What is peer review?
Peer reviewing does not mean just marking grammatical errors or punctuation problems on someone’s draft and calling it good. It doesn’t mean saying authoritatively whether things are right or wrong, good or bad. Peer review means voicing your thoughtful but critically aware opinion about whether various elements of your peers’ writing are effective or could be improved.
Let me illustrate: Imagine that you have just gotten dressed for a hot date and you ask your roommate if your outfit is a good choice or not. Because it’s such an important date, you’ve decided to go a little outside your comfort zone and are wearing something more on the edge of fashion than you usually do, and you’re really not sure whether you’re pulling off the [leather pants/leopard-print leggings/sequined denim vest/trilby and pocket watch/vintage high tops with slacks, etc.]. You are relying on your roommate to give you an unbiased opinion, to be honest and to save you from potentially looking like a fool. There are a few things your roommate might say:
Does this blazer match my personality?
- “You look incredible! I mean, I cannot put into words how amazing you look! I wouldn’t change a thing! You’re so hot right now!” and on and on. Unalloyed praise smacks of insincerity—you won’t believe your roommate if he or she has only good things to say, and your outfit won’t be improved by such a response.
- “Really? That’s your idea of fashion? Are you hoping this guy/girl doesn’t call you later? Did you really think paisley/plaid/stripes/feathers/fringe was the right look for your skin tone/weight/height/eye color/age?” Biting criticism hurts too much. Not only will it undermine the confidence and self-worth of the hearer, but it will shut down any trust between the two of you, guaranteeing you never ask that roommate’s advice again.
- “Your shoe’s untied.” Tiny help or an over-attention to unimportant details misses the point. At best, you’ll leave thinking your roommate was too busy to actually help you; at worst, you’ll believe he or she doesn’t care about you. Either way, you’re left wondering whether your outfit was a good choice.
- “Hmm, let me think. I really like the cut/color/pattern of that shirt in relation to how you’ve done your hair/makeup/jewelry/nails. It brings out your best features in a really good way. I’m not so sure about the pants, though. Have you considered [this wardrobe item]? I can’t put my finger on exactly what isn’t working here—it could be the shoes rather than the pants. You’re on the right track, and I can see what you’re going for—a kind of Matt Damon/Scarlett Johansson/Chris Hemsworth/Jennifer Lawrence thing—let’s go try a few things and see if we can’t make it work.” Sincere, thoughtful, detailed, respectful, supported, unauthoritative-but-critical feedback is what’ll give you confidence when you walk out the door and what’ll keep you coming back to that roommate again and again for advice. It’s the stuff true friendship is built out of, but it’s the very hardest feedback of all to give, for it requires a person have a discerning eye, an informed opinion, and loads of tact.
It’s the same when you peer review someone’s writing
Check it out:
A few more scarves?
- If all you do is say everything is good, great, wonderful, your reader won’t believe you and won’t be able to make the improvements he or she is anxious to make.
- If you are overly critical and not very tactful about it, you’ll hurt your reader and probably paralyze him or her into being unable to make positive changes. And you’ll be a jerk.
- If you only comment on a few rather trivial things and leave larger, more urgent issues unexamined, you risk sending your reader on his or her date with well-tied shoelaces but with his or her fly wide open, metaphorically speaking. (Just to be clear: grammar, spelling, punctuation, and other mechanical issues are almost always trivial things compared to other, more urgent concerns.)
- However, if you manage to hone your critical ability to spot trouble in your peers’ writing while at the same time using a great amount of tact, tempering your honest criticism with sincere praise, you’ll prove yourself to be a rare friend indeed.
How to peer review like a champ
Becoming the last kind of peer reviewer is a long hard process, and it requires you to develop both your powers of discernment and your ability to talk clearly about what you see. We’ll be working on this all semester. Here are a few pointers:
- You don’t have to say something is right or wrong, good or bad. It’s enough to say it is unclear to you or that it rubs you the wrong way—so long as you explain why as best you can. You’re a peer, not an authority figure.
- You don’t have to prescribe a fix for every problem. If you’ve explained why something doesn’t work for you or why it seems ineffective, your peer probably has enough information to figure out how to improve that thing. And if you do have a fix in mind, make it a suggestion rather than an imperative.
It’s just as helpful to say something is strong or effective or beautiful as it is to say the opposite—so long as you’re being honest and you explain why.