For many, pair programming delivers benefits such as increased focus, improved team relationships, and better code. Tom Breur and Michael Mahlberg found that pair writing can work, too, and the advantages bear a lot of resemblance to those of pair programming—more concentration, productive feedback, and better writing.
For many, pair programming delivers benefits such as increased focus, improved team relationships, and better code. We have found that pair writing can work, too. In many ways, the habits we developed with pair writing bear a lot of resemblance to pair programming—more concentration, productive feedback, and better writing.
Learning how to pair write has been a bit of a journey, but we think the demonstrable benefits make it very much worth the effort. If you write—or you want to get published but you’re not sure how to get started—we suggest you give pair writing a try.
How Pair Writing Improves Productivity
There are writers who dispute the usefulness of pair programming. Capers Jones says there is, in fact, a negative value to “doubling” the capacity.
We certainly know that overdoing the mutual review process can hamper productivity. This is especially true if you measure writing productivity with the number of words written per hour, or some comparable quantitative measure. This is just like measuring programming productivity with the number of lines of code written—and it makes just as little sense. As with programming, you can measure writing productivity in many ways.
We readily admit that our experience of heightened effective productivity is subjective. We both habitually track output (notably different from productivity, as you may note), using number of words per hour—or, rather, per Pomodoro.
But there is more than “just” an increase in productivity. To us, the advantages of pair writing go beyond effective output. It has become a habitual and enjoyable way of working. It supports mutual accountability. It also nurtures social needs we all have, which can be even more valuable when you work remotely.
Here are some good practices (because we both hate the false notion of "best" practices) that have worked for us:
- Schedule time regularly; it really does help to stay in a routine. Every time you have to start up, some effort gets lost, and the closer in time together your sessions are, the less effort gets lost.
- Well before you wrap up a writing session, make sure you have already scheduled at least one other session.
- Review and comment on each other’s work, and try to do so in a positive way. Be are free to embrace or ignore each other’s comments.
- Challenge your thinking if your writing partner struggles to understand what you mean. Often, starting an explanation with “What I really mean is …” does the trick.
- Finish a piece or make it a fieldstone. The pair-writing feedback cycle often encourages you to delete the start of another idea within one piece and publish the rest. Collect the removed parts as fieldstones—building blocks for upcoming pieces.
The Psychological Aspects of Pair Work
People are different; they have different needs and different attitudes toward different things. Some people get energy from being alone, while others get energy from being among others.
In psychology there is a concept of personality types (which are based on psychological preferences), and one of the dimensions in these theories is the difference between extroversion and introversion. These classifications do not refer to whether a person is more outgoing or quiet, but rather their preferred energy sources. Extroverts, in this sense, are people who get their energy from interaction and being around people. Introverts, on the other hand, get energy from being alone; it can actually cost them energy to be among others.
For extroverted people, writing can be hard because by its very nature, writing is usually solitary work. Extroverts’ energy can get drained from the lonely working environment as well as from the mental exhaustion of writing itself.
Naturally, on the other hand, introverted people can thrive in a writing environment free from external stimuli. Introverts tend to focus more on internal thoughts, so they have much of the introspection required for putting ideas on paper (or on a computer screen).
With one of us being an off-the-scales extrovert and the other a clear introvert, we have very different working styles. This is where pair writing can really benefit you. There are advantages and drawbacks to each personality type when it comes to writing, but we find that pair writing as a team helps us strike the perfect balance and accomplish more together than we could have apart.
Honing Your Craft
Pair writing, just like pair programming, is a skill distinct from the writing ability itself. For the last two years, we have been regularly scheduling writing sessions together, and we both attribute much of our output and its quality to these sessions. In part it’s the mutual accountability, but we’d say in larger part it is the gain in effective output from pair writing.
Although it may help to reflect with a knowledgeable colleague, his or her expertise isn’t all that crucial. If you can’t write in a way that your grandmother would understand, then maybe you can improve your message by explaining it in simpler and more tangible terms to a nonexpert peer. Sometimes your partner just needs to encourage you: “This has a lot of potential!” Sometimes he needs to quiz you: “What did you mean by that paragraph?” And sometimes he provides a valuable outsider’s perspective: “It makes sense to cut that part into two sections.”
We developed rules of conduct along the way for how to give feedback—as well as how and when to ignore feedback. We find that more often than not, writers are too critical of their own work. If someone you trust and respect reassures you something is ready for publication, that takes away a lot of anxiety. And if this same person has been involved in shaping and refining your arguments, you can feed each other’s sense of accomplishment.
When others compliment our work, now we both feel proud. But even more importantly, when nobody else comments on our writing, we have each other to provide encouragement to always keep going. Writing is fun! And for us, it became real fun when we started pair writing.