Pair (not pear!) writing is a great tool to have in our content design toolbox.  It usually involves a content designer and subject matter expert (SME) from the service, sitting together for an agreed amount of time. Sometimes an hour, sometimes many more.

As a team of 4 content designers, we’ve been pair writing with services for about 12 months.  In such a large organisation, it’s impossible for us to know about every area of the council in the detail we need to create effective user centred content.

We’ll pair write with anyone who is able to give us context of the subject and sign off.

It was something we started to cut down the emails back and forth discussing the content for a product or area we were working on.  Lots of emails often meant:

  • context got lost
  • we missed content changes
  • service language was difficult to challenge
  • it was hard to keep the user at the centre of the thought process

When we’re working on new areas of the website or redesigns, we try to pair write as much as possible with a service.  We’ve found that it reconnects them with their users and takes their focus away from the everyday details of the service.  This allows space to explore the content and what it means for the user.

We’re able to explain issues with the language services use when engaging with users.  We provide challenge to the SME to explain their processes in a way that’s accessible.

 

Pair writing is a collaboration with so many benefits:

  • the service feel they have ownership over the content and are reconnected with their audience
  • we get to understand the council, share our practices , create trust with colleagues and create effective, user centred content
  • users get a simple and clear message with a journey based on evidence and a consistent tone and voice

Everyone has the right to understand and act upon the content we create.  Pair writing is one way of achieving this.

 

What we’ve learnt from our sessions:

  • set out what the session is for – clear guidance for everyone taking part keeps the session on track and makes sure everyone is clear about their role
  • understand the scope of the work – trying to get too much done in a session can lead to rushed ineffective or inaccurate content
  • provide the challenge as a user would – does this make sense; is it written in service speak; do users really talk like that; what is it the user really want to know, what need does this fulfil. It’s the subject matter expert’s job to explain their content
  • listen – the subject matter expert will often explain it to you as a user would want to hear it
  • get the right person in the room for sign off – it avoids unnecessary emails going back and forth with the potential for misunderstanding
  • prepare for challenge – about your writing, the style guide, technical language, dumbing down
  • ask for feedback – use it to improve your future sessions
  • get people on board – they spread the way we work and keep the user at the heart of what we do
  • enjoy it and be willing to learn – even the most dry of subjects can be satisfying to work with

As a senior leader, I often put pen to paper thinking that what I write would be understood and interpreted as expected. I do pride myself in not using flamboyant language and being to the point. However, it wasn’t until I sat with Laura and she unpicked my words that I realised that the way I wrote for the general public may not be clearly understood. Pair writing enabled me to discuss and unpick what I meant and then agree an alternative phrase that provides better clarity to the reader. Having a second critical eye is of great benefit and I would wholeheartedly endorse using this resource when writing content for the general public.

Geraldine Gerrard

Head of Business Support (People), Stockport Council