Create Better Content By Working in Pairs

We all know that content is an essential part of a website’s user experience, but that doesn't make it any easier to create. Bjørn Bergslien shows us how to help clients get the content they need.

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.

About the Author

Bjørn Bergslien

Bjørn Bergslien is an interaction designer and content developer at Netlife Research. When he's not working on various web and intranet projects, he can be found tweeting and blogging from his office in Oslo, Norway.

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18 Comments

  • Tim from IntuitionHQ Reply

    Great article. Using Agile during blog writing is new to me. We use the Agile method at IntuitionHQ, but never for blog writing. As a blog writer myself I definitely want to try this out. It looks more promising than writing them on your own. And probably more fun too.

    • Bjørn Bergslien Reply

      Thanks, Tim! You can use this approach for creating all sorts of web content, also blog posts. In fact, this article was created, edited and commented on in Google Docs by Andrew Maier from UX Booth. I think it’s a great tool for collaboration and feedback.

    • Bjørn Bergslien Reply

      Thanks for your feedback. The point of this approach is not primarily to stimulate a creative process. It is rather to gain common ground and understand the value of content, to align the contributors in terms of tone and style of writing, and to create content that actually works – content that is well written, comprehensible and precise.

    • KevDog Reply

      How would being in a pair promote this better than a style guide? And if you need to work to “understand the value of content”, you shouldn’t be writing it to begin with. Editing is the proven process that makes prose “well written, comprehensible, and precise”.

      I could never recommend this practice for writing.

    • Bjørn Bergslien Reply

      This is not just about style and grammar. Pair writing stimulates discussion and critical thinking. And it makes the process of crafting content more useful. For example, you can involve people that otherwise wouldn’t work with content first-hand. It gives you a different perspective.

  • Vishal Mehta Reply

    Amazing adoption of Agile in the most crucial ingredient – content writing. This totally makes sense and is very helpful. I’m embarrassed to having missed this discipline in my earlier projects. I’m sure to employ this technique right away. Thanks for the feature.

  • Panayiotis Karabetis Reply

    @KevDog I agree with that really great work is achieved alone then made better following feedback/collaboration, but Bjørn makes a great point.

    Pairing is a faster way to research and brainstorm because it utilizes other points of view quickly, which helps you consider perspectives other than your own.

    At a recent Discovery meeting, my team talked less and listened more. Then we did pairing for wireframing where even the stakeholders grabbed a pencil and started sketching. The results revealed more initial insight than any amount of solo research could have achieved.

    Bjørn, you’re right, pairing works in all phases of the creative process not just development.

    Nice article!

    • Bjørn Bergslien Reply

      Happy that you liked the article, Panayiotis. I think this is an approach that can be used not only for creating content, but also for wireframing, conceptualization, sketching etc. Thanks for your feedback!

    • KevDog Reply

      Pairing is not a “faster way to research and brainstorm”. All, and I mean all, of the studies on the value of brainstorming have pointed out that this just isn’t true. Read the article in the NYT I linked to above.

    • Bjørn Bergslien Reply

      Hi KevDog. Just to be clear: Brainstorming and “creative processes” are not mentioned in the article once. I wouldn’t necessarily always use pair writing and teamwork to come up with brand new ideas or “stimulate creativity”. Pair writing serves another purpose.

  • Ana Chévere Reply

    Well, what you call ‘writing in pairs’ has been always called writing and editing. The writer writes, the editor reviews. Most good writers can play the editors role and viceversa, as both jobs need good writing skills. The editorial industry always worked this way. Professional writers also tend to double-check their work with volunteer readers to make sure they are achieving their goals.

    • Bjørn Bergslien Reply

      True. But we almost never see this actually being the case when we work for various clients. In most cases, only one or two people are responsible for creating and maintaining all of their website’s content. And get little input from others. Besides, many organizations simply don’t have the resources necessary to keep a professional editorial process up and running on a continuous basis.

  • Remi Gerard Reply

    I always wanted to apply the pairing technique to content creation, but it was merely a personal intuition I couldn’t convince my manager to back.
    Thanks to your article I have now solid arguments to defend the idea. Thanks a lot!

    • Bjørn Bergslien Reply

      No worries, Remi. Hope the article comes in handy and that you can convince your manager to give pair-writing a shot!

  • Michiel Holsheimer Reply

    Thx for sharing. Interesting topic. I agree with Ana. We have writers and editors for that. As a former journalist I know that the creative process of writing should not be interrupted with real-time feedback.
    Responding to questions and remarks demands social behavior and that is what writing is not. It is a solitude process.
    This study shows writing in pairs only benefits to accuracy of the text, but does not affect fluency and complexity. http://ltj.sagepub.com/content/26/3/445.abstract
    Accuracy is what good editors are for.

    • Bjørn Bergslien Reply

      Thanks Michiel. We don’t use pair writing to stimulate creativity. We use it to get input from others and think more critically about what we’re actually writing and publishing on our websites (which, in most instances, are corporate and organizational websites). Also, in most cases we’ve seen, there is not room or resources for a professional and ongoing writer-editor relationship. Pair writing works when there’s a single editor or copywriter struggling with product articles and customer service content all by himself. When he’s expected to produce new content and maintain it alone. Then, input from others is valuable. Very interesting report, by the way! Though it is a study of collaborative versus individual writing in second language contexts – which isn’t exactly the same.

  • Umesh Ramidi Reply

    As their is old saying “content is king” this post will help me while content for my website. Thanks.

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