We present a sample of 1899 galaxies with a close companion taken from the Sloan Digital Sky Survey Data Release 7. The galaxy pairs are selected to have velocity differences Δv < 300 km s−1, projected separations (rp) < 80 kpc, mass ratios between 0.1 and 10, and robust measurements of star formation rates and gas-phase metallicities. We match the galaxies in total stellar mass, redshift and local density to a set of 10 control galaxies per pair galaxy. For each pair galaxy, we can therefore calculate the statistical change in star formation rate (SFR) and metallicity associated with the interaction process. Relative to the control sample, we find that galaxies in pairs show typical SFR enhancements that are, on average, 60 per cent higher than the control sample at rp < 30 kpc. It is at these small separations that the strongest enhancements in SFR (by up to a factor of ∼10) are measured, although such starbursts are rare, even amongst the closest pairs. In addition, the pairs demonstrate more modest SFR enhancements of ∼30 per cent out to at least 80 kpc (the widest separations in our sample). This is the first time that enhanced SFRs have been robustly detected out to such large projected separations. Galaxies in both major and minor mergers show significant SFR enhancements at all rp, although the strongest starbursts (with SFR enhancements of a factor of ∼10) appear to be found only in the major mergers. We also find evidence that SFR enhancements are synchronized in an interacting pair, such that a higher SFR in one galaxy is accompanied by an increased SFR in its companion. For the first time, we are also able to trace the metallicity changes in galaxy pairs as a function of projected separation. The metallicity is generally diluted in galaxy pairs by ∼0.02 dex, with an average metallicity decrement of −0.03 dex at the smallest separations, a trend that mirrors the SFR enhancements as a function of rp. The SFR and metallicity trends with projected separation are interpreted through a comparison with theoretical models. These simulations indicate that the peak in SFR enhancements at small separations is due to systems near the end of the merger process. The extended plateau in SFR enhancements out to at least 80 kpc is dominated by galaxies that have made a pericentric passage and are now experiencing triggered star formation on their trajectory towards apogalacticon, or on a subsequent close approach.