Ethos and exigence: White papers in high-tech industries
Willerton, David R.
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In recent years, many high-tech firms have used documents called white papers to describe the products and services they offer, and white papers on high-tech subjects have had an increasing presence on the World Wide Web. On TECHWR-L, an e-mail list for practicing technical communicators, discussions have shown that some companies ask technical communicators to help write white papers, but that many technical communicators are unfamiliar with these documents. The extent to which technical communicators produce white papers has not been studied, and white papers have not been examined for their fit within the field of technical communication. In this study, I examined the history and background of white papers, and I compared them to reports and proposals – better known genres of technical communication – to make applications for pedagogy. I examined the exigencies that lead companies to produce white papers and the forces that shape the white paper genre. I described how white papers are read and used in high-tech industries. I also examined the extent to which practicing technical communicators are involved in writing white papers, and the extent to which white papers have a place in academic technical communication curricula. I employed methodological triangulation to answer my research questions. I examined reports and proposals in a sample of technical communication textbooks; I interviewed professionals who write white papers in high-tech industries; I observed and interviewed engineering consultants at a particular firm as they read white papers; and I surveyed practicing technical communicators as well as directors of academic technical communication programs. White papers do not completely resemble reports or proposals. My investigation shows that current white papers generally function as marketing documents that mix objective and promotional material; they help shape a company’s ethos or credibility in crowded marketplaces. Readers expect white papers to provide valuable technical information, and yet they realize white papers promote the sponsoring companies’ interests. Academics need to acknowledge white papers’ hybrid nature as well as the skepticism white paper readers show. Many technical communicators write white papers, and white papers provide them another way to add value to their organizations.