a day or two. But chances are, that first draft will be darn ugly.

Writing a “crappy first draft,” as writing coach Daphne Gray-Grant calls it, speeds the drafting phase and the overall writing process. But, naturally, it must be followed by a phase of editing and rewriting before a final draft can be submitted for review. This is an iterative process focused on strengthening the structure, clarity and readability of the argument.

Editing and rewriting are best performed in several passes, with a break between each pass. The breaks allow the writer’s subconscious mind to work on the problem in the interim, and provide the writer a fresh perspective as he begins each pass.

In contrast to Graham, I prefer to budget at least two weeks for the writing process: one week for creation, client review, revision and approval of the outline, and a second week for writing, editing and re-writing of the draft white paper.

5. Review and Revision

When your writer delivers his polished draft, the ball is back in your court. It’s time for you to review your writer’s work, and return it with your comments and revision requests. It’s rare for that initial delivery to be the final one.

Allow at least another week – and more, if possible – for this process. Your reviewers need time to read, reflect and comment on the details of the writer’s work – hopefully, they expressed any reservations with the overall structure of the content during their review of the plan and outline – and to mesh this task with everything else that’s on their plate. You need time to moderate your reviewer’s comments and request revisions from your writer. And your writer needs time to reply to comments and craft his revisions.

This is another iterative process that may require two or three rounds. Also, keep in mind that layout and illustration will normally be performed during this phase of the project.

Conclusion

White paper development generally takes longer than most people think.

Overall, I would recommend a schedule of at least five weeks and up to eight weeks for creation of a problem/solution white paper, with time allocated to the various phases as follows:

  • Planning (and review of plan): 1 week
  • Research and Interviewing: 1 to 2 weeks
  • Outlining: 1 week
  • Writing: 1 to 2 weeks
  • Review and Revision: 1 to 2 weeks

By the way, if you need a white paper in a hurry, a problem/solution is probably not your best choice. You’ll likely be better off creating a numbered list.

Oh, and that client I contacted? Turns out, his November 1st deadline was driven by credits his PR firm had with some trade publications. He managed to get those credits moved to December 1st, and we were able to create his new white paper in time for publication on that date.

Next Steps

Be sure to watch you inbox next month for the March issue of Technical Response. I'll have some tips on how you can help your writer deliver you a better white paper, faster.

White paper planning is a topic I’ve written on extensively in recent months. If, you missed the three-part series I published last year, click here to go to Part 1. Or, if you’d like to download my free white paper on the subject, click here.

Have a white paper project you need done on time?  Call CopyEngineer at (+39) 011 569 4951. Or email me at info@copyengineer.com.


References

[i] Graham, Gordon, White Papers for Dummies, John Wiley and Sons, 2013.

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