The peer review process is a system that works (yes, really) to help you improve your paper by having other people look at your work and offer advice and suggestions to make it better. Remember when you asked your friend or parent(s) to look over an essay you wrote for a class? This is essentially peer review. You have someone look over your essay and get their advice on how to make it better. You will also do the same for another person in the class.
Your instructor’s emphasis will likely vary based on the assignment or the phase of the writing process. But in general, it’s best to understand the difference between reviewing an essay for content and editing. Most often we will review for content. Reviewing for content means we are helping our peers figure out if they have met the requirements of the assignment or genre. They are not in the final phases, and will want feedback on themes, ideas, organization, transitions. We might even be helping our peers to figure out the next steps in their research process, or how to make a better connection between ideas, how to clarify a claim or a thesis statement, or to write a more compelling conclusion. At most phases of the process, while it is helpful to make note of grammatical errors, or make suggestions for punctuation, spelling, etc., this should not be our primary focus. There’s no point in correcting the grammar of a sentence we might not even use!
On a “peer review day,” you should expect to work with at least one other person in the class. You may be asked to listen quietly, without interrupting, as your partner reads your draft out loud to you. Once they are finished, discuss (and take notes on) the specific peer review questions together. Ultimately, your instructor will provide you with guidance on how to perform the review. The instructor may give you an assignment sheet or a rubric, or perhaps a separate form to conduct the peer review with. Instructors may even have you annotating within the other student’s paper. Whatever method the instructor chooses, you can be assured that there will be some form of guidance provided.
Here are a few quick philosophies:
Giving Feedback: As a peer, you are expected to engage in an important conversation about what the author created, and to let the author hear how their work was received. Whatever your comments or questions may be, it is important that you deliver them in the “spirit of helpfulness.” Push your peers towards the best writing possible, and deliver your praise and suggestions in words and attitudes that make the author trust you and your advice.
You may believe that not everyone can actually give helpful feedback. This is false! Sure there might be concepts that are not your strong point, but there will be other areas that you are good at. Maybe you are better in grammar and sentence structure then you are at writing thesis statements. Share your expertise with your fellow classmates and they will do the same for you. Everyone has something to contribute so everyone CAN do this.
You are helping others while also helping yourself. As you review other papers you will see different approaches and styles in writing, which can help you to broaden your own style of writing. Copying styles of writing is fine as long as you do not copy the actual words that someone else has used. Also, some instructors may even offer additional incentive for writing helpful and thorough reviews– possibly even extra credit.
Receiving Feedback: “Don’t kick the gift horse in the mouth.” It is a significant personal risk for an author to offer their writing up for peer review. It is no less a feat for peers to offer their insights and suggestions. Accept them graciously, gather them up like the gifts they are and take them with you to use in revision at your own inclination. Remember: everyone is NOT out to get you. As with any form of group work, the important thing is not to bring the wrong mindset to the table. Many students get defensive about their work and take the comments as a personal attack. You have to convince yourself that the process is to help– not hurt. You get feedback but ultimately it’s your paper so you have to make the choice as to whether or not to change your work.
Silence is Golden (when in the role of author). To ensure you to have the best experience as an author and as a reviewer, there is one rule by which we all abide: the author is not allowed to speak while their piece is being read. This is often the most difficult part of peer review. Often, we want to explain things that were unclear, or point out what we see as a “misreading,” or ask questions. Regardless of what you (as author) meant to do, hearing the draft read aloud is valuable because it 1) could reveal confusing aspects you thought were clear, 2) could confirm that an ambiguity is really working the way you intended, or 3) might reveal new potential that you may not have anticipated. Keep a positive poker-face. Take notes. Trust your work, trust your peers, and listen in the spirit of gratitude.
Remember, everyone can use peer review. Your previous instructor may have had different views than your current instructor–everyone has their own ideas sometimes of what makes good writing and instructors are no different. That makes it very important that you have another set of eyes look over your work.
Assignment Requirements. Every assignment has specific expectations outlined in our syllabus; begin by looking for them in your peer’s work. For example, the media analysis requires you to effectively describe an advertisement and analyze the rhetorical strategies at work in the ad. At a minimum, you can help the author to see where and how they have met those goals. You might also ask questions or make suggestions as to where and how they might make those elements even stronger.
Critical Elements. Sentences, paragraphs, transitions, explanations, analysis, description, etc. We all “know” when something about these elements strikes us as clear, effective, even interesting. Or when something is missing. Point out what is really working well. Point out where you see untapped potential. Ask questions or offer suggestions to make them even better.
Questions. It is always helpful for the author to hear what message they delivered. Try answering these questions for the author: What happened? What was this essay about? What was most interesting/effective to you? What was confusing and why? What did this analysis make you think about? Whatever revision choices the author makes, what is the most important aspect of the piece they should maintain or stay focused on?
Editing. Here are some general resources for helping your peers with the final editing phases.