Interview with a Barefoot Writer: Gordon Graham
“There are thousands of people out there making their living as writers today, so just because it seems a bit funny and nobody in your family’s ever done it, doesn’t mean you can’t do it. You can.”
— Gordon Graham, Celebrated White Paper Writer and B2B Communications Expert
One of the best things about getting to talk to as many highly-regarded, successful writers as I do is discovering just how lovely and down-to-earth they are. Gordon Graham is by far one of the most pleasant high-level writers I’ve connected with — and he shared multiple gems of wisdom, as well.
Gordon has over 30 years’ experience writing, mostly in technology but most notably in the white paper industry. His client list includes prominent names like Google, Intuit, Oracle, and Rackspace, plus many smaller firms with big ideas.
During his years as a writer, Gordon has cultivated significant know-how in the field of writing to inform and explain. He’s looked at writing projects from all sides, thanks to past positions as marketing manager and client and, most often, as the writer. He’s also shared his writing savvy by teaching courses in communications at two universities and multiple companies.
So it’s with pleasure that I introduce you to Gordon Graham, commonly known as “That White Paper Guy,” and for our purposes, the fellow who charmingly shared advice on how to make the white paper industry work for you, what not to do, and how to get started with your dream.
Did you become a writer by fluke, or was it a calling?
I remember this very distinctly and it goes back to when I was in third grade. I had this teacher who had a very colorful name, Miss Rattle, and she put up all of these pictures of animals and places and people all around the bottom of the chalkboard. She would say, “If you get finished with your work, just look at one of these pictures and write a little story about it. I’ll read out the best stories.”
So that was all I needed. I would rush through my work and then scribble down these little stories. And most of the time, she’d read them. She’d get the whole class together and read this story, and I remember distinctly this one day where all the kids were going, “Ooh, aah!” and laughing — you know the way a children’s audience is so great. They really react. So I just looked around and said, “This is fantastic. This is what I want to do my whole life. I want to write stories.”
Being very practical minded — my dad is a Scottish accountant — I decided it wasn’t just “I want to do this,” it was, “I want to make my living doing this. I want to get paid for doing this.” Even in third grade, I remember thinking I wanted to do this all day long and make my living doing this.
How did you make that dream a reality?
After that, I tried every possible way I could to make my living as a writer. I started my own little neighborhood magazine when I was 11 years old and I used to take my single copy door-to-door and rent it overnight for a nickel until the copy was so shredded that I ran home to make another copy by hand.
I wrote for student newspapers. I worked for an astronomy book publisher. I wrote almost 1,000 articles for magazines as a freelance magazine writer. I did technical writing, which is writing manuals about software or big systems, and that’s where I was first exposed to Business-to- Business (B2B).
And that’s what introduced you to the world of white papers?
Yeah. I was on another end of the company, but our company sometimes published white papers. That was back in the 1980s. I eventually got tired of technical writing, because it was really just about things. I was writing about things and it was basically, “Press this button, hook up this wire.”
There was no people factor. I wanted to switch over to something that had a little bit more emotion, so I switched to what was called marketing communications in those days. That’s really the old-fashioned B2B word for copywriting, I guess.
I tried all different types of copywriting, and most of them I was terrible at. Advertising — I couldn’t write an ad to save my life. I was terrible at that, but there were other things I liked, like newsletters, so I did lots of newsletters for many years, and I even edited a software industry newsletter for five years, and eventually wrote case studies and white papers.
Did you move around a lot during this time?
This was in Montreal. I grew up outside of Toronto, then I moved to Toronto, then I moved to Montreal when I got tired of Toronto, and was doing technical writing. While there, a buddy of mine said, “Oh, there’s this great little company down in Old Montreal, but I’m too busy. Why don’t you go talk to them?”
I went in to talk to them and I thought it would be a little three-week project, like they had a little manual to write. But I just liked the people so much and it was so great, I kept suggesting more projects and saying things like, “Well, why don’t we add a website?” They’d be like, “Well, can you do a website for us?” And I’d say, “Sure.” Then they’d say, “How about a newsletter?” And I’d say, “Sure!” I was doing tons and tons and tons of stuff, and eventually they offered me a job as Vice President of Marketing.
It was a very, very fast-growing company, and I wasn’t really qualified to be a vice president, but it was a neat opportunity, so we tried everything we could possibly do. This was a B2B company that made software to drive barcode readers for peoples’ warehouses, or their factories, or their shipping and receiving, and maybe that sounds kind of dull and industrial and boring, but we found it very exciting, because we were getting customers from all over the world. I went to see a Black & Decker factory where they were making lawn mowers and electric appliances and stuff, and it was so neat to think our system was helping them make those things.
