Pair writing for the web

What is it?

Pair writing is a method we have been using to help us gather content. We work alongside subject experts in short sessions and write together.

I recently worked with Anne-Marie Greenhill from the Academic Skills Centre to rewrite the content for their webpages and she wrote:

Working with colleagues to complete specific tasks is common practice for some of us in the Academic Skills Centre so it was interesting to collaborate in this way with the web team. We had our requirements about what visitors to our site would need to know and the web team had to consider the overall development of the University’s web pages. Writing together gave us a better understanding of what these entailed.

How it works

We are the content professionals and the colleagues we work with are the subject matter experts. In this case Anne-Marie was the subject expert and she thought:

It might seem at first to be counterproductive to have two (or more) people working on the same task at the same time but in my experience, when done effectively, it tends to increase productivity and those collaborating invariably produce better writing and share each other’s knowledge and perspectives of what they are doing.

Before we started the writing process we all had to be in agreement about what we perceived the aim of the project was, what we could expect to achieve at the end of a very short period and what we would leave for future development. You also need to trust the people who you are pairing with and either agree or agree to disagree and offer valid reasons for this.

We sat down together for one or two-hour sessions and wrote together. One person acts as the observer and the other is the driver. The driver writes the content whilst the observer asks insightful questions such as:

• Who is the audience?
• What does that mean?
• Is that the right tone of voice?

Anne-Marie found:

The writing process together highlighted any information that wasn’t clear or why it was necessary to include it and gave each of us a better understanding of what the structure should be, how the content fitted and where it should be located in the site much more quickly than if we had been working in isolation. Working collaboratively avoided confusion and made the writing up process easier and more focussed.

For this method to work I think all parties have to be focussed, honest and positive, especially when reviewing or commenting on each other’s writing or giving feedback and to keep communicating. As one person types the other can act as a proof reader so changes can be made on the spot while thoughts are fresh in both minds. It can be very productive to have someone challenge what you have written and force you to explain what your point is. You might think you have made it perfectly obvious when it’s not explicit, the language is unnecessarily convoluted or you may have included acronyms which will mean absolutely nothing to your average reader! We found that editing and crafting the draft together as work in progress was a very constructive and time-effective way to write.

Why we think it works

Normally a piece of content is emailed, and a draft is emailed back, then back again and so on. And it can take days to get anywhere. Pair writing gives us workable content in 2 hours.

Anne-Marie wrote that:

It was constructive to discuss what content was required and why it should be included, or excluded, before starting to write, as a result writing was more targeted, to the point and took less time to complete.

We scheduled regular times to meet to keep the continuity and flow of writing going, evolved a system for writing each section that worked for whichever pair was working together and agreed on a consistent tone and voice for the sections. Any time each of us had invested in working together was certainly paid back. What we produced was much improved through sharing opinions and correcting things as we created it.

Not only do we get the content, we get good content. Content that works harder for the University and meets user needs.

We leave sessions with a much deeper understanding of the subject. Colleagues leave with a better idea of who their audience is and how to write better for the web.

She concludes:

Paired writing might not be for everyone, or for all tasks, but it was certainly effective for this project, which would not have been completed in the time allocated had we been working individually. I can only suggest you try it to see if it works for you!

Of course it isn’t for everyone or every project, but we find working face-to-face a much friendlier and effective approach to getting good web content.

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