Pair writing to create user-centred content

Pair writing to create user-centred content

Creating content often involves a lot of people. Being able to successfully collaborate with subject experts as part of that workflow is an important requirement. Of course, there are lots of tools and processes that can help facilitate good collaboration. In this article I’ll focus on one technique that I have been using more and more with my client work at Fourth Wall Content - pair writing. I’ll explain what pair writing is, the benefits it offers, how to do it and risks and considerations to keep in mind.

What is pair writing?

Pair writing is the process of collaboration where two people sit together to create content. This usually happens in person, side by side, but it can also be an effective technique remotely. I have recent experience of both approaches and will refer to them in this article.

While commonly applied to content writing, pair writing has its origins in software development, pair programming and the writing of code.

The benefits of pair writing

There are lots of benefits to pair writing, some of these relate to the quality of the content itself and some are associated more with working better together. There are specific benefits around relationships, engagement and communication.

The benefits to the content are:

  • Both writers are creating content with those user needs in mind
  • Content quality is improved through feedback and iteration
  • The appropriate voice, tone and style can be applied at the point of creation
  • Content can be fact checked early in the process, reducing errors later on
  • For bilingual content, both languages are given the same effort and user-centred approach

This way of working puts the content and the user front and centre. Conversations about voice, tone, style, accuracy and language all happen in real time at the point of content creation. This vastly improves the content as it doesn’t get diluted, reworked over and over again and changed unknowingly during copious rounds of amends and feedback. All of this improves the content which benefits the organisation and the users. 

The benefits to working better together are:

  • Helps subject expert understand how and why to create content for user needs
  • Helps others understand the content creation process
  • Increases awareness of content design across the organisation
  • Improves the content workflow by reducing time spent on edits and approval 
  • Makes it easier for feedback to be given and actioned
  • Creates a safe space to share and test ideas
  • Both sides learn about each others roles and areas of expertise which establishes mutual respect and successful relationships

Pair writing connects silos and replaces the politics of content with a more collaborative approach and mindset. It also improves communication as the subject experts and content designer (or whoever is pair writing) can talk through problems, differences and needs directly.

Using pair writing involves the subject expert early on in the process rather than sending them something deemed final for them to check and approve. It is a key part of working in the open and putting transparency above ownership. The content designer has more opportunity to explain why something should be written a certain way. Conversations that can take days over email and other channels can happen in minutes there and then which is more effective and better for all involved.

These are by no means the only benefits that you may experience if pair writing becomes a way in which you work with others. The lists do however represent the most common benefits and outcomes I have seen through using pair writing with a variety of different sized organisations.

Who to do pair writing with

One of the most common pairings I’ve been a part of or have known about is for the content person (strategist, manager, designer and other such roles) to write with a subject expert. I’ve also seen or been one half of these pairings:

  • Content designer and content designer
  • Content strategist and content designer
  • Content designer and translator
  • Content designer and UX designer
  • Content designer and service designer

In one scenario, I did trio writing as a content designer with a user researcher and a translator. Find the pairing that makes sense for the content you need to create or improve.

The best thing is that pair writing is a technique that you can start using straight away. Once you understand what it is and how to go about it, it’s a case of arranging your first session and getting it done. So how do you pair write? Let’s find out.

How to do pair writing

The premise of pair writing, and the need to use this technique, may be the same or very similar across different teams. The main stages for me are:

  1. prepare
  2. set the scene
  3. write
  4. feedback
  5. follow-up

As with all processes, they can be altered and refined to suit your specific needs and circumstances. The way I pair write will differ from others. Here’s how the UK’s Government Digital Service use pair writing. I won't list a prescriptive step-by-step guide for this reason, but will cover how I approach pair writing which may be a useful place for you to start from and then refine from there.

Pair writing in-person

Here, the two people involved will sit together and create the content they need. 

The subject expert is bringing exactly that to the session - knowledge of the area that is being written about. Often they have a deep understanding of technical information, legal considerations and language used by the audience. The content designer is approaching it with their own expertise on user needs, clear language, structured content and all other manners of information and data.

A session may start with the content designer sharing the content being created, the purpose of the content and what user needs it meets. If there is existing content, this may be reviewed depending on how useful that will be for the new version being created.

I sometimes use a template for user-focused content creation and if I have done so, i will use that as an initial summary before we start writing as it covers:

  • user need(s)
  • acceptance criteria
  • audience(s)
  • user research
  • content purpose
  • content goal
  • call to action(s)
  • measuring success

It depends on how much time you have and how much context is useful for the person you are pair writing with. Sometimes too much information can be detrimental to the process.

Once the scene has been set in an appropriate way (which can be done before the session too if preferred), we start to write. We have a blank document open and add all the key things we have to communicate on the page with the user needs and tasks in mind. Then we prioritise all the points we wrote down. This is the basic structure of our content that we then work with and add to.