So you tested different types of copy to promote the barcode readers?
We tried everything, and what really worked the best was case studies and white papers. Hands-down, they worked better than anything else we ever tried, and they were less expensive, too, because I could hire a writer to write a case study for $1,000.
We could put together a white paper for a few thousand dollars, and put it on our website. This was back in the late 1990s, and those things would just work forever. Before content marketing had ever been called by that term, I was doing content marketing and realizing how good it was.
You’ve got such a wide-ranging background in writing — including having written over 200 white papers. How quickly can you write one these days?
Yeah, I think I’ve written 225 white papers total. But these are not short, simple documents, right? They’re long-form and they’re complicated and they take research, so the fastest one I could ever do would probably be about 20 hours.
The average is more like 30 hours spread over a couple of weeks, but they really do vary tremendously, because each one is different and takes a different amount of research. Sometimes the client has the research and just supplies it, other times, I’ve got to start from square one.
Besides research, what defines the amount of work that goes into a white paper?
It’s the scope and how long it is. The number of reviewers and the number of review cycles can be incredible. I just worked on one for a pretty big company, and it took me close to 100 hours, and we’re up to, I think, version 5.3. A lot of the versions just went up .2, .3, they didn’t just go one, two, three, four, five, so it’s probably had 15 or 20 revisions. Fortunately, on that one, I was charging by the hour. If I’d been charging a fixed fee on that one, I would have been really pulling my hair out. But really, I first got into white papers because I thought they were big, journalistic, research-based, fact-based documents, and I wanted to work on something where I didn’t have to look at the clock all the time.
If I was writing something like a press release, and I’m charging a few hundred dollars, and some vice president wants to make a fix in it, then it really costs me time.
I’ve always wanted to be charging a high enough fee that if something took another hour to research or I had to do another couple of hours of polishing, it wasn’t going to bother me.
So charging per project boosts quality, since you don’t have to rush the job?
I would say that’s certainly true with white papers. They’re so big and complex that you can’t really predict every step of the way, and … it’s kind of like a Buddhist thing.
Buddhist in what way?
The reason I think I get impatient or disappointed is because something doesn’t match my expectations, so if I can go into it with minimal expectations and a calm mood, then I will be happy doing it, you know?
The Buddhist mentality. No fears and no expectations.
Right. Don’t worry about the future, and you’re not attached to the past. You’re just in the flow. I love writing and I love researching, so I found this format where I get to do that most of the time, which is great, and then frame a business around it, so anybody else who’s like me, I think, has the potential to do that with white papers.
That attitude lends itself to being able to write objectively, which is appropriate for writing white papers.
Yeah, they’re different than sales-y or direct-response writing, right? It’s mostly — it’s probably 80 percent writing to explain, and 20 percent writing to persuade, or maybe it’s 60/40. I’d never really thought of that before.
You have one foot in each camp, you know, which is also really stimulating. You’re not just selling. You never ask for the order. You never say, “Buy now.” You’re kind of trying to persuade in a longer-term way that your client can be a trusted advisor, so that’s a challenging kind of writing to manage.
I can’t say that a beginner writer would necessarily be able to do that. It takes some nuance to be able to pull that off.
What’s a common mistake you see made by new writers attempting white papers?
That’s a great question, and I think I will have to say it’s the mistake that beginner or not, too many white papers are kind of a thinly-veiled sales pitch instead of being truly useful or helpful. The writer and the sponsor of a white paper have to understand that this is a form of content.
I have a little mantra for that. I say an effective white paper should help a business person to understand an issue or solve a problem or make a decision, and a sales pitch won’t help them do those things. Even if they’re trying to evaluate two different products, they have to do it mostly on the basis of facts. I think the biggest mistake for a beginning white paper writer is thinking this is a form of persuasive copywriting.
I even feel a little uncomfortable about considering myself a copywriter. I usually think I’m just a writer. A plain, old writer, like a magazine writer who happens to write these white papers.
Anything too sales-y, anything too overt is going to really turn off a reader who’s looking for some helpful advice, so you have to think how this fits into a long-term process of helping a prospect to know you and like you and trust you. Or know and like and trust the company.
That goes back to your earlier advice about no expectations. That way, you’re not writing with an end goal that somebody will fall in love with the product you’ve just explained.
Yeah, there is one form of white paper that’s like that, and this is the old-fashioned kind that I call a backgrounder, but there’s two other types that are really not like that, and these are the types I think usually generate a better return on the company’s investment.
I guess the other thing I might say about what new writers need to learn to do, is that sometimes there’s a little pushing back against your clients. Especially if you’re writing for someone like a VP of sales and marketing. Someone who puts sales first, right?
