Peer Reviews

In every English class I’ve ever taken, we’ve been required to do peer reviews. In most of my classes, nobody actually wanted to read through three different people’s essays and offer suggestions for improvement, mostly because they were afraid of offending or honestly didn’t know how to improve the writing. I’ve been to countless classes where we did peer reviews that resulted in comments like, “Your essay was so good, I might just consider a title change!” with no new suggested title, or thoughts on where I might go with it.

These types of reviews were always a disappointment and made me feel like I was wasting my time. My English professor freshman year, though, had a different take on things. She said that peer review wasn’t necessarily so that you could improve your paper based on what your peers suggested, but so that you could look at others’ writing and find where their strengths and weaknesses were and apply your own thoughts to your own paper. Many times, she said, she never even looked at comments made by her peers when she was in graduate school, but applied her own critiques to her work.

Either way, I always feel like I fail at reviewing other people’s work. I can offer so many comments of “I like what you did here, that was very clever,” and “That title is so catchy.” What I’m bad at is pointing out room for improvement. I don’t think I’m afraid of offending someone; it just seems to me that every suggestion I make would be a total style call, and mine would be different from the author’s. This way, I don’t benefit from reading my peers’ work, and they don’t get much out of it either.

So far, this gateway course has provided much more insightful reviews, since everyone in the class wants to write. I always get such great feedback from all of my classmates, but I almost never know what to say when it’s my turn to reciprocate. I think I’m too easy to please when it comes to writing, as I’ve always enjoyed reading things. I’m great at sentence-level editing and correcting grammar, but these things are trivial when it comes to reviewing the roughest of drafts.

I guess I need some help on my reviewing skills. I know I’m supposed to ask the big questions: what was the main argument? Was the essay/poem/story effective at getting the point across? Does the tone sound appropriate? These questions should serve as a guide, but it always seems to be the same thing: “Yeah, I totally got the argument, and I love that you used this form to make it. I wasn’t really confused at this part, I think that you’re being too hard on yourself with your comments.”

I think that part of this is because I’m afraid of offending, but mostly it’s because I think everyone is so much better of a writer than I am. I almost don’t feel qualified to comment on their writing because I’m not even close to their level. This is harsh criticism of myself, and I know it’s probably not warranted. But I guess it’s true that we are our own toughest critics, and I’m continually working to grow out of it.

5 thoughts to “Peer Reviews”

  1. Peer reviews have always been one of my least favorite in class activities, for many of the same reasons that you have listed. Part of it was never wanting to offend anyone, a lot of it was not wanting anyone to read my writing, and in the end, it always ended up feeling like a waste of time, especially when it seemed like no one wanted to have anything to do with it either. I always thought that I would be better suited if I just read over it all on my own, as opposed to someone else, but just like you mentioned, it’s nice to be able to see what strengths and weaknesses others have and try to apply or remove that from your own writing. A lot of the time, I never even gave these peer review sessions a chance, I think for the exact same reasons you mention not liking them.

  2. First off, I’ve obviously read your writing and your harsh criticism was definitely not warranted…but I understand where it was coming from, not because you’re in any way a bad writer, but because I feel the same way about my own writing. I feel like to some extent this can factor in to peer reviewing on the level of not wanting to offend someone. I’m always thinking that if I don’t see anything wrong with someone else’s paper, maybe they won’t find any major flaws in mine.

    I definitely experienced similar feelings of dislike and unimportance when it came to peer review sessions in the past. Those were unquestionably the dreaded days of the first-year-writing requirement. This gateway course is the only other class I have had to peer review in since then (and high school), and it’s so interesting how different and helpful these sessions are in comparison to just over a year ago. And ironically, despite my constant hoping for someone to not find major flaws in my work, I’ve yet to receive any comments that offend me. All of the criticism has been extremely helpful to my structuring and content of a piece. I guess we just need to learn how to give feedback that’s more of the “this is an awesome idea, but might work better in another location” nature, instead of the “your paper sucks” variety.

  3. If I could, I would just copy and paste Amy’s first paragraph and include it in my comment because I feel the exact same way. It’s funny how that dynamic works, like if we are nice in our feedback, then our peer reviewers should be too. Realistically it doesn’t happen that way though. Freshman year I got verbally attacked by peer reviewers who, quite honestly couldn’t string a sentence together, even though I’d been very nice and lenient. Needless to say, the sessions weren’t beneficial at all.

    I guess what I am trying to say is that there is a difference between being offensive and being helpful. Those kids in my English 125 class attacked me because I gave them honest feedback to try to help them improve. This class has been different though. I think we all respect each other as writers (because wait, that’s our minor), and so the comments we receive show us trying to just help each other. Just remember that writing is not a competition, we are all different, and we all need some constructive feedback.

  4. I really enjoyed this post. It’s funny how during peer reviews, other people say that the paper is really good. It makes me wonder if that’s the default answer. I think I am afraid of offending people sometimes. It’s weird because peer reviews are done with people who you don’t know at all, so you don’t want to come off as “harsh.” I know most people don’t take it personally, but some don’t take criticism well.

    In my first year writing, the GSI said not to talk when your paper was being critiqued. When it was my turn, I was just silent and just nodded and people thought I was offended, but I wasn’t. So I would say that people have this mindset of not wanting to offend people.

    I also thought your first year writing professor’s approach to peer review is very unique! But I see what she’s getting at. Reading other people’s works can lead to inspiration and direct you along the right path.

  5. I’ve only recently started appreciating peer reviews. Like you said, in high school, none of the comments were helpful or even well thought out. