5 Idiot Blunders I Made on My First White Paper Writing Assignment

5 Idiot Blunders I Made on My First White Paper Writing AssignmentOne of the biggest moves a freelance writer can make to earn more is to move into better-paying types of gig, like white paper writing.

When you go from, say, writing $20 blog posts to writing white papers that can pay $1,500-$10,000, it’s a big leap.

Of course, a lot can also go wrong when you step into a new, more sophisticated kind of writing that you haven’t done before. But if you want to earn more, at some point you have to buck up your courage and go for it.

A few years back, I fell into an opportunity to write my first white paper, when a writer I knew referred me for the project. I’d heard this was a great-paying writing niche, and I was dying to sink my teeth into one of these big, detailed projects.

Even though I hadn’t written white papers before, I was tapped because the topic was a big company’s nonprofit efforts — which I’d covered in the past, as a reporter. So I knew the end client and what we’d be documenting fairly well.

Maybe that made me a little overconfident. I made a boatload of rookie mistakes that made this first $2,500 white paper gig a lot more unpleasant and lengthy than it should have been.

And I never ended up working for this client again. So. Relationship blown.

Where did it all go wrong? Let me count the ways…


1. Not vetting the client

When a writer-friend tells you, “Hey, this is a chance to work with an amazing end client that’s a Fortune 500,” I don’t know about you, but I tend to get stars in my eyes.

It turned out that I’d be working not directly with this client, but with one of their approved marketing agencies. The guy who headed it was a former staff speechwriter and marketing writer at this F500. Once again, I was wowed.

“Man, this guy must know *exactly* what he’s doing,” I thought.

What I didn’t find out? He’d just recently quit the company and set up this agency…and had no experience running an agency. He’d never had writers working under him before. He hadn’t written white papers, either.

That turned out to be something he sucked at. In the course of my project, everyone he had hired as a ‘staffer’ for his little agency quit.

He would have his staff minions give assignments to the writers — and guess what? It was like a big game of telephone.

Almost every single thing I was told, from deadlines to wordcounts, turned out to be wrong. A lot of frantic rewriting ensued.

Takeaway: If I’d asked around about this guy, I might have learned he was a legendary prima donna — and would have trouble delegating writing work.

2. No direct client contact

Everything I did on this white paper came down secondhand. I couldn’t even have told you who at the big company this agency reported to.

I’d receive word trickle-down style, about who to interview about what. Then, after I interviewed them, I’d be told I didn’t ask them the right things, or that I needed a different source. These kinds of miscommunications are an epidemic in agencies that keep their clients close to the vest.

In his efforts to keep us from poaching the client work (not even possible with this company, since they only used a few approved agencies), he would parcel out parts of projects to different people. You never knew who else might be touching different parts of your same elephant. The result: chaos.

Takeaway: I should have gotten clarity off the bat on who I’d be reporting to, who was on my project, and who I’d be able to access.

3. Skipping the research

I basically worked with what I was handed, instead of doing my own research to learn more about the types of charity programs I was documenting. I might have had better backup ideas for interviews, or programs to compare it (favorably) to, if I’d taken the time.

More than once in the course of the project, I was sitting around for days on end, and then having to do a rush job on an interview, where I probably could have more quickly found sources on my own and just asked for approval.

Takeaway: Don’t sit with your hands folded waiting for info from your client — do your own legwork, so that you have more to work with.

4. A key question omitted

One big question I really wish I’d asked is, “What is your writing process like?”

After all, I’d never written a white paper before. So I didn’t realize that I needed a few key things:

  • Approval of each of my sources from higher-ups
  • A signed release from each of my interview subjects
  • To let each interview subject read their copy before turning it in
  • To obtain stock photos from my subjects

Long after some of my interviews, toward the end of the project, I was suddenly asked to “turn in my releases.” To which I replied, “What releases????”

I’d never been given a form or told my interviews had to fill it out…but suddenly, I looked like a clueless fool. It had been weeks since some of my interviews, and it was extra work to dig some of them back up and get them to sign off.

Takeaway: Find out what *all* the elements are that are your “deliverables” in the project — and be sure you get them as you go. Don’t leave paperwork to the end.

5. Running in circles

One of the things that was dangled in front of me on this gig was the idea of foreign travel. Their program is global, and they were including some stories from other countries.

