Thoughts on peer review

First, look at this great overview on Feedback and improvement: Becoming a better writer by helping other writers.

And check out this short video about peer review generally:

and another one with some good general tips for peer review in a writing class:

Some students feel uncomfortable with the whole idea of peer review, either feeling inadequate themselves to offer feedback to other students (“I’m not the teacher!”) or not trusting the feedback of other students (“What does he know? He’s not the teacher!”)

The most important thing to realize is that your job as a peer reviewer is not to grade (or judge or evaluate) either the particular piece of writing or the writer but rather to respond as a reader in the following sorts of ways:

  • mirroring back to the writer what the piece seems to be about, the main thing it seems to be saying
  • pointing out places where you as a reader are engaged, intrigued, or confused
  • suggesting places the writer might add detail to make a scene more vivid or evidence to make an argument more convincing
  • giving feedback on how the organization of the piece helps or hinders your understanding
  • appreciating the writer’s style and use of language (word choice, sentence rhythms, etc.)

Tone is very important to consider in making your comments, particularly when the comments are in writing where tone of voice is missing. It’s important, of course, to be respectful and kind, but also to be honest. Try using phrases such as “it seems to me” or express your comments as questions (what did you do when X did Y?) or suggestions (maybe add description of setting here) rather than absolute commands (cut this!!).

There are many other benefits of peer review beyond just about getting specific advice you can use to revise your own piece. It’s invaluable for a writer to develop a sense of audience, the awareness that you’re writing for someone beyond just yourself (or a teacher). Also, it’s often what you get as a reviewer is just as valuable, if not more so. Reviewing the work of others helps you to think about writing from the perspective of both reader and writer. It’s easier to develop critical reading skills when you’re reading essays that aren’t entangled with your own ego. The goal: gradually to develop the objectivity to turn those critical skills onto your own writing. And on a larger scale, reading the work of classmates can help to develop the class into a community of writers whose support and feedback can give you motivation to write for more than just a grade.

Here’s a good handout from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill that explains more about the value of getting feedback on your writing.

Examples of well-done peer reviews:

Mohini