Create Better Content By Working in Pairs

February 21st, 2012
Published on
February 21st, 2012

Have you ever had to come up with copy all on your own? It’s a nearly impossible task, often leading to content that is unfocused and lifeless. Yet everyday, copywriters, clients – and, yes, editors too – publish content without much input from their stakeholders. In many ways, this is a wasteful process. Sites like Wikipedia prove that using the web for collaboration enables people to create better content, faster. It’s up to us as professionals to reconsider our process.

We all know that content is an essential part of a website’s user experience. Without it, there’s nothing for users to consume! Kristina Halvorson, Erin Kissane, Karen McGrane and others have explained the details of content strategy, content ownership and caring for your content but, despite providing a good editorial strategy, none of these tools help authors actually write the content they seek to maintain.

That’s where this article comes in – a way to develop content by working in pairs.

“Why pairs,” you might ask? Simple. It’s proven. Agile software development introduced the concept of “pair programming” and our work environments have never been the same. In pair programming, one of the programmers (the driver) writes the code while the other (the observer) reviews each line of code in real-time as it’s written (like a real-time debugger). Aside from the obvious benefits such as sharing knowledge across a team, there is even evidence that pair programming has positive effects on code quality and overall delivery time.

So, at my agency, we took a gamble and used an agile approach to develop content. It turns out that a pair-oriented, exploratory, collaborative approach is extremely valuable for crafting content, too. Several benefits soon emerged:

  • The team thinks before publishing.
  • It forces authors to stay focused.
  • It helps colleagues form a mutual understanding of their content.
  • It results in a more uniform tone.
  • It allows authors to share best practices in regards to writing for the web.

All of these sound good, no? Here’s how you get started.

Step 1: Decide what content you want to work on

Make sure you know what content you’ll want to work on – for example a product page, a news article, or customer service content. Focus your efforts on content that is visited often and that you want to improve. Don’t know where to start? Look at the most visited pages in your analytics tool (such as Google Analytics) or conduct a survey to find out what content most people are interested in. For example, look at Gerry McGovern’s task identification approach.

Have a list of content outlined before you proceed to the next step.

Step 2: Arrange a workshop

The next step to creating good content is to gather the right people. Have your client identify important content contributors such as product owners, marketers, and people from customer service. Invite them to a meeting and let them know that no one has to be a trained copywriter; that the point of the workshop is to document a discussion. Make sure half of the attendees bring a laptop.

At the beginning of the workshop, clarify what the purpose of the workshop is (to practice pair writing) and why you want them to work in pairs (you get instant feedback). Explain that they are there to work with copy, but not everyone has to write their own articles. Remind them that this is a collaborative process, and that nothing major is expected of any individual.

Step 3: Make it pair-oriented

This is where the magic happens.

A photos from a pair-writing workshop

After the introduction, get the attendees in the workshop to pair up. Either ask them to find a partner or simply assign them. Next, have each pair grab a computer and fire up a word processing program. I suggest Google Docs, as it has great features such as comments, chat and sharing. This can come in handy both during and after the workshop.

Per pair, one person should be the main writer (the driver) while the other plays the role of the “antagonist” (the observer). As the writer writes, the antagonist should ask critical questions like:

  • What is the text meant to solve for the end-user?
  • Is this the best angle?
  • Is the most important content at the top?
  • Who is the target audience?
  • What do you mean by this?

Step 4: Switch it up!

After about 45 minutes, ask your pairs to switch their partners. The point of switching is to get varied feedback from as many people as possible. Different attendees – be they product owners, marketers or customer service employees – will look at the same page differently and have a wide variety of input. This makes switching roles both fun and instructive!

Step 5: Present in plenary

After you’ve successfully switched pairs and allowed attendees to write for another 20 minutes or so, spend an hour doing a group discussion of the content created. Ask questions and help people understand the value of what they’re doing. Not only will attendees get a break from writing, they’ll also get even more useful feedback from their colleagues.

Step 6: Repeat if necessary

Pair writing is not limited to one workshop only. If necessary, arrange several workshops, full days or half days. Ask the same attendees each time or invite new people to join.

The purpose is to get everyone involved to understand the value of content and to write copy that actually works. You teach them how to review and critically assess their own and each other’s work. Sure, a text can be brilliant without any assistance from others. But most of the time, an article needs a second pair of eyes.

When will you pair?

Ideally, you should arrange several successive pair-writing workshops alongside the interaction design, prototyping and graphic design processes. This helps the client stay focused on crafting great content for their new website.

That said, you can arrange pair-writing workshops at any time you want after the launch of a website. Content can always be improved. Think of each workshop as an iteration toward an increasingly better user experience.

The workshops also help you identify content owners, or at least important contributors and people with domain knowledge, who will be able to support you in the future.