How writing in pairs improves content

Working from home during the pandemic means that teams who would usually get together in person to collaborate have had to shift to online meetings.

So, since leaving the Publishing team and (virtually) joining the Content Design team in August 2020, I have had to learn a lot about what my new team does through phone calls, screen sharing and plenty of jokes about being on mute.

One of these projects is pair writing, where a content designer and a subject matter expert work closely together to improve a piece of content before it is published. My first experience of pair writing was working with Darren Weeks from the Talent Attraction team to improve the Careers page on the ONS website. Here’s a look at how it went…

Setting an objective

Our first meeting was to set out what we wanted to achieve from the pair writing session, which was to write an updated version of the Careers page. This involved looking at the existing page together, highlighting which parts would need to be removed or re-written, and discussing different ways of displaying important information, like highlighting the button to view current jobs.

We would usually write down these aims on post-it notes in person and stick them up on the wall to keep the writing focused on user needs – but we were yet to wrap our tired 2020 brains around how to do this in Microsoft Teams!

Identifying the user needs

Next we discussed the main user needs for this piece of content and wrote the user stories. A user story is a quick way to capture the who, what and why requirements that your content must meet to satisfy your users. For example:

As a potential applicant for a role at the ONS (who), I want to know what the benefits for working at the ONS are (what), so that I can decide whether or not to complete an application (why).

We would regularly refer back to our user stories throughout the session to make sure that what we were creating would be useful, clear and easy to understand.

Writing new content

We then organised a second meeting, where the writing began. In this session, the person who was typing was “the driver” and the other person was “navigating”. The navigator would coach the driver by asking questions like “is there a simpler way to say this?” and always make sure that the user needs were being considered and met.

After a lot of discussion on the best way to phrase sentences, some cutting and pasting to reshuffle sections on the page, and many exclamations after discovering benefits I did not even know the ONS offered, we had put together a much more straightforward and helpful Careers page.

We will be carrying out some user research on this page this year to evaluate how successful the changes have been and what further improvements can be made.

How it can help

Pair writing is a great way to collaborate on a piece of content to make sure that it not only meets user needs and house style, but to make it as accessible to all of our users as possible. It can also be really valuable to have other people’s perspectives and ideas to create a better piece of content than we might have on our own.