Jul
21
2017

Pair writing at IWMW 2017

I made my conference debut at IWMW 2017, leading a workshop on pair writing. In this post, I share some of my observations from the session and feedback from my participants.

First up, if you’re new to the term pair writing, or need a refresher, read my previous blog post on the topic. In a nutshell, it’s when a Subject Matter Expert (SME) and content professional sit down to craft a piece of content together.

Create effective content quickly with pair writing

Workshop format

The wonderful participants from my pair writing workshop

I started the workshop explaining the pair writing process and sharing some examples of how we’ve implemented the technique at Edinburgh.

For the practical bit, I asked participants to team up and play either the role of the SME or content professional to write a blog post on their IWMW experience so far.

Critiquing experts

Although I got participants to play either the part of the SME or content professional, in reality, we were all content professionals in our jobs. This made for an odd experience I hadn’t encountered while pair writing before, and that was the fear of criticising another expert’s work. I had to remind myself that even the best of us benefit from a second pair of eyes on our writing.

It was especially difficult, though, to provide feedback when working in this ‘example’ format and not towards an established style or tone guide.

Another group echoed this sentiment that it felt weird to be the content expert when writing an informal, more personal piece of content like a blog post. Well-noted criticism for when I run this workshop in the future.

A modified approach

The typical pair writing format has the SME and content professional alternate between the roles of driver and observer: the driver leads the writing while the observer provides the feedback.

One group at the session chose to approach the task differently. They started with a brainstorming session, where the SME explained what they wanted to write and the content professional wrote up bulleted notes on what the SME was saying. The content expert then led the writing based on these notes.

The pair felt that this approach encouraged mutual understanding and ownership of the content as the SME wasn’t precious over their story once handing it over to the content expert to write up.

While I liked that a group adapted this technique to write in their own way, I’d say there’s an extra benefit to having the SME get in on the writing: they pick up some good practice writing techniques from the content expert.

This is what an SME got out of a pair writing workshop I ran for Student Experience Services recently, who described the experience as leeching off the content professional’s expertise.

Pair writing with Student Experience Services

Setting clear objectives

One attendee was a bit hesitant to take back the technique to their university because they feared the SME would sit in silence at a session. This led to a discussion on how the content professional needs to have a clear objective of what they want to get out of the session before embarking on it.

Someone suggested getting their SME to make notes before entering the session, which is something I’d definitely encourage.

At the workshop, I gave attendees no prior warning of what topic we’d be writing about, which probably contributed to this comment, but if you are holding a pair writing session in your department, make sure both pair members are going into the session with a clear plan of what you want to accomplish at the session.

A good way to start a project

One of the final bits of feedback was from a participant who expressed that pair writing would be a good way to get quality content from the start of a site development project.

They shared a story of working with colleagues in another department to get content up on a new website. The content handed over to them from the SMEs was in awful shape, but the colleagues were so protective over their content and resistant to changes that the web team uploaded the content as is.

Again, this bring us back to the point of one of the benefits of this technique and that is it leading to mutual ownership of content. If you’re creating a new website, pair writing from the start can help create this sense of shared ownership.

Pair writing at Edinburgh

I had an absolute blast leading this workshop and getting to share what we’re doing at Edinburgh with the rest of the higher ed web community. Many thanks to all the participants that attended!

If you think your department could benefit learning this technique, we’d love to run a pair writing workshop for you. Get in touch with us via Website Support.

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