What pair writing is, why it’s worth doing and how to do it well whether you’re working in-person or remotely.
This resource is for:
- digital, website or communication leads who are responsible for the websites of the charity they work for
- managers, who have subject knowledge of, and are responsible for, services
- frontline support workers, or other subject matter experts, who might be asked to help with website content
- what we mean by pair writing
- its benefits
- what to do before, during and after a pair writing session
What pair writing is
Pair writing’s a process where 2 people create a piece of content together, in real time (either in-person, or online). One of these people is a comms expert – such as a communications manager. And the other’s an expert in the topic – such as a support worker or a service manager.
The writing expert brings their skills, knowledge and experience of producing clear, concise and user-focused content. And the subject matter expert (SME) brings their in-depth knowledge and experience of the service and its users. Together they make sure what’s written is useful, accurate and easy to understand.
I don’t have time to pair write
I know what you’re thinking, ‘that sounds alright in theory, but 2 people writing together means double the time. And that’s time I don’t have.’
Yes? Well, no actually.
Your current writing process probably looks a bit like this:
- Identify the need for a new piece of content
- Collect some background information
- Draft the content
- Send it to the SME who knows the most about the service/campaign/process and ask them for comments
- Wait for them to get back to you
- Receive a document covered in tracked changes (and, if you’re really unlucky, masses of comments too)
- Start working through the suggested edits
- Realise that you’re not 100% clear what some of them mean
- Ask the SME for clarification
- Wait for them to get back to you
- When they get back, realise that they’ve responded to most, but not all, of your initial comments, and added new feedback
- Repeat steps 9 to 11 until you finally reach the point where you’re able to publish the content
This is a lengthy affair. Pair writing probably takes the same, or less, amount of time. And, if it's done well, usually produces a better result.
The benefits of pair writing
Pair writing sounds laborious. But that’s because the time investment comes at the start and not the end.
The majority of the to-ing and fro-ing about purpose, structure, word choice and accuracy is done upfront, instead of when the first draft is finished. Having these conversations at an early stage saves you precious time later on.
As well as less document-based back and forth, because the content is fact checked ‘live’, pair writing means:
- you’re sense checking the content as it’s being written
- there’s less chance of your questions and feedback being missed, or misunderstood, because you can ask for clarification in real time
- SMEs learn about creating effective, user-centred content. And comms experts learn more about the intricacies of their organisations’ work
- a quicker sign-off process
- better quality content because you’ve agreed its goals at the start
Before the pair writing session
Whether you’re writing a service description, or a page of advice content, the process is the same. And preparing for your pair writing session means it’ll be more likely to run smoothly once you’re in it.
Get in touch with the SME you’re going to work with, and:
- explain what content needs to be produced, for who and why
- describe what pair writing is and its benefits
- answer any questions they have about it
- tell them why they’re the best person to be involved
- run through how the session will work and how long it’ll last
- set a date and time
- arrange a space where you won’t be disturbed
Then follow up with a short email summarising what you’ve both agreed.
At the start of the session
Agree the user needs
User needs are the needs that a user has of a service. Starting by talking about these needs helps you focus on what the content needs to do. It also means you both know, and agree, what you’re aiming for. The format is usually:
- as a [who’s the person who needs to do a specific task?]
- I need [what do they want to do?]
- so that [what’s their end goal?]
- as a young person who’s stressed out about their relationship with their parents
- I need to find out who I can speak to at [name of charity]
- so that I can talk to someone about how I’m feeling
Write the user acceptance criteria
User acceptance criteria is a technical term for what the content will look like, and do, if it meets your user need. This step’s optional. But it’s worth trying because it makes it easier to check whether your content is doing its job effectively.
This user acceptance criteria is for the user need in the previous section. The content is ‘done’ (meets the user need) when the young person knows:
- what services the charity offers
- who can use the services
- where they can access the services
- the times that the services are available
- what the referral process is
- how long they might have to wait to get the support they need
The pair writing process
- If you’re doing an in-person session, put your user needs, and user acceptance criteria, on post-its and stick them where you can both see them
- If you’re doing a remote session, you’ll be working on the same document and the comms expert will share their screen. You can put the user needs and user acceptance criteria in the chat
- Your user needs should be your focus as you write
- Make the text size of your content big enough for you both to read comfortably
- You can write directly into the Hemingway app so you’re getting instant feedback on the readability of what you’re writing
- One person types and the other asks questions. And then you swap roles. When it’s your turn to ask questions, it can be helpful to use phrases like these to keep things focused:
- do we think our target audience understand [insert potentially difficult term]?
- we might need to explain this word or spell out that acronym
- is there an even clearer way we can say that?
- let’s note that down and come back to it
- how could we break this section up?
- should we move this up/down the page?
- let’s not concentrate on the detail. We can get it all down and edit it afterwards
- shall we keep writing? We can sort out the grammar and punctuation later
- do you think [insert suggestion] could work here?
- are we sure that users definitely need to know that at this stage?
- Both of you should think out loud, so the other person knows the reasons for what you’re suggesting
- Notice, and correct, anything that’s unclear, or factually incorrect, as you go along
- Swap roles at least every 15 minutes so both of you get a couple of goes at being questioner and typist. It also means that neither of you gets too settled doing either activity
- Keep reminding yourselves that this isn’t about what you’d like to write. It’s about how well you’re meeting the user needs you’ve agreed for the piece of content
What to avoid
When you’re pair writing, don’t:
- aim for a polished final draft. What you want is a draft that’s easily understandable, meets your user acceptance criteria and is factually accurate You can tidy up grammar and sentence structure afterwards
- do it for more than an hour at a time. Pair writing can be surprisingly hard work
- wait more than 15 minutes before swapping.
At the end of the session
Because what you’ve produced won’t be polished and publishable, you’ll need to agree what’s going to happen next. For example, what’s the timeframe for the next steps? Do you need to get more information? Will the SME finish the content and share it, or will the writing expert do this? Does anyone else need to see it?
After the session
If you need to get input from others, give them a tight deadline for amends – a couple of days at most. And don’t allow them to track changes, make sure their feedback is comment-only. This helps to keep the momentum going, and maintain the integrity of what you both drafted.
Once you have the feedback you’ve asked for, arrange another session with your SME to agree the edits. If you don’t, you’ll end up back in the Tracked Changes Spiral of Doom. And no-one wants that.
Photo by MART PRODUCTION