Writing an Informational Report for Non-Experts

Asian woman working at a macintosh commercialThis term, I designed a new assignment for the major report in my technical writing course. Students focus on communicating a technical subject to an audience unfamiliar with their fields. Additionally, they must integrate readability features in their document design to give their documents a polished, professional appearance.

As with previous assignments in this series, the assignment below has some minor changes to remove specific information that is relevant only to the students in my classes. References to “Markel & Selber” in the assignment refer to chapters in  Technical Communication.


You will write an informational report for non-experts (a white paper) that presents details on a specific issue related to your company and the work that it does. Your white paper will tie directly to the incubator goal of public outreach and education. Specifically, the incubator founders want to provide a library of documents that inform readers about how science, technology, and engineering work.

You proposed the topic for your White Paper Project in your Short Proposal. Your Poster Presentation Project will provide an alternate presentation of the information in your White Paper Project.

The Scenario

This week, you received the following memo, accepting your proposal for the Incubator’s December White Paper Publication:

Ut Prosim Incubator logo  Ut Prosim Incubator

1872 Inventors Way, Blacksburg, Virginia 24060

     Interoffice Memo

To: December White Paper Authors
From: Traci Gardner, Ut Prosim Director
Manolito Reyna Bautista, Manager of the  Public Outreach Office
Subject: Preparing Your White Paper
Date: October 8, 2018

Congratulations! We are pleased to accept your proposal for a white paper and research poster for December publication. We look forward to learning more about your topic and working with you to share the information with the public on our website.

Your white paper and poster presentation are due by November 26 [Portfolio 2 due date] and will ultimately be published as PDFs in the December 2018 release on the Incubator website.

Today, we are sharing details on the expectations for your white paper. We will send details on the research poster later this month.

White Paper Purpose and Audience

As explained in the call for proposals, your white paper will inform non-expert readers about a technical topic relevant to the work and mission of your company. These documents will share what we do and why we do it with the university, alumni, and local community. Your documents will also contribute directly to our goal of public outreach and education by adding to our growing library of documents that inform website readers about how science, technology, and engineering work.

As an objective white paper, your document will either provide knowledge or information about a subject relevant to your company or provide solutions to a problem or challenge that relates to your company–or even a combination of both goals.

The audience for the white paper is the general public and the university community Readers with no background in your field should be able to fully understand your white paper.

White Paper Content

Your report will define or explain your topic with the goal of informing your readers about it fully and with relevant, specific details. You should focus on answering questions such as these:

  • What is it?
  • When was it invented or discovered and by whom?
  • Where did it originate and why?
  • What does it involve?
  • How does it work?
  • What is its possibility or potential impact on the future?

You should present the information in your report objectively, that is, without letting opinion shape what you have to say. Do not draw conclusions, make recommendations, argue for one side or the other, or in any way take a position on the subject. Its goal is to provide a response to the question “What is [your subject] all about?” This doesn’t mean you can’t present opinions about it, but those opinions must come from experts in the field. For example, Expert A thinks the subject of your article is a fantastic option for reducing the need to irrigate crops, but Expert B is sure it won’t work as planned. You can present these opposing viewpoints, but you must remain objective and let readers make their own decisions.

White Paper Expectations

  • Length: 25 pages or less. The length typically depends upon the document layout. If your white paper looks like a double-spaced research paper, it will be longer than a white paper that is formatted in single-spaced columns and sidebars (more like an industry magazine or journal article).
  • Document Design: Use a polished, professional layout that relies on design strategies that increase the document’s readability. You are encouraged to use a non-traditional format that incorporates sidebars, columns, and other visually-interesting design strategies. Do not include a cover page.
  • Graphics and Visual Elements: Include relevant graphical elements (e.g., photos, diagrams, graphs, tables). Avoid clipart (which typically looks unpolished or unprofessional), and use only graphical elements that directly relate to the information in the white paper. All graphical elements must be your company’s intellectual property, or you must provide complete documentation. Graphical elements that are not your own intellectual property must meet fair use guidelines.
  • Research Support: Information must be supported by fully-documented research, including relevant quotations. In addition to citing published research studies, you can take advantage of the campus community by tapping university experts on the topic you are discussing.
  • Documentation Format: APA citation style (or the appropriate style for your field, if desired–for instance, an electrical engineer can use IEEE).
  • Submission Format: *.doc, *.docx, *.pdf, or Google Document link. While your document will be published on the Incubator website, it will be published as a PDF (not as HTML).