They may want you to stick in all of this jargon they always say to customers. They may want to feel like they’ve used every buzzword and they may want you to throw in some of the sales pitch they normally use, and you have to push back against that. I think beginner writers may not be confident enough to do that.
What’s a smart way a writer can push back?
One way you have to do that is puncture some of these blown-up claims that people can get away with if they’re just talking. If they’re just walking around the company saying things like, “Oh, yeah, we have the best product. Ours is way better. Ours is the best.”
When you write it down, you can’t just say, “We are the best.” You’ve got to back it up. Says who? So what? What feature is the best? What makes it the best? What about all of these other people that have been doing all these alternate things for all these years. What’s so bad about them?
So constantly ask questions and find supporting evidence.
Yes. Not doing that is the major pitfall. You have to remember you’re helping your client. You’ve come in as an outsider with a fresh pair of eyes and an objective or skeptical attitude, so you’re not an employee that has to agree with your boss.
You should disagree a few times, or at least push them to prove the assertions they’re coming out with. I guess that’s what I like. That goes back to my journalistic background. I like asking pesky questions, but if a white paper writer doesn’t do that, their papers are not going to be very effective because they’re just going to write down what everybody tells them and never challenge them and get any source. You’ve really got to do your research and get sources.
If you make some claim or assertion, you need to have some backup for that, so that’s what I like. It’s a lot like writing the kind of essays we wrote in college.
I was just thinking that. It sounds like a lot of my college essay projects.
It really is, and then we forgot everything we ever learned about writing those essays, right? I remember when I was going to university and I was totally broke and I was saying, “Gee, they keep asking me to do all this work, and yet I’m paying them. This is crazy. They should be paying me.”
I guess, all these years later, now I’m getting paid to write the stuff they were asking me to write for free at the university, you know?
Exactly! What do you tell people you don’t know when they ask what you do for a living?
Well, that’s a great question, because I have struggled with that. Even to explain to my parents what I do. These days I say, “I write marketing materials for companies.” Or, “I write these things that are a lot like the essays we wrote in college,” and then they go, “Oh, yes, that’s kind of boring. Okay.”
If they’re business people, especially if they’re from a technology company, then I might tell them I write white papers and they might have heard of them, so there’s a small segment of the population that’s actually heard of white papers. I live in a very small town in northern Ontario and I would say there’s probably nobody in my town that’s ever heard of white papers.
When I got Google as a client a few years ago, I was talking to my mother on the phone and I said, “Oh, I got a call from Google. I’m writing for them.” She said, “Google? Oh, I know Google. I use Google all the time.”
She could relate to that. She also likes seeing my Dummies book, so she can relate to that, too, and she even read it. I couldn’t believe it.
Is there any kind of an unusual business you can name that could profit from a white paper besides software or technology companies?
Yeah. White papers are expanding out, because people in all different types of organizations have problems to solve, so I remember reading one — have you guys in the States heard of David Suzuki? He’s kind of Canada’s biggest environmentalist, he comes out of B.C. and he was a broadcaster here for many years, so everybody in Canada knows him. He owns a foundation, and this was probably about 20 years ago, where they did a position paper on fish farming in the Pacific. I still remember that to this day, because I always thought, “Fish farming, that’s great. That’s going to be the solution to the world’s need for protein and it’s just great. It’s environmentally friendly and everything.”
But they did this research report, which you could call a white paper, and it was so hard-hitting, it really opened my eyes to the problems with fish farming in the uncontrolled way it’s being done now.
I still think about that and hear about that issue and these problems have still not been solved, so there’s an environmental NGO that did a white paper probably 20 years ago, which pointed out a problem that has held itself to this day.
Another example is from this interactive agency in California that works for the big toy companies like Hasbro and Mattel and the big kids TV networks like Nick and Sesame Street. I’ve actually done three white papers for them and they’re called interFUEL. (Interfuel.com)
They were about how to design virtual worlds for kids. I sort of knew a bit about that, but I got to go into these kids’ virtual worlds where they were all full of penguins and little animals and stuff. One of the papers was a numbered list, so it was like, “Six Things Every Virtual World for Kids Must Have.”
You make some great points about the different types of industries that could benefit from objective-style writing. It’s not all B2B and high-tech.
I guess that’s a thing — the resistance some people have to B2B. They say, “I’m going to have to work with these companies and all these companies want to do is make money and they’re so terrible and they’re ruining the earth and they’re polluting everything.”
Okay, don’t work for some company you hate. Don’t write for some oil company if you hate oil companies. Write for some company that you love and an industry you love. Maybe solar or wind power. They sure as heck need white papers.
Do you ever get burnt out on writing white papers? If so, what do you do to refuel your creativity?
