Jo Doran, Ph.D., M.F.A.

Assistant Professor & ESL Coordinator, Northern Michigan University

White Paper Project

What is a White Paper?

A white paper is an objective, informative and definitive overview of a well-focused topic. They were originally created and used by government organizations to provide information for decision makers. To that end, white papers were originally devised as unbiased documents that offered possible solutions without providing definitive decisions. While they should be used as such, white papers are used (or abused, some say) to promote products, advertise companies, etc. In this class, we will hold to the original purpose of white papers: to create an informative report for decision makers. Consequently, we will work through the first five of Bloom’s criteria and leave the evaluation to any imagined decision makers.

White papers usually have multiple audiences, such as board members, stockholders, managers, CEOs, COOs, employees, etc. Consequently, a white paper must address the three, main types of audience: primary, secondary and tertiary.

The creators/writers of a white paper must consider how to provide important information to many different types of readers and-consequently-the creators/writers must include information in repetitive formats. For example, an important piece of information may be included in several areas: Abstract, Introduction, Heading, Subheading, Bullet Point, and possibly the conclusion.

For additional information, please refer to White Papers Explained.

White papers typically include the following components:

  • Executive Summary or abstract: Depending on the audience, this component is of high priority in a white paper.
  • Background Information: The amount of background information depends on the audience context. Is this an in-house decision-making situation? If so, the majority of readers will have a good deal of previous knowledge. The opposite is also true.
  • Key Issues or Key Developments: This is a main component of the authors’ research – and often the reason a white paper is assigned by a boss: The boss may not have time to perform adequate, in-depth research for key issues/developments.
  • Body of paper: The body must be broken into multiple paragraphs and be user friendly when it comes to reading. Dense text is not user friendly.
  • Headings and subheadings: These should be bold and should diminish in size with each sub heading.
  • Bulleted points: These are a ‘must’ in white paper writing, as they provide easy access to skimming. That said, parallelism is paramount.
  • Images, graphs, call outs/quotes, etc.: While these definitely increase usability, there should be a definite reason for each choice made regarding visuals.
  • Resource List (Bibliography and Annotated Bibs): Footnotes are more user friendly than typical parentheticals.

White paper authors traditionally offer three solutions to decision makers. Because a white paper is such a visually acute report, these solutions are often presented in grid format – to make it easier to compare and contrast.


  • Collaboration: This is a group project. Consequently, you will need to read Group Work and Collaborative Writing online booklet, Sections 1-12, before you begin this project. We will discuss this reading in class.
  • Choice of an issue: You may choose between the following two perspectives.
    1. You may examine some aspect of electronic commerce, digital communication and workflow, content management systems in business or educational contexts, p2p file sharing and copyright law, business safety issues, or identity theft.
    2. You may research non-profit organizations: pros and cons of non-profit organizations, existing non-profit organization contributions in the Lafayette/West Lafayette community, of any business aspect of non-profit organizations or volunteer work.
  • Research: In this project, groups of 3-5 members will be asked to participate in web-based and library research and then write an informative white paper on a professional writing topic (#1 or #2 above). Please make sure you can find sufficient research on your choice of specific issue—before you begin.
  • Paper: Your research will result in a visually sophisticated document. The length of your white paper will depend somewhat on your choice of topics, but should be within 1400-1600 words (formatting will vary based on the design employed by each group, but every white paper should be visually sophisticated.)
  • Presentation: After producing the final draft of the white paper, groups will present their findings to the class in a brief and engaging oral presentation complete with PowerPoint and Q&A.


The audience for your white paper consists of multiple readers who are concerned about implementing solutions to the problem you are addressing: a primary audience, a secondary audience, and a tertiary audience.

  • Primary Audience: These individuals are experts in this field and are extremely knowledgeable about the issue. This audience will skim the white paper, most likely reading the executive summary, headings, call-outs, and conclusion first, and read specific portions more closely.
  • Secondary Audience: These individuals are familiar with the issue at hand, but they are not experts. This audience will most likely read the executive summary, headings, topic sentences and some paragraphs, and conclusion.
  • Tertiary Audience: These individuals may not be very familiar with the issue. They will most likely read the entire paper.

The purpose of the white paper is to identify a real problem or issue and provide objective information to lead to a solution. A white paper does not decide on a solution: It provides possible solutions for decision makers—the above three audiences.



Every decision you make, individually and as a group, counts toward your success or failure with this project. Please do not ignore your responsibility to your group members for this project. This includes attending all planned meetings, professionalism with group members time spent at meetings outside of class, assigned/shared work by group members, promises made, professionalism during the presentation, etc.

