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Your Comfortable Timeline for Writing Long-Form Copy Projects

Welcome to Lesson 8 … you’re getting close to DONE!

And now that you know all the ins and outs of white papers that work … you’re just about ready to start writing for clients.

But first, this Lesson is all about your timeline.

Your white paper project is what’s called long-form copy. Unlike emails, blog posts, ads, short video scripts, single web pages, and other fairly short projects — a long-form copy project takes a little more effort to keep it on track: delivered on time, on target, and on budget.

In this Lesson, you’ll learn how a typical white paper project progresses through development.

The first thing to figure out is … how long will this thing take me?

A good rule of thumb when you’re planning your schedule around a white paper is:

  • Expect the paper to run five to 12 pages long, with visuals
  • Estimate 30 to 50 hours of applied working time (meaning actual time researching, outlining, writing, editing, etc.)
  • Assume six to eight weeks elapsed time from start to finish (which you’ll understand better by the end of this Lesson)

If you do IT white papers for technical readers, you could end up writing a Backgrounder that’s 25 – 50 pages … the Cisco Backgrounder in your swipe file is 39 pages long … but that’s the exception, not the norm.

The five to 12 page estimates above should work for you for most white papers.

So, back to your original question … how long will this take you? Let’s look at a basic timeline for a project like this …

Overall Project Management Process for Your White Paper

From the time you agree to take on the white paper project until you deliver the final version, you’ll be spending about six to eight weeks with it … and with your client. These projects are best done collaboratively.

When you work with your client, you want to make sure:

  • You’re both on the same page with exactly what you’re delivering
  • You’re aligned on the information they’re sending you, and when you’ll get it
  • You have a project timeline laid out, so everyone knows when things are due (this includes review/feedback time from the client)
  • You instill confidence in your client that you’re a professional and a partner with them
  • You minimize disruptions to your own work process to try and get your project done more quickly

So, what will you and your client be doing?

You’ll start with the project questionnaire and detailed client interview, so you know why they want the white paper, what they hope to use it for, what they want readers to do as a result of reading the white paper, and any information they already have that they can give you. As a reminder, you’ll find a project questionnaire and interview tips in Lesson 4.

Once you’re both aligned on what you’re writing, including which of the three main white paper types you recommend for the mission, you’ll have a better idea of how long it will be, and how much time it will take.

That’s when you’ll create a timeline with milestones that you both agree on.

Here’s a sample schedule based on an agreed white paper type:

Calendar graphic with agreed upon timeline. Starting with creating timeline, discussing with client about timeline, materials and delivery timeframes

So, what does each of these process steps look like?

Phase 1: Nail Down Your Timeline and Plan

The timeline and plan should include key dates and milestones for both the client’s responsibilities and your responsibilities. This includes:

List of responsibilities that include a details list of documents, experts, executive summary, and due dates.

Once you and your client agree to your timeline and plan, you’ll start …

Phase 2: Writing Your Outline and Executive Summary

This step is critical for both you and your client. It’s a check point before you actually do the writing, to ensure you’re delivering what they were expecting. That way you can hit the agreed deadlines without doing extra work they didn’t need.

The executive summary, or Introduction, should be as final a draft as you can make it. The outline is your bulleted description of what you’ll include in the paper to deliver on the promise in the executive summary.

You don’t need to include all your sources when you submit this, but you should have them all available if there are questions.

The final product of this phase may only be a page or two of writing, but it’s where most — if not all — of your research and interviewing will happen, so it takes a while to pull this together.

By the time you’re done with this phase, you’ll know pretty much everything you need to know to write the entire paper.

Once you’ve got the executive summary in good shape and have a solid outline for the rest of the white paper, you’ll move to:

Phase 2A: Getting Summary and Outline Approval BEFORE Moving On

When you finish your executive summary and outline the paper, set up a meeting with your client to review it.

You CAN email it to the team, but if you end up with conflicting feedback, you get put in the middle. You don’t want that.

So best practice would be to have a live, online review meeting (perhaps on Zoom) with anyone on your client’s review team and get the paper approved right then if the team is relatively small. That way, they can discuss any differences of opinion about the direction of the paper, and you come away with team consensus.

If it’s a bigger team, or if it’s not workable to have a group meeting, be sure you have a way to get direction on any conflicting feedback.

In fact, here’s a good tip to follow as part of your initial discussion. You should ask for, and get, one person on your client’s team who is your primary point of contact (POC). Your agreement should be clear — that person is responsible for any final decisions about the paper and resolves any conflicting input. It’ll make your job so much easier when everyone knows who owns the final decisions.