I wouldn’t say I ever get burnt out. I’ve been doing these for more than 10 years, and I’d like to keep doing them for another 10 or 20 years. I think each one is very different, so that’s nice. They’re different lengths and topics about different industries. I also do a certain amount of case studies, and I would say case studies are similar but they’re a nice change of pace because they’re so short and so simple.
Case studies are kind of like one interview and one day of writing and they’re done, so to me, they feel more like writing a short magazine article, where a white paper feels more like writing a chapter from a book or an academic essay. So I guess I break it up with a few case studies, but the world of white papers is so different.
What are you working on now?
I was just writing a big project for Epson to support a new line of printers they’re introducing, and then my next white paper is for a start-up in Mexico City that’s about bringing microloans and financial services to the third world. Those are just about as different as you can get.
And there’s this one I’m working on now where I guess I feel like I’m doing some help to the world, doing some greater good instead of just helping my clients. Because, boy — when you get to quote from the U.N. Declaration of Human Rights, that’s pretty great. This one is about how two-thirds of the world’s population doesn’t have any access to banking services.
If you want variety, you can have variety. If you want to stick to one industry, you can have one industry.
If you couldn’t be a writer, what else would you enjoy doing for a living?
Well, you know how some careers are very limited in time? Say you’re a professional athlete. Not that I could have been, but say you play hockey. You’ve got about five years, maybe. Say you play football, you could get smacked and your career is over, so you’ve only got a few years for some of these careers — like being a ballet dancer or something.
But being a writer, I’ll be able to write when I’m an old geezer. I’ll be able to write as long as I have my faculties. I could be in a wheelchair, I could have one arm, I could have no arms and use voice recognition software. I’ll be able to write as long as I can kind of draw a breath, so I think that’s what’s really cool about this profession.
I can keep working, and it’s all the same, you know? I guess I would’ve always liked to do something creative, but I don’t know. I don’t know if as you get older your interests change or something. I mean, I wanted to use my mind and work with words, so I’m certainly able to do that in this field.
There’s no expiration date for writers.
I’ve seen people who want to write make comments like, “I’m 60 and need more money” and I want them to know there’s still hope. If they were 60 and wanted to become a landscape gardener or something more physical, that might be tougher. But not so with writing.
On the flip side, if you won the lottery and had $20 million all of the sudden, what would you do?
That is a neat question. I actually, when I was younger, read a book about this, because I was fascinated by this question, and there was a guy who followed around a bunch of people that had won — I think it was the New York State Lottery.
It was the biggest one of its time. There was the Irish Sweepstakes, and I think New York had one — the first one. So the author followed all these people, and what I learned from that book is what you don’t do if you win the lottery. What you don’t do is sell your house and move away from your old neighborhood and get isolated from all your friends and quit your job. What you don’t do is just change everything in your life all at once, because those people became really isolated and unhappy and winning the lottery was the worst thing that ever happened to them.
I think that what I would do would be probably to give away about a third of it. You’ve got to give away some of that when you get it. I don’t know, maybe I would just give it to the Bill Gates Foundation, because I think they’re doing a really great job, and then I’d probably tuck some away in worthy investments. Probably in clean tech or green tech — those have got to be the future, you know? And I don’t know, I might buy a couple of toys. I’ve always thought Mercedes-Benz were the best cars, but now I kind of like these Tesla electric cars.
One thing that might be shocking to hear, but I would keep working. No matter how much money I had, I really like what I do, you know? I really like writing. I’d probably take on clients like this one trying to help people in the third world get access to finance, you know?
I’d probably write for people like that for free and I’d probably spend a bit more time on my mystery novels.
That’s a measure of how much you love what you do is when you continue doing it regardless of income or lifestyle. In closing, what’s your number one tip for somebody who dreams of making a living as a writer?
Get busy on your dream. I had that dream and I took any opportunity I could find anywhere to write, so as soon as I went away to college, I wrote for the college newspaper.
I didn’t make a penny doing that, but I wanted to get some practice, and I remember the first few articles I wrote were awful. They were just pathetic and they’d take me hours and hours and hours.
I remember when I went to University in Toronto, the first article I wrote, I stayed up all night writing. It was this short, tiny little article because I was just terrible at it. Writing is a learned skill, you know? It’s a learned skill, so it takes practice to learn something. Start getting your practice.
Stop dreaming, but start doing, I guess. Value your dreams, but get busy to make them real, and don’t just dream about it, do it. Remember, there are thousands of people out there making their living as writers today, so just because it seems a bit funny and nobody in your family’s ever done it, doesn’t mean you can’t do it. You can.
To read more interviews from fellow Barefoot Writers be sure to checkout The Barefoot Writer's Club.
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