  • Begin this project by working with your group. Successful collaboration begins with discussions and listening. As with all collaborative work, most of the work will be done individually, and most group time will be spent discussing ideas, concerns, etc. Some students may see this discussion time as unnecessary, but it is essential to realize that this is the way most good work is done. Please try to open up to this idea of collaborative discussion during group meetings.
  • As a group, decide on an issue or problem on which you would like to focus.
  • If you choose to focus on a technology issue, then I want you to create a pseudo-company. You will need to create a company name, history, purpose, etc. You will also need to devise a request, issued by a supervisor in your company: a reason for which you are researching a specific issue.
  • If you choose to focus on a non-profit slant, you will need to decide on your focus, as a group. Rather than choose a problem, for this perspective you can address this situation as if you were providing information for a group of people who need to make decisions. For example, you may represent a corporation who desires to invest in a non-profit organization – and they need to have sufficient information on what organization would be best.
  • Once you have an idea what you need to research, work individually, and research your possible issues to make sure you can find sufficient information and to find realistic and feasible solutions.
  • Get together with your group; discuss your research findings, possible resources, and possible solutions. Make sure that everyone in your group agrees with these components. Once you have a handle on these components, write a memo to your instructor.


  • Write an informational memo to your instructor: You are attempting to convince your instructor (me) that your chosen issue is worth your time. This means presenting the topic as worthy of consideration and the solutions as relevant – while demonstrating the feasibility of the project within the parameters of the assignment. Include the following in your memo:
  • Your group’s choice of a specific issue: If you choose #1, a technological focus, include the request, in quotes, from your supervisor (that you have ‘made up’). This must include the very specific topic under consideration (your possible issue)
  • Possible resources (databases, journals, etc.)
  • Possible solutions to be examined
  • Begin deciding how you will divide the work, within your group, for this project. Everyone is to do research, everyone is to write, and everyone is to present.

Organization and Timeline

  • Decide how you will divide up the paper:
    • Every student must do research.
    • Every student must write a portion of the paper.
    • Every student must present.
    • Create a timeline, as a group.

Research and Annotated Bibliographies

  • Research Sources using databases online through Google Scholar and Purdue University. Keep track of your resources, using KnightCite (or a similar online program), for your annotated bibliographies. One of these must come from a peer-reviewed journal. The other two can be from credible and verifiable web-based sources, including newspapers, documentaries, news magazines, and other credible sources. These sources do not have to be Internet based, but it will be easier for you to use Internet-based materials.
  • Research Sources and be prepared to discuss your research and research choices to your group.
  • Prepare three annotated bibliographies per student. We will discuss annotated bibliographies in class.
  • Remember that the success or failure of your group project will be based strongly on your resources. Therefore, make sure that all group members approve your research/source material.
  • Consider how you will document your sources: A footnote style (such as Chicago Style) is excellent for readers. I am not fussy about using exact Chicago Style. I suggest using footnotes, but you may use MLA or APA. No matter what you choose, you must have a References page (Works Cited for MLA and References for APA and Chicago Style) where you include all of your source material and annotated bibs. Additionally, you must include source references for any visuals included in your white paper.
  • Assign specific portions of the paper to each individual.

First Draft

  • Write up a first white paper draft.
  • When combining writing from various authors, it is important to edit the writing for style and transitions: You may notice that some writers use more objective or formal language than others do. Consistency is important, so decide on the style you wish for, as a group, and revise accordingly.
  • Ask for feedback on your draft – from your instructor, the writing lab, or your in-class peers


  • Begin searching for visual aids for your white paper. Remember to use only very pertinent visual aids; in other words, do not use an image or graph, etc. just because it looks good.
  • Each student must provide a minimum of two (2) strong images (photos, graphs, charts, etc.) for the white paper. These must be approved by your group members.
  • Decide what format you will use for your white paper. Remember: A White Paper does not look like an academic paper; neither does it read like an academic paper.
  • Consider Contrast, Repetition, Alignment, and Proximity when designing your white paper pages.
  • As a group, share your visual aid ideas with your group. Being open minded and listening, make sure everyone in your group has a say in how this is put together.

Collaborative Feedback Form (CFF)
This information, which is kept confidential from your group members, gives me feedback on how well or poorly each of your group members worked toward a common goal. Please turn in your CFF to me individually or email it to me. Do not include it in your group portfolio.

Group Portfolio
Each group is to have one portfolio, which must include the following:

  • Title page of White Paper with Title, Executive Summary, and Group Member names at the bottom
  • White Paper (hard copy)
  • References Page (List of source material in MLA, APA, or Chicago Style format)
  • Annotated Bibs
  • Individual student responses as to their contributions toward this project
  • All reviewed/critiqued drafts and documents from peer review and/or instructor feedback


  • Memo
  • A visually sophisticated white paper in a clean, neat, and professional folder
  • Annotated Bibs: Please include each individual group member’s name with his/her annotated bibs
  • Source page (References page or Bibliography page)
  • Drafts and revisions
  • List of individual contributions: This should be a one-page ‘report’ on who did what in the white paper project. For example, Student #1 wrote the **** section, Student #2 wrote the **** section and created the PowerPoint. (etc.)
  • Collaborative Feedback Form (one from each group member)

Due Dates
Please check the class calendar for due dates associated with this project and for the final portfolio due date.

White Paper Organization
Please organize your White Paper by placing your documents in this order:

  • Title Page
  • Executive Summary
  • White Paper body, including visuals
  • Annotated Bibs
  • References or Bibliography page
  • All earlier drafts of the white paper
  • List of individual contributions

Presentation of Materials
You must email me a copy of all the documents in Word (.doc) and PDF (.pdf) by the due date.