To ensure that we have time to review and edit your submission, please submit your white paper by 11:59 PM on Monday, November 26. If additional time is necessary, you can take advantage of the grace period, which ends at 11:59 PM on Thursday, November 29.

Any Questions?

If you need any help with this project, please let either of us know or contact Traci’s assistant, Leslie Crow <lcrow@utprosimincubator.org>.

Relevant Details

Note: These details apply to all of the projects you include in your portfolio.

Your company’s address is [Your Company Name], Ut Prosim Incubator, 1872 Inventors Way, Suite #[you choose a number], Blacksburg, Virginia 24060. Your company’s phone number is 540-555-5555. You may create a fictional Internet domain for your company, and use that domain for a web page address and your email addresses. If you’d  like, you may create other information (including a logo) for your company as appropriate. Be sure that you use the information that you create consistently across all of your projects.

The Project Assignment

Step 1: Review your notes on the topic and audiences, as established in your proposal.
Your proposal should have the basic starting information that you need to begin the research for your white paper. Be sure that you have a strong, well-focused topic before you begin your research.

Step 2: Examine the information about white papers in the readings.
Review the assigned readings for specific details on the information and details to include in your white paper.

Step 3: Begin your research, taking notes and paying attention to documentation and citation details.
The textbook provides complete details on how to conduct your research and keep track of your notes and sources. Follow the textbook as you work on your project. In particular, be sure that you do the following:

  • Follow the instructions in the “GUIDELINES: Researching a Topic” list (starting on page 119 of Markel & Selber) to gather information.
  • Identify the best kinds of sources for your research by exploring the examples in “TABLE 6.1 Research Questions and Methods” (starting on page 120 of Markel & Selber).
  • Assess your sources with the “GUIDELINES: Evaluating Print and Online Sources” (starting on page 128 of Markel & Selber) to ensure your sources meet the evaluation criteria listed in the text (e.g., that they are accurate, unbiased, comprehensive, appropriately technical, current, and clear, as stated above the guidelines). You should also consult the web resource Evaluating Web Resources: The CRAAP test from North Carolina A&T.
  • Use the “GUIDELINES: Conducting an Interview” (starting on page 137 of Markel & Selber) if you talk with experts in your field (on campus or off) who provide information for your projects.
  • Review the information in “Appendix Part A: Skimming Your Sources and Taking Notes” (starting on page 613 of Markel & Selber) to be sure that you use the notetaking strategies of paraphrasing, quoting, and summarizing accurately.
  • Use the details in “Appendix Part B: Documenting Your Sources” for information on APA citation style (starting on page 622 of Markel & Selber) and information on IEEE citation style (starting on page 639 of Markel & Selber) to gather relevant details for your documentation and citations. Note you may alternately use the citation style that is relevant for your field if you prefer.

Step 4: Write your white paper.

Work steadily on your report for the entire three-week period. Do not leave the work until the last minute!

Compose your white paper, as requested in The Scenario above, with all the details you have gathered in your research. Remember that your white paper should be a factual and objective document. Do not include fictional information about your topic. Review the assessment guidelines below to ensure you have met all the requirements for the instructions.

As you work, also keep the following points in mind:

  • Use plain language to make the ideas easy to find and read. Refer to the resources from Module 2 as needed.
  • Follow all relevant ethical guidelines as you work using the Writer’s Checklist at the end of Chapter 2 (on page 40 of Markel & Selber).
  • Follow the suggestions for emphasizing important information, using the Writer’s Checklist for Chapter 9 (on page 211 of Markel & Selber) to check your work.
  • Use the Writer’s Checklist for Chapter 11 (on page 288 of Markel & Selber) to ensure that your document takes advantage of design principles to make it reader-friendly.
  • Make a good impression with accuracy and correctness. Your document should be polished and professional.

