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Some thoughts on pair writing

2 pairs hanging on a tree
Image by valkrye131, using Creative Commons License 2.0

At PDS, we've started using pair writing as a technique for people to collaborate when writing content. It involves a subject matter expert and a content expert working together to create content that puts the user first.

Three of us recently did some pair writing together to better understand the technique, and since then we've all had formal training. Here we talk about pair writing and how we found it. Dan Barrett and Aidan Morgan both work in the Data and Search team and Louise Duffy is in the Content Team.

How we found pair writing

Louise Duffy (LD): It was my first time doing pair writing face-to-face as I've always done it remotely before. I’m glad that it was with subject matter experts who know their subject well (Dan and Aidan).

I was surprised at how much writing one person can get done in a short space of time. It was fascinating to see how people express themselves verbally and then in their writing. As a content designer, it was great to see people reviewing their own work and making their writing as simple and accessible as possible.

Dan Barrett (DB): The session with Louise was the first time I'd ever tried this. I found it really constructive, in particular getting 'fast feedback' on something I'd written. This is much better than passing around a document over email with track changes.

I enjoyed it so much that I went on the pair writing training course offered by the Content Team. This time I was paired with content designer Elisabeth Ward. Again I was the subject matter expert. I decided to spend the time working on something ‘real’ so we tried to address a user story about a lack of understanding internally about the new data service we’re building.

The main reason I like pair writing so much is because it's really difficult, but you feel a sense of achievement at the end. Elisabeth was really patient in working to understand what I was talking about, and then made the content better. I have a huge amount of respect for the professional skills required for content creation and design.

Aidan Morgan (AM): I felt energised by the sessions. It didn’t take long to see how they would speed up the process of writing a document that was clear and accessible to a wide audience. I was also a little bit intimidated at the beginning of the first session. It felt like I was opening up my mind for others to see my thoughts before I'd had the chance to edit and sense check them.

It became clear, though, how nice it was to start getting ideas down without worrying too much about grammar and structure. Having Louise there to shape things and re-phrase helped a lot. During the session, I started to pick up on Louise's expertise and understand better ways to convey information. More and more I found myself adjusting sentences when I was writing them.

Doing it differently or not

LD: I want to do more pair writing. Especially with people who can batter away at their keyboards for an hour and write as well as Dan and Aidan. There are a few things that I would do differently in future.

I'd sit down with the subject matter expert and agree what the aim of the session is before any writing gets done. Some people might find it tough to bash out words and have people watch what they’re writing and review it there and then. I should do more to put the experts at ease early on and remember to put myself in their shoes. And I’d definitely bring snacks next time.

DB: I'm a big fan and will be trying to do more of it. Making sure the sessions aren't too long is important, I found it tiring. An hour maximum. I don't think it would be quite as good, but I'd like to try a session working remotely.

AM: I feel that I need more practice to get the most out of it. In my eyes it's already proven its worth by giving focus and immediate feedback. Pair writing led to a good draft document, so it felt like a very productive activity.

Some warnings though. It took me a bit of time to warm up in the sessions and get my head into the space it needed to be in. I sometimes felt that the words were only starting to flow when the hour was up. For me, I would like 15 minutes on my own before a session to review the previous work and keep the focus on the writing.

Limiting the sessions to an hour is best. It's a very focused activity and it can be difficult to maintain levels of productivity for longer than an hour. You might also find it difficult to stick to the task at hand without going off on a tangent. It's better to stick to the areas you want to focus on in a session and to think about other things outside of the allotted hour.

Best and worst bits

LD: One of the best bits was how enthusiastic PDS staff were to try pair writing. It’s a new concept for most people here so that was encouraging. It also made me more accountable as it helped subject matter experts to hear my thought process and why I was making the suggestions and edits.

The hard stuff was finding a suitable room. We’re short on meeting rooms here so finding a room where we could sit round a table and work was tricky. Also, we had to use Google docs as using our standard Office 365 software didn’t work for collaborating like this. We’ll need to figure out what we can use longer term.

DB: I think it's hard when you realise that what you talk about on a daily basis isn't clear to other people, but that's really valuable to know. I agree about the tools, and the need to have a suitable space where you can concentrate.

AM: Pair writing had a very positive effect on my ability to convey the main points and concepts I wanted to cover. Having someone with me that immediately commented on and challenged my writing was very helpful. It meant I was able to write more user friendly content in a shorter time. It also gave me a good insight into some of my bad writing habits which is always good to know.

I would echo what Louise has said about the bad bits. A lack of decent places to hold pair writing sessions and not using the right tools made it more difficult. I support the idea of pair writing as a useful collaborative practice. I've always encouraged people to share their drafts as early as possible, this takes it one step further in the right direction.

If you're interested in finding out more about pair writing in Parliament, please get in touch with the Content Team. 

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