I usually have the subject expert write first and as they do so, I ask questions that challenge jargon, highlight where we may be deviating from the purpose and goal of the content and also make recommendations on structure if needed.

I also like to swap roles where I do the writing and the subject expert can ask questions of my content too. This is important as they get to experience both sides of the process and it helps to get them thinking with content design principles and good practice in mind. It also challenges me as I may make assumptions, be factually incorrect and not write in precisely the write voice and tone. This is all ok as it is the very reason two different sets of expertise are collaborating and it helps to build mutual respect and trust.

Depending on the content and the time you have, your outcome might be a finished first draft or you may have time for additional passes and edits.

In some cases I have drafted content before the session and then we have worked together to improve that content. In those instances, it is more like pair editing and I find the subject expert gains more from the process, and leaves with a deeper understanding of content design, if they are involved in writing the content from scratch together.

The precise process that works for you and those you are collaborating with will be refined over time but the base reason and concept of pair writing is usually the same across all ways of doing it.

Pair writing remotely

The motivations were the same as in-person pair writing. We just had to adapt the process slightly to allow for the fact we were pair writing remotely from two different locations.

The sessions took place using Zoom and I shared my screen with a Google Doc. This allowed the subject expert to be in the same doc and for us to collaborate in real time and see progress. Everything else was the same in terms of setting the scene and providing context as needed before the actual writing started.

It also meant the other writer had access to the content should we need to have another session. This is true of in-person pair writing too.

There was nothing else in my experience of remote pair writing that made it different to in-person pair writing. We just had to accept the barrier of not being in the same physical space as one another but lots of people are used to that way fo working these days so it wasn’t a challenge that was tricky to overcome or something that took a lot of time to move beyond.

Risks and considerations of pair writing

Whether pair writing in-person, remotely, for the first time or as someone who has done it a lot already, there are some risks and considerations to keep in mind to make sure pair writing is effective.

Introduce yourself beforehand 

I often don’t know the person I am pair writing with, or at the most have been in a few meetings with them and others. I always like to introduce myself before the session so we are familiar faces when we do meet to pair write. This usually means a short 15 minute call where I can also talk about what pair writing is and why we are doing it.

Failing that, I introduce myself by email and cover those basics there too. This makes the most of the time we then spend together.

State the importance of ‘pair’

During the introductory chat or email I emphasise the importance of it being a pair so that the person coming to the session doesn’t bring anyone else with them. That may seem unlikely but I have experienced it more than once. As soon as someone else is in the session it changes the dynamic and makes it harder to build the relationship and collaborate successfully. On one occasion I did record the session with the other participants permission so that colleagues could see how we did pair writing but strictly no spectators.

Find a quiet place

It’s best to try and be distraction free for the duration of your pair writing session. A quiet space is ideal so you can chat and discuss the content without interruption or too much background noise. I also turn off all notifications, close my email, Slack and anything else that may be an interruption so the only thing we have open is the doc we are creating content in. As well as considering the space you'll work in, try to keep the mood light. Have a cuppa and a biscuit, be relaxed.

Allow time for questions

After introductions and scene setting and before we start writing, I always ask the other participant if they have any questions or concerns. It’s really important that there is a shared understanding of what we are doing and why, how the session will run and what the outcome will be. This removes any doubt from either side and hopefully creates a safe space for collaboration.

Establish clear roles and remits

Make it clear what the roles are during the pair writing. Not only how it works when one is writing and the other is asking questions, but also what the session isn’t for. It isn’t necessarily for approving content and some fact checking may need to happen after the session like legal requirements.

Don’t conflate pair writing with other tasks that happen elsewhere in the content workflow. Boundaries are important and good facilitation is needed so be strict with time and stop things from veering into unproduction directions. Some subject experts like to get things off their chest but this isn’t the place for that, although try to capture the feedback another way or another time as it isn’t good to dismiss it entirely and can be useful for wider project goals and success.

Feedback and follow-up

At the end of the session I always allow a little time to ask the participant how they found the session. Even if it is the fourth time I’ve done pair writing with them I still ask. This helps to gauge how engaged they are in the process and how useful they find it, as well as if their confidence is growing over time. It also helps me make sure future pair writing sessions are run in an appropriate way and work for everyone involved.

I also like to update the subject expert after the session with what happens next with the content so they aren’t brought into the process and then left wondering what now? This also helps continue to build trust and good working relationships.

Try, refine and persevere

The best way to do pair writing is to just try it. It’ll take a few sessions before you have the process refined enough to work for you and those you write with. Start with a small piece of content, prepare before the session and then dive in. Keep getting feedback from anyone you write with and keep going. The time spent honing your approach and process will pay off long term when so much time is saved on creating content and the way content is created is more collaborative and more user-centred which benefits you, those you work with, their organisation and their audience too.

More articles on pair writing

I also wrote about ...