Peer Review is not a Dirty Word.

Personally I find one of the most awkward parts of peer editing is the position I am placed into as a peer responder. On one hand, I want to be hard on the paper, so that the instructor sees I know what I am talking about. On the other, I want to support my fellow student and let them know they are doing great. These warring motivations often cause a reviewer to overcompensate, either by being too nice and not giving good feedback or by being overly harsh. It is a hard line to walk, but there are specific tools that can be used to help maintain a neutral position and actually be more help for your peer.

First, remember you are neither friend nor foe. Try to keep your comments mild, this involves generally avoiding words like bad, wrong, or weak.1 As an alternative try saying “this paragraph isn’t as strong as it could be.” Sometimes however, there is no nice way to say something. If this happens to you, make a point of talking to the writer as you give them your comments. For most people, it is easier to talk about problems in writing then it is to write about it. Be aware of this and talk about the problems you may see and explain your feedback.

Specific feedback when peer reviewing is a must! To say the paper is “good” doesn’t really help anyone. If the writing is good, explain why. If an idea or point is awkward or unclear try and explain why as well. Although “explaining why” is hard sometimes it will help both the review and writer if the review can take ownership of the comments being made about the paper. It is better to say “this confused me” or “I don’t understand” then the door is open for the review and the writer to talk about what is going on in the paper. That goes a long way in the revision process. Your main role as a peer editor is to be honest and ask constructive questions. If you think of a point that could have been added to the paper, ask about it! If you wonder why a paragraph or idea was placed in a specific spot, vocalize these concerns. Asking questions will help both you and the writer understand the way the writing comes across and hopefully the writer will stop to think about your questions and comments, taking them into consideration during the revision process.

Now again, balance is important when giving feedback. It is going to be more constructive if you don’t nitpick the paper but rather focus on bigger potential issues like clarity of purpose and paragraph unity. What this looks like is while the paper you have in front of you may have spelling errors, it is not helpful for you to harp on them. Simply let the writer know “hey, you misspelled this” or “did you mean lick? or like?” pointing out small “typo-style” issue is not the primary focus of a peer review, unless the writer has asked for that specifically.2

One major tool that will help you give accurate, useful feedback is the instructor’s grading rubric. Some instructors will give you a rubric that will help guide your thinking and serves as a “checklist” or sorts. A rubric can narrow your focus as a reviewer and ask the “big questions:” clarity of point, unity of ideas, structure of the essay and if the writer has provided adequate support for the claims being made.

Peer workshop, is a delicate process that involves balancing positive and critical comments. These class sessions can lead to frustration, progress and even a little confusion. But isn’t it better to have a fellow student question your paper?

  1. Another way to think about this is to try avoiding evaluative language in your comments. Try avoiding language that classifies things as “good” or “bad,” but use words that focus on how the writing affects you as a reader. “This confused me” or “This paragraph really made me think” is more useful feedback than “I liked/didn’t like this.” (This ties to what Violet says about explaining why.) -Ed. 

  2. If this is happening in class, your teacher also might have specific things she or he wants you to focus on. Where the writer is in the process (that is, on the first or last draft) also affects things. Remember that there are lots of different kinds of responses you can give, and part of your job as a responder is to figure out which are appropriate for this particular conversation. -Ed. 

Last Updated: 3/9/2015 3:59 PM