Writing Center

Lend Me Your Peers: How to Make the Most of Peer Editing Sessions (From 2015)

By Andrew Koch, Former Writing Tutor


This post was originally shared on April 9, 2015. It is one of our favorite and most relevant posts from the past. We like it so much we decided to share it again.

"And be sure to bring a draft of your paper for next week's class. We're having a peer review day."

(Internal groan)

Peer editing days are like Cincinnati weather: either great or miserable, with not much in between. The right suggestions from classmates about your writing can give you great insights on how to improve your paper, but if you're anything like me, you find bad peer editing can be a real drag.

Bad peer editing comes in many forms, from the hypercritical (red ink dripping from every line) to the unresponsive (a blank expression and a shrug when you ask "So what'd you think?"), and the worst peer editing can make you feel worse about your paper than when you began the session. Many professors have students critique others' works as a way of improving writing, but misguided peer review sessions can turn into time spent either politely nodding and discussing weekend plans and last night's game or (worse) passive-aggressively tearing each other's papers apart. Sometimes a student may not know what kind of advice to give to a classmate, especially if he or she is personally struggling to understand the assignment.

But you don't have to settle for anything less than the best from these sessions! As is the case in many areas in life, you'll get what you give from peer editing. By committing to being a better peer editor, you're helping to improve the peer editing culture and showing your classmate what kind of feedback you're looking for in return. By learning the right questions to ask, your partner and you can both walk away with a better paper and more confidence about the assignment. Here are some ways to help you get the most out of peer editing sessions:

Look at the big picture. A common mistake among editors is putting too much focus on "proofreading" and not enough on the content of a paper. Though it pains me (a grammar nerd) to admit it, good peer editing is about a lot more than policing spelling and punctuation. Rather, good peer editing ensures that a piece of writing, in addition to being grammatically correct, makes sense to the audience and is accomplishing what the assignment asks. Don't be afraid to ask more general questions about the paper and its structure and focus. Is the writer's focus too broad? Too specific? In an argumentative paper, is the writer's main opinion coming through? Are there ways that the writer could be clearer? Does your partner's paper fulfill the assignment's requirements in terms of focus?

Listen to the writer and let him/her guide. See if there's a specific aspect of the paper that your partner is concerned about. While some of your fellow students might not know what they want to improve about their writing/assignment, others will more precisely know how they want to better develop the paper. As a peer editor, your goal is to help the other student improve his or her assignment and writing ability, whatever shape that may take, and your classmate will do the same for you. As tempting as it might seem, this is not a chance for you to show off your intelligence or writing prowess. Remember to stay focused on what your review session partner needs and follow his or her lead.

Read the paper out loud. If you've been to the Writing Center, you're probably familiar with this technique, one of our favorites. It's easy to become bogged down in your own words while writing a piece, but verbally revisiting your words by doing a read through can help you catch content weaknesses and, yes, spelling and grammar mistakes, too, by revisiting your language in a new way. Time permitting, have your partner read his or her paper aloud to you.

Ask questions and be patient. If you're unsure about something in your partner's paper, just ask! Writers love to talk about their writing, and face-to-face communication allows you the opportunity to quickly and efficiently ask questions and get feedback. Don't assume that you understand what a writer is saying - feel free to pick your partner's brain about his or her subject or topic. I've often found that my best ideas come when I'm explaining my paper's subject or my writing assignment to someone else.

Being a better peer editor for someone else can help you focus on your own writing as well. By being a more thoughtful peer editor, you can break the cycle of unproductive and unhelpful peer editing sessions, and everybody will win.