When it was strongly hinted that I might snag one of these assignments, I turned my life upside down to run out and get an expedited passport. Which, of course, turned out to be a total waste of time. In fact, I never left my house, even.

Takeaway: Don’t chase phantoms on a gig. If someone’s hinting you might need to do something for the project, get more details and find out if it’s real, before wasting time.

The good news is that the project did eventually get finished…and it came out real nice. I got a great clip out of the deal. It was definitely worth doing, despite all the problems.

But I wish I’d taken a more thorough attitude to scoping this out before I dove in. Then, I might have had a smoother road and ended up getting more white paper writing gigs for this client, instead of having a relationship that went down in flames.

As it worked out, it was a long time before another white paper opportunity came around.

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12 comments on “5 Idiot Blunders I Made on My First White Paper Writing Assignment
  1. Stefanie says:

    When does registration close for the bootcamp? I’m very serious about my writing career and I want to specialize in white pages, but I won’t get a paycheck until Friday.

    • Carol Tice says:

      Hi Stefanie — Good question! Registration actually closes Wednesday, so that we can get focused on presenting the class. Sorry that it sounds like bad timing for you!

  2. Rob S says:

    I haven’t been asked to write a white paper yet, but I recently started getting assignments for a major manufacturer of solar panels and other sustainable technology. I’d written a lot on the subject matter before, but the difference this time was that I was writing for architects and engineers. My first submissions weren’t detailed enough for my editor. Fortunately, I submitted them way ahead of deadline and she told me what I had to do. I get paid 3 to 5 times as much for these articles as for the more “fluffy” articles for the general public, but now that I know how to format them, they only take about 1.5 times as long to write. The moral of the story is to do what it takes to get it right and learn from your mistakes.
    Rob S recently posted…So you want to be a travel writer?My Profile

  3. Colm O'Regan says:

    Hey great article. Just landed my first white paper project last week! I’ll definitely keep some of these points in mind when writing it.

    Also looking forward to the Steve Slaunwhite training event :).

    Thanks Carol

    • Carol Tice says:

      Me, too! I’ve just done a few white papers, and never gone after these clients — just fell into the situations through referrals or existing clients. So I’m going to be taking notes along with everyone else!

  4. Holly Bowne says:

    Man! I can totally see myself assuming (always dangerous!) the same things about the “marketing agency” guy—believing he knew what he was doing since he seemed to have such solid background experience.

    A lot of great, great lessons here! Thanks, Carol!

    • Carol Tice says:

      Yes, it’s so easy for us to be impressed by big agency types, isn’t it? But hanging out a shingle doesn’t really mean much — especially if it happened 2 weeks ago.

  5. Oh, the lessons we learn! Not having direct client contact when working with an agency can certainly mean not having a happy end-client. Often, I find that the message from the agency vs the message from the company are vastly different.

    The writing process is an interesting point, too. Working with one agency I wrote some Facebook updates that required four levels of approval before they could go live – this level of verification was completely new to me!

    We live and learn, and we don’t make the same mistakes again!
    Philippa Willitts recently posted…Sources of Extra Cash for Freelance WritersMy Profile

  6. Daryl says:

    I think not getting a clear sense as to specifics of the assignment has been one of my bugbears for some time.

    The client will give me general ideas/directions, but it may not be exactly what he/she envisioned. The end result is despite me turning in a decent draft, I’ve had to significantly redo it, which is extra time. And in this line of work, time is money!
    Daryl recently posted…No Gigs, No Problem – How to Make Money From Your Freelance Blog Without Freelance Writing ClientsMy Profile

    • Carol Tice says:

      I’m usually obsessed with making sure I understand EXACTLY what a client wants, for that very reason. I hate having to rewrite because of lack of clarity! But in this white paper scenario, I had no way of knowing the sub-editor I was assigned had no clue…until the head of the agency was yelling at me that he had to spend all weekend rewriting my copy to cut the wordcount in half.

      It’s hard to get clear communication when the people you’re working for seem dedicated to obfuscating and sowing confusion…but I usually do better at figuring out that it’s going to be a dysfunctional nightmare before I say ‘yes.’

  7. Nida Sea says:

    Great points and mistakes to watch out for! I have no experience writing white papers, but I’d love to go into it. I’m sure there’s plenty to learn. I can’t wait for the Steve Slaunwhite den meeting!