Peer review: a play in three acts

Curtains open to reveal student working on an essay

Prologue

The curtain opens on a scene familiar to most students; you’re writing a paper. It’s 2am and the coffee ran out hours ago. You’re just finishing your first draft when you sit back, look at your work, and realize you have no idea if what you wrote makes sense. Will your TA understand what you are trying to say? You are too tired to think clearly anymore so you decide to go to bed and deal with it in the morning. As you drift off to sleep, your essay sits, and waits, and festers.

You wake up in the morning hoping to find greatness and instead find
garbage.

Captain Holt saying "Everything is garbage"

Image source: Giphy

What were you thinking? You sit down with another cup of coffee and get to work trying to clean things up. After reading it through once you ask yourself the same question you asked before; I understand, but will my TA? You’ve been looking at the same page for far too long. You wish you could replace your eyes with new ones so you could look at your writing with a fresh perspective.

Enter, your roommate. They just wrote that midterm they have been stressing about for weeks and are feeling great.

You remember someone once telling you about the process of peer review and you realize you should probably ask your roommate to take a look, Caveman spongebobbut you feel nervous about showing anyone your writing. You stayed up half the night working on it, and even though it’s terrible you still feel a primal urge to keep it safe and hidden.
Image source: Teepublic

Act I: Why take the risk?

Scene I: Giving your writing to someone else allows you to get feedback from someone who hasn’t spent all night looking at it. You can get an idea of what the reader is seeing. If they can articulate back to you the same message that you were trying to convey, then you’re likely on the right track. If they can’t, or if what they are understanding is different from what you intended, then that’s a good clue that you need to change something. The reviewer can also help identify whether the ideas make sense in the order they are in.

Scene II: Having someone else read your writing and ask questions about it helps you identify what is missing. Have you defined the terms you will be using the first time they are introduced, or is your essay full of unexplained jargon? Your reviewer may have questions about the content, which means you likely need to provide more context if your paper is meant for an unspecialized audience. They could also have questions about why you put your arguments in a specific order or how you came to the conclusion that you did, which provides feedback about the way your paper is organized.

Scene III: Every person writes in a different style and so everyone will have different feedback. Using peer review lets you practice new skills and learn about different writing styles that you potentially wouldn’t experience if you just worked on your own.

After remembering these three reasons, you decide that you want to ask your roommate for help after all. You interrupt their happy dance in the kitchen to ask if they have time to sit down with you and they hesitate.

“What’s in it for me?” they ask, never one to mask their feelings. “I just finished a big midterm and I need to relax.”

Act II: What’s in it for me?

Scene I: By reviewing other people’s work, you become a better writer. When you look through a piece of writing thoroughly and diligently, you can understand which aspects of the paper are working and which are less effective. Use these observations to learn from other people’s writing. Pay attention to the style; you might pick up some good habits and identify some bad ones to avoid.

Scene II: Reviewing someone else’s work takes careful thought. The first part of peer reviewing is reading the work. The second part is articulating feedback for the writer to use to improve their paper. You want to be able to tell the writer not only what you as a reader are getting from the paper, but more importantly why you are getting that impression. To do that, you need to be able to identify which part of the sentence, paragraph, or argument is at the root of the problem and articulate it clearly. This process takes critical thinking skills and forces the reviewer to examine the writing at a deeper level which sets them up well for future assignments. Receiving vague feedback is not helpful for the writer and likewise, giving vague feedback does not help the reviewer either.

Roommate sashayingSuccess! Your roommate decides to help you! While you print out a fresh copy of your paper, they finish their last set of celebratory sashays across the room. At last you sit down at the table with pencils in hand and you both stop. How does peer review actually work? What do you do? You have options for what to work on and so everything feels overwhelming. Luckily, you remember something your old TA said: “start big, work smaller”. Overall, you want your reviewer to look for concerns within the highest category on the following list before moving on to the next one.
Image source: Giphy

Act III: Level up!

Scene I: Content. What is your essay about? Do the arguments and supporting evidence work? Do you have enough analysis?

Scene II: Structure. This step is also a progression of large-scale issues to smaller ones within the complete process. The best way to do this is to look at overall organization, flow within paragraphs, and then transitions between points.

Scene III: Style. How formal does this essay need to be? Are you allowed to write in first person? Does your choice of words fit the context and clearly explain what you are trying to say?

Scene IV: Mechanics. This is what most people think of when they think of editing but it’s actually the last thing to work on in the revision process. This stage includes your spelling, punctuation, and formatting.

You feel okay about the content but worry that your TA will not be able to follow your argument, so you ask your roommate to look for structure and organization. You have a printed copy, so you ask them to write notes in the margins while they read and then you can look at the overall shape of your essay together. It turns out you are right about what needs work. You have all the content you need and you explain it well, but the order reflects the disorganized state of panic you were in last night; context isn’t very helpful at the end of the paper. Luckily, your roommate catches that issue and prompts you to move the context closer to the beginning, allowing it to prepare the reader for the wonderful arguments you make to support your main point. Your conclusion still needs a little work, but you just need to add the “so what”. You’ve summed everything up, but you forgot to say why the argument was important. When it comes to writing, isn’t the significance what it’s all about?

Epilogue

Plot twistSo what’s my main point in writing this post? You didn’t realize this was your question until the end (dun, dun, dun), and now your question is the plot twist in your own story!
Image source: Giphy

Peer review is an important part of the writing process and can be helpful to everyone involved. It gives you, the writer, the chance to see what other people see, and adjust as necessary. Peer review is like your dress rehearsal and your reviewer is your test audience. You wouldn’t want to perform a play without a practice run, and it’s the same with writing. So before the curtain closes on your show, give someone the chance to help you achieve your standing ovation.

Break a leg!

The end

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