This approval step usually occurs about halfway through your project elapsed time. You’ll usually need to give your client about a week to do this review, but try to keep it to no longer than that, or you risk the final due date slipping. And since you probably have other work lined up when this is done … you don’t want that.

Once you get your client’s final approval on the executive summary and outline, it’s time to move on to …

Phase 3: Writing Your First Draft

Using your executive summary and your outline, you’re ready to write each section of the paper, filling in any research gaps you may have and turning your outline into a fully written paper.

Keys to remember when you’re writing your paper:

  • Write first, edit later. If you try to edit your paper all the way through, you stifle your creative process and stop your “flow.”
  • Get all your thoughts down, all the way through the paper. Don’t censor yourself!
  • Then, follow the guidelines in Lessons 6 and 7 for editing and making your paper more powerful.
  • Polish your draft. Even though this is called your First Draft, you want this to look like the final version. Don’t send your client a draft that hasn’t been polished to a high shine.
  • Include suggestions for graphics and images – these are also needed during this phase, but generally, writers aren’t responsible for graphics and design, unless you also offer that as a service.

    • Some clients may have a graphics person they assign to work with you. In that case, you’ll send them a copy of the draft and suggestions for graphics and images you think are needed in the paper. You’ll likely work directly with them during this phase to finalize the graphics.
    • If your client doesn’t have a graphic artist or a graphics team, they may either be expecting you to find someone yourself to do the graphics or they may hire a different freelancer to do them. Either way, since graphics are such an integral part of a white paper, you’ll be working closely with the graphics person to make sure the graphics support the text and provide a good user experience. Refer back to our many swipes to see how graphics can complement your text in a big way.

When you think you have the paper as complete as you can get it, you move on to …

Phase 3A: Getting Feedback and Making Changes

OK, same process as before, but this time, your client will probably need more time. This is the full paper, so it’ll take them a bit of time to get through and provide (hopefully final) feedback.

You want their feedback on both the text and the graphics of the paper. Assuming you’ve edited out any typos or grammar issues, they can focus on the actual content.

Just a note: when you turn in writing that contains grammar errors and typos, it can be distracting or even annoying to your client. They may neglect to provide valuable feedback if they’re busy being your editor. So — we can’t emphasize this enough:

Edit your first full draft thoroughly or hire someone to look your paper over for you. Then send it to your client.

Give the review team a deadline for comments – try to make that deadline a little shorter than what you actually need to hit your timeline, since you’re likely to have to chase late reviewers.

Or, better yet, if you’ve asked your client for their one point of contact, you give that person the first draft including graphics and ask them to collect feedback for you. And then the two of you can sit down and go through it, so they can help you decide how to interpret and incorporate the feedback, especially if it’s conflicting.

Phase 4: Submit the Final Draft for Design

Once you’ve had that discussion and you know what changes you need to make, you incorporate the changes as quickly as you can and re-send it for a last review.


It’s possible they may come back with additional changes, but if you followed the best practices above, that shouldn’t happen often.

The only additional step you’ll want to take is to see the final product. Why? Two reasons. You want to be sure they implemented everything you asked them to. If not, mention to your client that it would be stronger if … (explain).

Second, you want a sample for your portfolio (ask your client, of course).

In Conclusion

White papers are long-form copy projects that require you to manage the project from start to finish.

In this Lesson, you learned best practice tips for managing a white paper project and working with your client’s review team to deliver a paper that’s:

  • On time
  • On budget
  • Effective for the client
  • Easier on you
  • Nail down your timeline and project plan. Even if you’re not a project manager, you need to “borrow” some of those skills to make sure your white paper doesn’t get completely out of control. Use the tips above to set expectations, define roles, and make sure you’re getting what you need when you need it.
  • Do your research and interviews. Dive deep into your white paper, interview the experts, and get to know your subject thoroughly.
  • Create a 1-2 page executive summary and outline. Make sure your research was on target and you’re delivering what your client is expecting before you go to all the trouble of writing the entire paper. Get the client’s review team to give you feedback you can use to get the paper closer to what they want.
  • Polish the first draft to a high shine. Submit the first draft as if it were the final version. Pull out all your editing and writing tips and make sure you’re submitting an awesome draft.
  • Incorporate the feedback and turn in the final version. Make sure you ask for a final copy of your white paper. And ask your client if you can use it as a sample.

Next, you’ll find out what other work you can pitch because of the white paper … and you’ll get your Final Assignment … can you believe you’re almost ready to hang out your white paper shingle?

Move on to Lesson 9!