Peer review is perhaps the most important pedagogy offered in first-year writing. First practiced in creative writing courses and loosely modeled on the so-called “crits” used in Fine Arts studios, peer review has for the past forty years dominated writing classrooms as the best way to involve students in the most difficult work of the writing process: revision. Because we tend as writers to be prematurely satisfied with early iterations of our drafts, we need to discover our readers’s experiences as they attempt to process our discourses and take in our arguments. It has long been the formative assumption in teaching writing that revision is “where the action is.” It can be difficult for some students to reckon with, but no intellectual or academic writing worth its salt was produced at a single sitting. Instead, good writers return to their initial work, hopefully with fresh eyes that have been opened by critical readers who care about the writer’s success and offer their feedback in the spirit of improving and polishing the document under consideration.
But to those new to teaching writing, peer review can seem a mysterious and anxiety-producing event. What’s the instructor’s role exactly? How can we best guide students in their roles as reviewers? What exactly is this thing called “the writer’s workshop?” How will my students feel about having their work publicly critiqued? If we focus on revising a single draft, will the other writers in the group benefit from its critique?
The key to successful peer review is for you to guide your students quite explicitly. Model the kind of critique you want to take place. Make the discussion about a draft a friendly and honest affair. Let students feel the pull toward improvement and clarification as an effort to care for their readers. Reflect back to them why robust revision matters. Let smart revision be reflected in grading.
One of the best ways to think of any moment of revision is to bring to mind a three-part maxim, first developed by the pragmatist philosopher John Dewey. For him, we became more aware of the consequences of our actions if we thought of actions as deliberate choices made from a conscious array of alternatives. Applied to revision, Dewey’s maxim plays out like this:
2. Bring to mind two or three alternative replacements: i.e., a new key term, a more specific phrase, a replacement piece of evidence, a new arrangement of sentences, etc.
3. Envision how each choice would improve, reorient, or otherwise change the meaning, clarity, or other effect of the discourse, both at this particular juncture and for the argument as a whole. Since revision is the art of making prudent choices that have positive effects on the success of the argument, and maximize its persuasive potential, it is vital not to embrace one or another choice to quickly. The writer would do well to remember that a new choice in one part of the discourse may call forth a new place of interest to be revised in another part of the essay.
Read the paper through a first time in order to get a sense of its structure and the progress of its argument from start to finish. Then, in a sentence or two written at the top of the page, say what you feel the writer is trying to accomplish here. What, in other words, is his/her agenda? What is he/she attempting to show you or persuade you of exactly?
What seems missing from the paper so far? What deserves to be clarified or extended? Write the word “Add” in the left margin at these places in the paper, and briefly tell the writer what you have in mind to add.
What do you feel might profitably be cut from the paper? Does something seem unnecessarily repetitious or superfluous? Write “Cut” in the left margin near these places in the draft, and briefly explain your logic for suggesting this deletion.
What do you suggest might be rephrased, reworked, or changed? Does a key word seem ill-suited to the argument? Would you change the order in which the evidence is presented? Write “Reworked” in the margin and suggest the alternative you have in mind.