4b Reviewing peer writers' work

4bReviewing peer writers’ work


Understanding the role of the peer reviewer

Working with peer reviewers in an online course

Using tools for peer review

Conducting a peer review

Basing responses on the stage of the draft

Quick Help: Guidelines for peer review

Storyboard on being a peer reviewer

Video Prompt: Lessons from being a peer reviewer

Whether you are part of a small peer-review group in your writing class or you are assigned a peer reviewer in a MOOC (massive open online course) with hundreds or even thousands enrolled, you can use reviewers to your advantage—and you should do your best to help peers when you review their work as well. (For help with peer review, see the Quick Help guidelines.)

Understanding the role of the peer reviewer

The most helpful reviewers are interested in the topic and the writer’s approach to it. They ask questions, make concrete suggestions, report on what is confusing and why, and offer encouragement. Good reviewers give writers a new way to see their drafts so that they can revise effectively. After reading an effective review, writers should feel confident about taking the next step in the writing process.

Peer review is difficult for two reasons. First, offering writers a way to imagine their next draft is just hard work. Unfortunately, there’s no formula for giving good writing advice. But you can always do your best to offer your partner a careful, thoughtful response to the draft and a reasonable sketch of what the next version might contain. Second, peer review is challenging because your job as a peer reviewer is not to grade the draft or respond to it as an instructor would. As a peer reviewer, you will have a chance to think alongside writers whose writing you may consider much better or far worse than your own. Don’t dwell on these comparisons. Instead, remember that a thesis is well supported by purposefully arranged details, not by punctuation or impressive vocabulary. Your goal is to read the writer’s draft closely enough to hear what he or she is trying to say and to suggest a few strategies for saying it better.

Being a peer reviewer should improve your own writing as you see how other writers approach the same assignment. So make it a point to tell writers what you learned from their drafts; as you express what you learned, you’ll be more likely to remember their strategies. Also, you will likely begin reading your own texts in a new way. Although all writers have blind spots when reading their own work, you will gain a better sense of where readers expect cues and elaboration.

Working with peer reviewers in an online course

If you are taking an online writing class or MOOC, you can still take advantage of peer reviews. In an online course, you may be assigned to a peer-review group and given guidelines to follow. But if you are not assigned to a peer-review group, organize one for yourself. Post a note to the class, asking those interested in forming a group to contact you. Then talk through the purpose of the group in a collaborative space (in your course management site, if you have one, or even via email): what is it you want each member to contribute? It’s best to be explicit and straightforward when you’re working with people you don’t know and won’t meet face to face. Then, as with any peer group, agree on what each of you will do (such as comment on specific aspects of a draft, identify confusing parts or passages, provide specific advice for improvement, and so on) and set a timeline. Give the group a test drive on your first drafts: you are looking for members who are as trustworthy, reliable, and smart as you are!

Using tools for peer review

Remember that one of your main goals as a peer reviewer is to help the writer see his or her draft differently. You want to show the writer what does and doesn’t work about particular aspects of the draft. Visually marking a draft can help the writer know at a glance what revisions the reviewer suggests. (Remember that visual mark-ups can be useful for drafts of all kinds of texts. If you are reviewing a slide presentation or video draft, for instance, you may be able to mark up a printout or transcript as part of your review.)

Marking up a print draft

If you are reviewing a hard copy of a draft, write compliments in the left margin and critiques, questions, and suggestions in the right margin. As long as you explain what your symbols mean, you can also use circles, underlining, highlighting, or other visual annotations to point out patterns to the writer. If an idea is mentioned in several paragraphs, for example, you can circle those sentences and suggest that the writer use them to form a new paragraph.

Marking up a digital draft

If the draft comes to you as a digital file, save the document in a folder under a name you will recognize. It’s wise to include the writer’s name, the assignment, the number of the draft, and your initials. For example, Ann G. Smith might name the file for the first draft of Javier Jabari’s first essay jabari essay1 d1 ags.doc.

You can use the TRACK CHANGES function of your word-processing program to add comments and suggestions and to revise the text of written-word documents. Insert a comment explaining each revision and suggesting how the writer can build on it in the next draft. (If you prefer, you can use footnotes for comments instead.)

For media drafts that are difficult to annotate visually, ask the writer about preferred ways to offer suggestions—audio annotations? written notes? comments on a posted file? face-to-face discussion? something else?

You should also consider using highlighting in written-word texts. If you explain to the writer what the colors mean and use only a few colors, highlighting can make a powerful visual statement about what needs to be revised. Here is an example of a color key for the writer:

Color Revision Suggestion
Yellow Read this sentence aloud, and then revise for clarity.
Green This material seems out of place. Reorganize?
Blue This idea isn’t clearly connected to your thesis. Cut?

Conducting a peer review

Whenever you respond to a piece of writing, think of the response you are giving—whether orally or in writing—as a letter to the writer of the draft. Your written response should usually have two parts: (1) a personal letter to the writer, and (2) visual markings or other annotations on the text.

Before you read the draft, ask the writer for any feedback instructions. Take the writer’s requests seriously. If, for example, the writer asks you to look at specific aspects of his or her writing and to ignore others, be sure to respond to that request.

To begin your review, read straight through the project and think about the writer’s specific instructions as well as these general guidelines.

A summary of the draft

After reading the draft, begin by summarizing the main idea(s) of the piece of writing. You might begin by writing I think the main argument is . . . or In this draft, you promise to. . . . Then outline the main points that support the thesis (3e and f).

