What is White Paper?

White paper is a professional document that concisely states the author’s position on an issue, succinctly describes problem of interest, and/or proposes a solution. The term originated from British government’s usage of differently colored papers to determine the distribution range, where white indicated information for public domain. These days, white papers are typically produced by non-profit organizations, NGOs, professional companies, and other business entities to communicate with the public in informative and authoritative way, while inviting feedback. As such they are increasingly employed by marketers and communication experts as a marketing or sales tool as they have valid information to share, but which may not commonly pass the rigors of academic research.

Format a white paper
The Aims of White Papers

In this new technological age, where information is shared freely and easily among all strata of society, white papers are recognized as a powerful tool to gauge opinions of target audiences on specific issues. Thus, they are often requested and used in politics, policy, business, and technical fields. Whatever their origin and aim, white papers need to be presented professionally and uniformly, as their style and formatting will determine whether they will capture the interest of their target audience.

The White Paper Topic and Style

As white papers have specific audience, their topic should be precisely defined and conveyed in the title, and the language should be tailored to that audience while remaining professional and factual. Therefore, excessive use of jargon, acronyms and complex words should be avoided, as if the readers need to look up their meaning, they may lose interest or feel that the author is condescending. The document should be partitioned into shorter paragraphs to facilitate reading on a wide range of media, bearing in mind that these days, readers often access content online using their phones.

Graphs, tables, images and other supporting elements are always welcome, but should be linked to the information presented and easy to interpret. Similarly, they should be referenced from the main text, rather than simply placing them in a convenient spot in the document.

Intro and Outro

It is commonly accepted that good presentations start with the clear outline of what will be covered, followed by eloquent delivery of the planned content, before summarizing what was just said. The same logic should be applied to white papers, so the opening and closing sections should be clear and concise, allowing the readers to familiarize with the topic and recapitulate the delivered info, respectively.

If the topic is less formal and more personal in nature, addressing the reader directly will be preferable, whereas more formal style should be adopted for professional documents.

Most Common Mistakes

All writers should respect their readers, which means avoiding commanding or preaching tone, excessive explanations of commonly known facts, or expressions such as “to clarify…,” “to explain…, or similar. Gender-specific statements should also be avoided, as should unfounded inferences about any sociodemographic, cultural or ethnic groups. If referring to the work of others, “the author” is preferable to “he/she” and when reporting on a study, “participants” is more respectful than “subjects.” If in any doubt, reading available publications on a similar topic would help gauge the acceptable tone and style.

Citing Relevant Sources

All information presented in the white paper should be backed up by valid evidence, as this will increase the credibility of the arguments made. If the author has published on similar or related topics, easy access to that content should be ensured via a hyperlink. References to all other sources used in compiling the white paper should also be provided at the end of the document.

Although white papers are less formal in style and structure, it is preferable to adopt one of the standard style guides readers are likely to be familiar with, such as APA, MLA, or similar. The chosen style should be followed throughout, when delineating paragraphs, formatting section headings, as well as in citations and references.

Formatting White Paper in APA Style Guide

APA (American Psychological Association) Style Guide is the most popular in professional and academic contexts, and precisely defines heading levels, their format, as well as other writing specifics. Its latest edition (APA 7.0) allows for the following headings:

Centered, Boldface, Title Case Heading (level 1)

Text starts as a new paragraph.

Flush Left, Boldface, Title Case Heading (level 2)

Text starts as a new paragraph.

Flush Left, Boldface Italic, Title Case Heading (level 3)

Text starts as a new paragraph.

Indented, Boldface Title Case Heading Ending with a Period. (level 4)

Paragraph text continues on the same line as the heading.

Indented, Boldface Italic, Title Case Heading Ending with a Period. (level 5)

Paragraph text continues on the same line as the heading.

APA 7.0 Citations and References – The Basics

When citing published sources in APA style, those with one or two authors are always given in full, while using the first author’s surname followed by et al. for sources with more than three authors, as shown below:

  • As demonstrated by Smith and Jones (2020), as well as Collins and colleagues (2019), …
  • Available evidence indicates that … (Brown, 1998, 2000; Morgan & Taggart, 1980; Wright et al., 2008).

As indicated above, sources listed in the same parentheses are ordered alphabetically, not by year of publication, and citations are separated by semicolon.

As each citation needs to have a corresponding reference entry, these are ordered alphabetically, but the first author, then the second, and so on, with earlier sources listed first, if the same author has published multiple sources cited in the text. A few examples are given below:

American Educational Research Association. (1985). Standards for educational and psychological testing. American Psychological Association.

Bednarik, R. G. (2003a). Concerns in rock art science. Aura Newsletter, 20(1), 1−4.

Bednarik, R. G. (2003b). A figurine from the African Acheulian. Current Anthropology,
44(3), 405−413.

Bednarik, R. G. (2003c). Seafaring in the Pleistocene. Cambridge Archaeological
Journal, 13(1), 41−66.

Borman, W. C., Hanson, M. A., Oppler, S. H., Pulakos, E. D., & White, L. A. (1993). Role of early supervisory experience in supervisor performance. Journal of Applied Psychology, 78, 443−449. https://doi.org/10.1037/0021-9010.78.3.443

Newcomb, H. (Ed.). (2000). Television: The critical view (6th ed.). Oxford University Press.

Setrakian, L. (2017, January). Lara Setrakian: 3 ways to fix a broken news industry. [Video]. https://www.ted.com/talks/lara_setrakian_3_ways_to_fix_a_ broken_news_industry#t-521404

For more information on the APA specifics or the use of other style guides, please visit relevant websites, or seek help of professional editors, who can help you present your work in any style of your choice. Here are some beneficial links to available services:

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