White Papers: 5 Common Mistakes and How to Fix Them

When I am asked to edit a white paper or long report, especially one to which several writers have contributed, I often detect the following problems:

  • A gap between what the introduction or executive summary promises and what the actual white paper delivers. Usually, this is caused by someone writing the executive summary first, so that it reflects wishes and intentions rather than the actual content. Or the executive summary includes information that didn’t quite fit in the white paper. Executive summaries should always be written last and should always summarize the white paper–not introduce new content.
  • Inconsistent ways of organizing data. Headings, subheadings, bullets and other graphic devices are guidelines to the logic of the report. If you say that data fits into three categories (say, past, present and future voting patterns) but then present the data up in three entirely different categories (location, age of informant and political beliefs), you lose your readers. They’re busy wondering what happened to the past, present and future.
  • Conclusions buried in the text. Your readers won’t go hunting for the main points in your white paper or report. You are familiar with the points you want to make and may not even realize that you have reduced them to a brief aside. Before you start writing, list your goals, your main conclusions and the data that supports those conclusions. Then before you publish, make sure the conclusions are easy to find.
  • Grammatical and spelling inconsistencies. What style are you following: US, U.S., United States, USA? Are you using a serial comma (comma before “and” in a series)? Are headings bolded or italicized? Working with a style guide should prevent and help you fix those inconsistencies.
  • Cross-references that go nowhere. Multiple writers are a key cause of this problem. The writer of chapter 3 assumes a diagram appears in chapter 4 but the writer in chapter 4 places it in an appendix; the reader following the cross-reference in chapter 3 searches chapter 4 in vain. Electronic links are especially likely to go nowhere or to the wrong place.

Whenever multiple writers contribute to a white paper or report, it is wise to have an editor examine the entire report for problems before it goes to the intended audience. As a professional editor and writer, I know what to look for and am prepared to solve the problems that I find. Contact me today.