I often say that a white paper writer should “think like a lawyer.”
That means building a mountain of research to back up your case.
A lawyer needs to keep all the evidence at their fingertips, so they can pluck out exactly the right piece as they argue.
That can spell the difference between winning and losing the case.
By the same token, every white paper writer needs to keep a pile of research impeccably organized, so you can pull out exactly the right piece as you write.
That can spell the difference between a white paper that works and one that flops.
Six simple tools you can use
Here are six relatively simple tools you can use to keep track of all your white paper research:
- Index cards
- Microsoft Word
- Word + index cards
- Microsoft PowerPoint
- Microsoft OneNote
Tip: I can’t recommend using a database. I’ve spoken to book authors who use databases to organize their research for say, a biography. But that’s overkill for a 10-page white paper with a dozen or so sources.
#1: Index cards
I guess this really is your grandfather’s method.
After all, index cards have been used since before anyone ever wrote the first white paper.
But many writers still love them, and there’s at least a couple different ways you can use them.
Some researchers recommend using the top left section of a card to write a code number that points to a file of original documents, or even the section of your paper where you would use that reference.
Then you can use the top right for the actual citation: author, title, publisher, date, and page.
And the main body is for the actual quote.
When you’re finished, you have a nice little stack of research in delightfully tangible form that you can shuffle and reshuffle to your heart’s content.
Take #2 on this basic idea is to use large sticky notes, one for each source, and then arrange and rearrange them on a flat surface like a large piece of cardboard, an open file folder, or even your wall.
This is the most natural way for many writers to organize their research for a white paper.
I generally use this approach myself. I start with some intense web searches, downloading and often printing any articles that look interesting.
When I’ve covered enough ground, I scan through the hard-copy files, highlighting the choice bits, scribbling ideas in the margins, and attaching sticky notes to pages I want to find later.
All this can take a few hour, even a few days.
Then I go through the hard copies in front of my computer, typing all the best quotes into a Word file, one page per source, with precise citations.
Hint: I most often read those snippets into Word using voice recognition software, which is much faster. And it’s easier to hold sources in my hands to read, rather than wrangle them all around my desk.
Then I print out my selected excerpts. This creates another, smaller printout I slip on top my research file.
When I write the white paper’s executive summary, I pull out my excerpt file, knowing I can always dive back into the source material, which is right at my fingertips.
I’m sure some people will find this process hopelessly outdated, because they like to store all their research on their iWhatevers.
But I like being able to sort and shuffle paper—and to get something done even if the power goes off, the iCloud temporarily blows away, or my iWhatever needs a battery recharge.
#3: Word + index cards
If you like the tangibility of index cards and the time-saving efficiency of the computer, you can get the best of both worlds. Here’s how:
- Type up all your research in Word.
- Print your Word file with a narrow line measure like 4 inches wide.
- Go through your hard copy to highlight the key sources to use in your white paper.
- Physically cut out each source and tape it to an index card.
Then you can merrily shuffle your index cards until you get the perfect flow of ideas. You can even do that in a coffee shop or on the kitchen table.
Then when you come to write, you have your index cards for reference. But all your citations are already in Word, ready to paste into your white paper.
The same way, you can use PowerPoint to avoid scribbling down all your sources by hand.
The trick is to think of each slide as an index card.
- Type up your original research as a set of slides, one citation per slide.
- Then use the Slide Sorter feature (from the View tab) to arrange your slides in the ideal flow.
And you can do that on any laptop or tablet, or at your desk.
Now when you need a citation, you already have it in PowerPoint, ready to paste into your white paper.
#5: Evernote cloud app
If you want to use a cloud-based app to manage your white paper research, one likely choice is Evernote.
Fans appreciate that it comes in versions for Windows, Mac OS, different mobile devices, and various Web browsers.
You can use Evernote to save ideas, web articles, scanned articles, photos, graphics, status reports, or anything else you come across in your research.
And you can sync all your devices, so all your notes are with you no matter which device you have at hand.
For a great introduction to using Evernote, see this article from the Content Marketing Institute.
As an alternative to Evernote, there’s always OneNote.
It’s free, bundled with most versions of Microsoft Office.
And apparently the latest versions are much improved.
I confess I haven’t used either Evernote nor OneNote, so I can’t speak from personal experience. But many writers do, and they’re happy with their choices.
So there you have it: a good set of tools and tips for organizing a mountain of white paper research. Good luck keeping everything in order.
How do you organize your research for a white paper? Please leave your comments below.