This year, I’ve produced whitepapers for the first time, and thought I’d share what I learned, especially since the reports becoming more popular in many industries, and can be a lucrative line of work for writers and other freelancers to pursue.
If you’re not familiar with the term, “whitepaper” is a fancy description of a business report. Whitepapers have as many flavors as Baskin-Robbins: they can be case studies, trend reports or research summaries based on surveys, polls or scientific studies. They can be short, long or mammoth. They can be plain vanilla with no charts and graphs or as elegant as a Fortune 500 glossy annual report.
Regardless of length or look, putting a whitepaper together involves certain phases or steps, and the more planning that goes into each, the better the end product will be.
In a series of posts on whitepapers that starts with this one, I’ll walk you though what those steps are, and provide some additional resources for learning more about producing them.
Much of the work involved in producing whitepapers happens before any writing takes place. This is like the pre-production phase of making a movie, which can take years. Hopefully your whitepaper won’t take that long to complete (thought by the end it might feel like it).
Based on my experience, here are some common steps that need to take place when planning a whitepaper:
1. Determine the concept. Huddle with the client, company or publisher to get an idea of their expectations. Your goal: to find out how they plan to use the report, who they think will read it and what they want it to accomplish. That information will help inform decisions you’ll be making about the report’s subject, treatment and design.
2. Pick the subject. Once you’ve pinned down why you’re doing the report, determine what it will be about. Maybe the company or client already has a subject in mind. If that’s the case, this step might involve choosing a specific angle. Otherwise, brainstorm possible subjects. This might involve reading the news, looking at what topics are trending on the subject, polling people inside the organization or customers or both.
3. Map out a timeline. Find out whether the publisher or client needs the report by a specific date. Maybe they plan to hand out copies at an upcoming conference or do an email blast to coincide with a new product launch. Maybe they publish a whitepaper every quarter. Whatever the event, work backwards from the date the report needs to be published to determine how much time you’ll have to get it assigned, written, editing, proofed, laid out, reviewed and published.
4. Identify experts and other sources. Whoever writes the report will need to line up experts, including company insiders, customers, researchers or other sources to interview on background or be quoted in the report. As willing as they are to help, sources can be tricky to pin down: they’re busy, the company you’re doing the whitepaper for has to go through proper channels to find and approve individuals, companies or organizations that would make appropriate case studies or examples. The sooner you get started on this process, the better.
5. Find writers and other contributors. Not every freelance writer, photo editor or graphic designer has worked on a whitepaper before, and unless you don’t mind working with beginners, it pays to find contributors with some experience, especially if you’re pressed for time. This is another step to start on early in the process, even if it’s just to put out feelers for who’s available, because writers with whitepaper experience can be booked months in advance. Bonus: If you’re writing and designing the report yourself, congratulations, you can skip this step.
6. Make assignments. The better grasp you have of what the project will involve, the more information you’ll have to communicate with the writer, graphic designer and any other contributor working on the project. If the publisher or client has done previous reports that are similar to what you’re assigning, share them, or at least share the links. If the company has a specific color palate the designer has to stick to, make sure to pass it along.
In my next installment, I’ll share the steps involved in getting a whitepaper written, designed and published.
If you’ve produced whitepapers, what are your go-to sources for learning about the process?