Pair writing: Why we love it

Digital officers Katie Manktelow and Hazel Jackson have pair written their top tips for pair writing.

As the saying goes, two heads are better than one. Pair writing is two (or more) people writing together. Introduced by agile software developers who were writing code, it’s now common practice in content design teams including our own. We use this approach to write copy for the website.

Any two people can pair write and produce better results than writing alone.

Ideally the pair is made up of one subject matter expert (who knows about the subject in depth) and one content designer (who specialises in writing for the web). Both people play an important role in writing valuable content.

The subject matter expert knows all the ins and outs of the topic. The content designer makes sure user needs are considered and translates the expert’s words into engaging and clear web content.

It’s a collaborative process, working together to make the best possible content for the user.

Benefits of pair writing

  1. You can bounce ideas off each other. Working in a pair gives you someone to discuss your ideas with, you can try out a few options before deciding on the final result.
  2. You learn from each other. The content designer learns about the subject. The subject matter expert learns about writing for the web.
  3. It helps to build relationships across teams. Writing together helps you get to know colleagues and how they work. This builds trust and develops stronger working relationships.
  4. It is efficient. If you are writing on your own doubt can creep in. You can waste time deliberating over the best words to use. With two people, these decisions get made quickly.
  5. The content is better. When you pair write you benefit from two perspectives and skillsets. Refining your content together means you can be confident that it is well considered and meets business and user needs.

How to pair write

Before you start writing

Everything online should be there for a reason. Before you begin, make sure both of you understand the purpose of the content you’re working on.

Work through these questions together:

  1. Why is this content needed?
  2. Who’s the intended audience?
  3. What task are they trying to complete?
  4. What do they need to know?
  5. What’s the key message?
  6. What do you want them to do next?

Once you have agreed clear answers, you’re ready to write.

Writing your content

You don’t need any fancy software. It can be as simple as working together with a blank Word document. It’s best to start from scratch if you can. This means you don’t start with preconceived ideas of what the content will be.

Keeping an open mind is important. The point is to generate lots of ideas so you can end up with the best ones. Make sure you both get a chance to contribute and feedback. Hear each other out and don’t take it personally if your idea isn’t used or is changed. Remember you’re working towards the same goal.

Writing with a subject matter expert

For each sentence or paragraph, start with the subject matter expert explaining what they would like to say. The content designer then asks clarifying questions and restates the message in layman’s terms. The content designer suggests the wording, which the subject matter expert can approve or suggest an alternative to.

Keep sharing ideas and refining your content until you are both happy with it. This should result in content that is factually correct, clear and easy to understand.

Writing within your team

When you’re writing, you might not have a content designer and a subject matter expert available to help. That’s OK. Going through the pair writing process with a colleague in your team can still end up with great results.

It will work a bit differently. Take it in turns to be the person writing and critiquing. Make sure you both voice your thoughts as you go along.

Get a subject matter expert to fact check your copy before finalising.

(For internal people only: If you want to brush up on principles of writing for the web, we have lots of resources and training to help you on our Digital Communications support site.)

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