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white paper

We all wish white, black and brown were just colour patterns. Unfortunately, these colours carry a social meaning, so depending on how you use them, there will be an implicit meaning behind them. The most common example is a blacklist, which has a negative connotation. Someone might ask: if ‘white paper’ is not bad, why does it have a racial connotation? But that is precisely the point. It might seem an unharmful use of colour, but, in fact, it emphasises the differences between the use of black and white versus what is good or bad.

We are not here to criticise, but instead to raise awareness and start questioning terms like this. Why use ‘white paper’ when you can call it a report, a guide or even an ebook? Before we divulge further, let’s talk about the origins of the term ‘white paper’. 


What’s the story behind the term ‘white paper’?


One theory tells us that the ‘white paper’ comes from the blue covers of official documents and reports presented in parliament in Britain in the 19th century. The cover was changed to white when the matter in the paper was informal*.


The use of colour in language


According to the Cambridge Dictionary, we should always examine idioms, expressions, and language use as they might change with time. However, we should also be aware that not all uses of colour in language are the same across different cultures. As an additional note, perception of the colour of the skin and race is also not necessarily the same around the globe.


In literature, there has always been the use of colour to express ideas. For example, the use of black and white to describe differences between purity and evil comes from associating day/light/white with goodness and night/dark/black with danger. So the wedding dress is white; the grieving colour is black; a white knight buys a company to save it; a black knight acquires it without the owner wanting to sell it.


What is a word’s social meaning? 


In short, it means what a piece of language conveys about the social circumstances of its use. The same word can have the same conceptual meaning but has several others according to how and where it is being used.


When choosing words with strong social meaning, content writers need to inquest about the context, the focus and the readers. Writers also need to be aware of different social meanings across different cultures. It is also worth mentioning that a word might be acceptable in specific social circles, but that will depend on whom it is coming from, so it might not be well received from an “outsider”. To be an inclusive writer, you have to ask these and several other questions constantly.


But, what is the definition of ‘white paper’? 


A ‘white paper’ is a report or a guide about a specific subject. The purpose of a ‘white paper’ is to share knowledge or data about organisational expertise. The ‘white paper’ became a vital marketing tool for businesses. It works as a portfolio of their work and helps organisations be taken seriously by customers, besides helping with rankings. 


A ‘white paper’ can be seen as a product pitch disguised as information. And it is used to persuade possible clients that your company has the expertise they need. By sharing some of the organisation’s expertise, the goal is to convince the reader and potential client to get in touch and ask for a quote. These documents are usually a problem-solving guide, a case study or a business method focused on specific audiences. Whitepapers are also seen as academic papers focused on marketing. 


Unlike a blog post, a ‘white paper’ uses more formal and professional language, typically presented in a 30-50 pages pdf file. The focus of the ‘white paper’ can be to obtain leads, redefine market space, build credibility, and get in front of the competition*


Generally speaking, the purpose of this document is to position a company as a trusted advisor who provides well-written expert content.


Why not a Report, a Guide or an Ebook?


We honestly don’t see why not. The main difference between these three types of formats is the language, style and perhaps the length. A report does not necessarily have a specific number of pages, however, it uses more formal language, and its content is data-driven. A guide can be less formal but also have varied use of language style to be persuasive. An ebook is, in the end, a book. Books are expected to be more prominent in length and perhaps dig deeper on a subject. Whatever your choice, you might find out that it has more to do with the content style intent than the official meaning of the type of document.


What can organisations do?


To be more inclusive and respectful of diversity, organisations need to start to use inclusive language seriously. It is not an easy process. The first step is to start noticing and questioning terms like ‘white paper’ and thinking: why am I using this term? How else can I say this without implying a colour with social meaning? What are the other options?


Take action and actively question inherent bias, implicit bias, systemic racism, covert bias, and microaggressions*.


Language is alive and fluid, so there is always an option. Making better language choices is part of the content writer job, so why not contribute to making language more inclusive?


If you don’t know where to start, create a committee in your organisation or hire a diversity consultant to get guidance on where to begin.


What do we propose?


Let’s start by not using ‘white paper’ when there are several unbiased terms such as reports, guides and ebooks that work perfectly well for a business purpose and the intent of the content published.
At The Writing Box, we are here to help you through the inclusive and diverse language journey. That is why we will start sharing Content Guides, the first one being a Short Guide to Diversity and Inclusivity in Writing. If you would like to get a copy first-hand, subscribe to our monthly newsletter