Content design techniques: pair writing

Whether you are creating a new website or simply adding a few new pages; one of the most important things to do is to bring the right people together to actually write the copy. There are a number of ways you can collaborate on content writing, but pair writing has proven to be a very popular technique in recent years. In this post I will talk about the technique and how it can improve collaborative working and the output on your website.

Pair writing, unsurprisingly involves two people sitting down together and writing copy in real-time. It really is as simple as that!
Close up of two women doing records in a notebook sitting at a laptop

Getting started

1. Pair up

The first thing to decide is who should be involved.

Typically you need one person who is good at writing copy for the web and another who is the subject matter expert (SME). Who the SME is, depends on the project; it could be an academic, technician or researcher. The SME could also be a manager with an insight into the business or strategic requirements.

Why you need these different skills

  • Subject matter experts or managers may be experts in their field and know their stuff, but they are not always able to articulate their knowledge online to a more general audience, so that it is easy to understand.
  • Web content writers know how to write copy that is easy to understand, scan and navigate online, but they may not be experts on the subject matter.

As a content designer I have always found pair writing really useful. I know what is required to write good copy for the web, but I am rarely an expert on the particular topic of the content for the projects I work on. So, by collaborating with subject matter experts, together we can create good, effective and accurate web content. Well, that’s the aim anyway!

2. Arrange a time to work on the content

Sounds simple, but getting a room and some mutual free time can be difficult.

3. Base your writing on user stories

Once you have agreed a time and place to start working on the content, the first thing you should do is to create user stories for the content. These can act as a really good starting point for pair writing; they help you identify user needs together and write content that meets them.

Having a user story also gives you something that you can both reference throughout, to check if what you are writing meets the acceptance criteria.

Read my last post to learn more about creating user and job stories

4. Decide on the hierarchy and structure of the content

Pose yourself a couple of questions:

  • What is important to the audience?
  • How much detail do they need?

Refer to your user story

5. Get writing!

Well, it won’t write itself.

6. Get sign off

If the SME is also the person who signs off the content then you may not need to send it to anyone else. But even if this is the case, it is always nice to get a fresh pair of eyes to sense check what you have written.

Working together

It goes without saying, but for pair writing to be successful you need to have a good working relationship with your writing partner. It is important for each of you to understand and respect where the other is coming from. And by that, I mean a subject matter expert knows lots of detail about the subject, but they may not be aware of how people read online. It is therefore crucial that the web writing specialist communicates the importance of things like:

  • Use of plain english – try not to use overly complex language
  • Limit the use of technical terminology and acronyms, but explain them when you do
  • Use short sentences and paragraphs
  • Use good descriptive headings and page titles
  • Content hierarchy – ensure the most important content is at the top
  • Write with the audience in mind

The more you work together, the more the trust and understanding will grow, but this may take time.

What are the benefits of pair writing?

Bringing together two sets of complimentary skills and knowledge will produce content that:

  • Addresses both user and business needs
  • Is accurate
  • Meets writing for the web standards

There are also other benefits to this collaborative approach such as:

  • builds understanding and trust;
  • helps create a better sense of ownership of the content between the two parties;
  • gain skills and knowledge from one another which can benefit future writing projects;
  • it is actually quicker than circulating a document back and forth for comments, changes and approval.

 Top tips

  • Keep referring to user stories to check if the content you create satisfies these
  • Try and work in a quiet space free of distractions
  • Make sure that you can both see what is written at all times, a big screen will help with this
  • Several smaller meetings are better than one epic three hour session. Fatigue can play a part in bad content decisions

Do you have to write together in the same place?

No, but pair writing is definitely more effective when you work side by side, as you can bounce ideas off each other in real-time. But sometimes being co-located is not feasible as quiet meeting rooms are often hard to find or one person may be working from home. There are tools you can use to do pair writing remotely. In my next post I will talk about some of these.

Related posts

Content design techniques: User and job stories

Further reading

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