Step 5: Check your draft against the Writer’s Checklist.
Be sure that you include the required features for your white paper. Review your project, using the Assessment Criteria below.

Step 6: Review your draft for design and basic writing errors.
Everything you write should use accurate/appropriate image editing, grammar, spelling, punctuation, mechanics, linking, and formatting. These are important basic writing skills that you should have developed in high school. Review your project, using the Writer’s Checklist at the end of Markel & Selber, Chapter 10 (on page 242).

You can also consult the information on “Sentence-Level Issues” in Markel & Selber, “Appendix, Part D: Guidelines for Multilingual Writers (ESL)” (on page 683 of Markel & Selber). While the section is labeled for multilingual writers, it is useful for everyone. It includes explanations and examples for many common mistakes writers make.

Step 7: Submit your draft to your Writing Group in Canvas.
Post a rough draft of your technical description to your Writing Group in Canvas in the 10/25 Draft Feedback Discussion in Canvas. Additional instructions are in the Discussion. Post a draft of your technical description by September 20. If you are late submitting a draft, your group may not have time to provide feedback.

Step 8: Provide feedback to your Writing Group in Canvas.
Provide feedback to the members of your writing group in the 10/25 Draft Feedback Discussion in Canvas, by September 24 (end of the grace period). Use the information on the  Writing Groups page  to provide constructive feedback that will help your group members make concrete improvements to their drafts.

Step 9: Revise your draft.
Use the feedback that you receive from your group members to revise and improve your document. You can share your draft again with your Writing Group, if you desire. As you revise, keep in mind the advice in the steps above, as well as the Assessment Criteria below.

Step 10: Include a polished version of your project in Project Portfolio 2, due November 26.
Have your Technical Description Project finished and ready for submission in your Project Portfolio 2, which is due Monday, November 26. The grace period for Project Portfolio 2 ends at 11:59PM on Thursday, November 29.

Assessment Criteria

For All Technical Writing Projects

All technical writing projects should meet the following general criteria:

  • Makes a good first impression as a polished and professional document.
  • Meets the needs of the intended audience.
  • Demonstrates how to emphasize important information.
  • Uses layout and formatting that makes information easy for readers to find and read, and that follows the standards you have set for your company.
  • Is written in plain language, which communicates the ideas clearly.
  • Follows all relevant ethical guidelines.
  • Uses  accurate/appropriate  grammar, spelling, punctuation, mechanics, linking, and formatting.

For White Papers

Your project should meet the following criteria for effective instructions:

  • Has a clear, compelling title that is specific to the document.
  • Adopts a tone and approach that will appeal to readers.
  • Demonstrates a clear understanding of the research literature on this topic.
  • Provides details and explanation of the information that
    • Presents an objective summary of the facts.
    • Discusses the importance of these facts.
    • Forecasts the importance of these facts in the future.
  • Relies on sources that are accurate, unbiased, comprehensive, appropriately technical, current, and clear.
  • Uses quotations from research sources to support and strengthen the project.
  • Provides accurate and complete in-text citations for all information that is not the author’s own work (including information that is paraphrased, quoted, and summarized).
  • Includes a references section (e.g., bibliography) that does the following:
    • identifies each source cited in the white paper.
    • contains complete and accurate information for each citation.
    • uses either APA citation style or the preferred citation style for your major.
  • Demonstrates a clear relationship between the graphics and the accompanying text.

This assignment was challenging for students, who were less familiar with the genre than they typically are with more generic technical reports. The demands of an audience of non-experts complicated the assignment for some students who were unaccustomed to explaining the concepts and technical lingo of their field. Those aspects made for a rewarding project. When I use the assignment again however, I want to have more supporting resources for students to draw on. Specifically, students would benefit from more examples and some explicit instruction on document design for this genre.

Based on these white papers, students next work on research posters. I’ll share that assignment in my next post, so be sure to come back for the details. If you have any feedback on this assignment or useful resources on white papers, please leave me a comment below.

This post originally published on the Bedford Bits blog.