Writing a white paper or discussion paper

What types of writing do professionals engage in? What professional practices of writing should students entering those professions encounter? How can we support development of appropriate professional writing skills?  These are issues I’ve been thinking about a bit lately, and I’ll be publishing another post soon(ish) trying to articulate an approach to writing practices in those terms. Importantly, in most professions, people are unlikely to be asked to write an ‘essay’ (there are exceptions), but many roles will require something similar under a variant label.

One genre of writing students in some fields will encounter is the white paper or discussion paper. These are essays of a kind, written for a purpose, that purpose is to identify trends and opportunities in a particular domain or sector, and possibly to set forth a proposal (a policy, product, or strategy) to address the opportunities. It might be more or less focussed, covering a whole sector (e.g. telecoms) or particular technologies, trends, or opportunities within a sector (e.g. the potential of increasing data speeds, geolocation, etc.). I’ve put some samples in this Zotero collection, with some stared to indicate interesting cases.

The WikiHow and Purdue Online Writing Labs guidance on white papers is pretty good general advice, although in an academic context we’d emphasise the importance of the evidence base. As such, scholarly white papers should be referenced, drawing on reliable reports (e.g. Pew Internet reports), and relevant peer reviewed literature (e.g. on specific issues such as the reliability of quantified self devices, and general ones such as the potential of open data, etc. – see the examples in the Zotero collection).

So the key questions are, have you addressed:

  1. Current trends in the sector or problem area
  2. Issues in obtaining, cleaning, organising, and analysing data in the sector or problem area
  3. Opportunities in the sector or problem area for use of data for innovation to address issues faced
  4. Existing evidence, drawing on reliable resources (including peer review literature) to backup claims, to provide critique, and context.

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