Once you prepare the outline, your most important work as a peer reviewer can begin. You need to think alongside the writer about how to support the thesis and arrange details most effectively for the audience. Ask yourself the following questions and make notes that you can include in the letter to the writer:

Your mark-up of the draft

Next, as you reread the draft, use the mark-up strategies discussed earlier to give the writer specific feedback. As you use these strategies, always think about how you would respond to the same mark-ups in your own draft. Avoid an overwhelming number of comments or changes, for example, and don’t highlight too extensively. In addition, remember that your job in marking up the text is to point out the problems, not to solve them (though you should certainly offer suggestions).

Unlike in the personal letter, where you try to help the writer imagine the next draft, your comments, annotations, and other markings should respond to what is already written. Aim for a balance between compliments and constructive criticism. If you think the author has stated something well, comment on why you like it. If you have trouble understanding or following the writer’s ideas, comment on what you think may be causing problems. The chart here provides several examples of ways to frame effective marginal comments.

Compliments Constructive Criticism
  • I’d never thought of it that way. Really smart insight.
  • Here I expected _______ instead of _______.
  • Your strongest evidence is _______
  • I think you need more evidence to support your claim that _______.
  • You got my attention here by _______.
  • You might consider adding _______.
  • This example is great because _______.
  • What about _______? There are other perspectives on this topic.
  • I like the way you use _______ to tie all these ideas together.
  • I think you need to say this sooner.
  • I like this sentence because _______.
  • I had to read this sentence twice to get what you mean. Simplify it.
  • I think this approach and your tone are perfect for the audience because _______.
  • Your tone shifts here. Try to sound more _______.

A letter to the writer

Begin by addressing the writer by name (Dear Javier). Using your outline, identify the main points of the draft, and write your suggestions in the letter. You might use sentences like I didn’t understand ________. Could you explain it differently? I think ________ is your strongest point, and I recommend you move ________. This portion of the letter will help the writer make the most significant changes to the argument and supporting evidence.

After you have added all your mark-ups to the draft, conclude your letter by adding two or three brief paragraphs addressing the following points:

Read over your comments once more, checking your tone and clarity. Close by signing your name. Save your response, and send it to the writer using the method recommended by your instructor.

Basing responses on the stage of the draft

You may be asked to review your peers’ work at any stage of the writing—after the first draft, during an intermediate stage, or when the paper is close to a final draft. Different stages in the writing process call for different strategies and areas of focus on the part of the peer reviewer.

Early-stage drafts

Writers of early-stage drafts need direction and options, not editing that focuses on grammar or punctuation. Your goal as a peer reviewer of an early draft is to help the writer think of ways to expand on the ideas. Pose questions and offer examples that will help the writer think of new ways to approach the topic. Try to help the writer imagine what the final draft might be like.

Approach commenting on and marking up an early draft with three types of questions in mind:

Intermediate-stage drafts

Writers of intermediate-stage drafts need to know where their claims lack sufficient evidence, what ideas confuse readers, and how their approach misses its target audience. They also need to know which parts of their drafts are clear and well written.

Approach commenting on and marking up an intermediate draft with these types of questions in mind:

Late-stage drafts

Writers of late-stage drafts need help with first and last impressions, sentence construction, word choice, tone, and format. Their next step is proofreading (4l), and your job as a peer reviewer is to call attention to the sorts of problems writers need to solve before submitting their final work. Your comments and markings should identify the overall strengths of the draft as well as one or two weaknesses that the writer can reasonably improve in a short amount of time.

Reviews of Emily Lesk’s draft

On the following pages are the first paragraphs of Emily Lesk’s draft, as reviewed by two students, Beatrice Kim and Nastassia Lopez. Beatrice and Nastassia reviewed the draft separately and combined their comments on the draft they returned to Emily. As this review shows, Nastassia and Bea agreed on some of the major problems—and good points—in Emily’s draft. Their comments on the draft, however, revealed some different responses. You, too, will find that different readers do not always agree on what is effective or ineffective. In addition, you may find that you simply do not agree with their advice. In examining responses to your writing, you can often proceed efficiently by looking first for areas of agreement (everyone was confused by this sentence—I’d better revise it) or strong disagreement (one person said my conclusion was “perfect,” and someone else said it “didn’t conclude”—better look carefully at that paragraph again).


The following is the text of an email message that Emily’s two peer-review partners wrote to her, giving her some overall comments to accompany those they had written in the margins of her draft.

Hi Emily:

We’re attaching your draft with our comments. Good luck on revising!

First, we think this is a great draft. You got us interested right away with the story about your T-shirt and we just wanted to keep on reading. So the introduction seems really good. But the introduction goes on for a while—several paragraphs, we think, and we were beginning to wonder what your point was and when you were going to get to it. And when you get to your thesis, could you make it a little more specific or say a little more about what it means that Coca-Cola is an icon that shapes identity? This last idea wasn’t clear to us.

Your stance, though, is very clear, and we liked that you talked about how you were pulled into the whole Coke thing even though you don’t particularly like the soda. Sometimes we got bogged down in a ton of details, though, and felt like maybe you were telling us too much.

We were impressed with some of the words you use—we had to look up what “potable” meant! But sometimes we weren’t sure a word was the very best one—we marked some of these words on your draft for you.

See you in class.

Nastassia and Bea

P.S. Could you add a picture of your T-shirt? It would be cool to see what it looks like.

Emily also got advice from her instructor, who suggested that Emily do a careful outline of this draft to check for how one point led to another and to see if the draft stayed on track.

Based on her own review of her work as well as all of the responses she received, Emily decided to (1) make her thesis more explicit, (2) delete some extraneous information and examples, (3) integrate at least one visual into her text, and (4) work especially hard on the tone and length of her introduction and on word choice.

For Multilingual Writers: Understanding peer reviews

For Multilingual Writers: Reviewing a draft

For Multilingual Writers: Asking an experienced writer to review your draft