Putting our writing in front of an immediate reading audience, even if it is our classmates, can be intimidating and stressful. We often get emotionally attached to our writing and it’s difficult to hear criticism, no matter how well-intentioned or constructive. Receiving feedback from our peers, however, is one of the most beneficial ways we can improve our writing. It’s not only valuable to receive feedback, but is also equally valuable to be able to read what our classmates are writing. The opportunity to review our classmates’ writing can offer us new possibilities for our own essays we hadn’t thought about before.
Usually your instructor will create groups of 3-5 students to form a peer group, depending on the assignment and time allowed. Often, instructors will have a practice essay to demonstrate how they would like you to evaluate the writing. If not, they may give you some peer review questions to answer for the writers. As a group member, it’s your responsibility to offer helpful feedback with an eye towards revision. Often, participating fully, through both verbal and written feedback, is part of your class participation grade.
It’s peer workshop day, so now what? Depending on how your instructor organizes the groups, you’ll probably be asked to read your essay aloud. Why? Reading aloud is the only way to “hear” the language. You’ll catch more sentence-level problems by reading aloud, but you’ll also be better able to comprehend missing elements or catch nonsensical logic. Reading aloud also gives you the ability to see the reactions to your piece. Some writers prefer for a peer-group member to read their essay so they can hear it read by someone else, as often we’ve read our own pieces so many times we read into things that may not be there. Either way, make sure to hear your essay aloud.
As reviewer, when your peers’ essays are read, follow along closely and make margin notes. You might give a “!” for a passage that is really strong and works well, and a “?” for a passage that might need a bit more information or is confusing. Don’t stop to write too much as it’s being read, but keep following the reader. Wait until the reader has stopped to write more detailed feedback.
After hearing the essay read aloud and making margin notes, you’ll take a few minutes to write down more thoughtful comments. If your instructor provides you with specific questions to answer, you’ll offer thoughtful written comments towards those directives. One thing you’ll want to avoid is answering “It looks good to me.” This type of non-feedback is neither constructive nor helpful. The most common student complaint after peer review day is they received no constructive feedback, and were usually told it “looked good.” Remember that everyone will come to the group writing at different levels, but even if you feel the other students are better writers than you does not mean you can’t offer them a few suggestions towards their revision process. Even strong writers need to revise their work.
Once the group is done writing comments, you’ll now address the writer. Explain your written comments, offering praise for the parts that worked particularly well, and suggestions towards revision for areas that may need more information or explanation. Usually, the “gag rule” is imposed during this step, which means the writer listens to the feedback from their peers without responding, explaining or defending. The writing has to stand on its own without “Well, what I meant was. . .” from the writer. When the peer reviewers are done, the writer may then ask for clarification or further suggestions.
Getting What You Want Out of Your Peer Review
The peer review process is what it says: peer review. Instructors usually stay out of this process and let the students lead the group how they see fit. This puts the responsibility of the peer review process – and outcome – on the students. If you are not satisfied with the feedback you have received, speak up. Ask for more. Make sure you leave with written comments, as you will forget verbal comments before you hit the door. If you have no directions from your instructor, direct your own feedback. If you feel you are particularly weak in organization or description, specifically ask your peers to focus on those areas you feel you need the most help with. Keep in mind, however, these are peer workshops, not editing groups. Don’t depend – or ask – your peers to fix your grammar and punctuation. That’s your job.
Peer workshops are a valuable tool as you work through the revision process. As a reviewer, always focus your comments towards revision – toward the next draft. It’s okay to praise or question what has already been written, but offer suggestions for the next draft. Think of it not as feedback, but feed-forward.