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Use pair writing to collaborate with subject matter experts

Jonathan Kahn • 2 minutes

Pair writing is a technique for collaborating on content in real time.

Instead of exchanging drafts or correcting with a red pen, two people sit down together to write. You can use it to help content specialists collaborate with subject matter experts, or to include managers in the writing process, or to get input from colleagues when you need help. It builds understanding and trust, speeds up publishing processes, and creates content that meets user needs.

Use pair writing to help content specialists collaborate with subject matter experts.

Pair writing is inspired by pair programming, an agile development technique where two people work side by side in front of the computer. One person writes code while the other asks questions, makes suggestions, and discusses options. They switch roles so that each person experiences both perspectives. Although this might seem like a waste of time—why have two programmers working on a single piece of code?—in practice many teams have found that it produces more effective code, while reducing the number of bugs. Slowing down can help us to achieve our goals faster—a result which seems counterintuitive in the industrial mindset which values “productivity”

Let’s apply this to digital content. We know that content which meets user needs is concise and easy to understand. Although we have techniques to achieve that—using the audience’s language, short sentences, front loading, etc—normally we can’t fix content on our own. We need input from subject matter experts (SMEs) to help us to understand what’s important for both the user and the organisation. A traditional process involves either requesting source content from SMEs or sending drafts for feedback. This is efficient from a productivity perspective—we’re each doing the work associated with our expertise—but it tends to lead to misunderstanding and conflict.

I believe that in our hearts, every writer knows that we need help from other people to succeed. Whether it’s feedback on our drafts, audience research, or editorial support, effective content comes from collaboration. Which is why we get stuck when we find ourselves in the role of expert—the person who is supposed to fix the content. We find ourselves in struggles for “ownership” of content—is it ours or the SME’s?—and we’re frustrated when it seems like colleagues don’t appreciate the value we can bring.

Pair writing: work side by side, commit time to slowing down in the service of meeting user needs

Pair writing changes the dynamic. We work side by side, committing time to slowing down in the service of meeting user needs. The simple act of sitting down at a computer together and taking turns to write and offer feedback sends a signal: we believe that working together will lead to an outcome that works for everyone. Rather than positioning my perspective against yours, I choose to listen to both.

If you’d like to give it a try, here are some pointers to get started:

  • choose a piece of content that’s small enough to write a draft in a single session, and is also important to both of you
  • invite your colleague to spend an hour or so working together on this content, explaining what you hope to achieve by using the pair writing technique
  • before you start writing, establish the user need that you’re trying to meet with this content, eg in the format of a user story (ideally this will be based on user research)
  • sit together at a computer or tablet, and take turns to write
  • the person who isn’t writing can read out loud, ask questions, suggest changes, and compare the current draft to the user need
  • switch roles frequently so that you spend about half of your time in each role
  • at the end of the session, choose your next action together (eg publish it now, test it in a usability session, or get feedback from colleagues)
  • each talk about what went well in the session and things you’d like to try next time

When you start using pair writing, you’ll find out what works for your situation, and customise it to your needs. You’ll experience more trust, less conflict, and more effective content.

Further reading

Use pair writing to work together with subject matter experts – video of talk by Audun Rundberg (Netlife Research) at agile content conf 2015

Create Better Content By Working in Pairs by Bjørn Bergslien (Netlife Research)

Use pair writing to collaborate with subject matter experts.

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About the Author

Jonathan Kahn

Founder, Together London

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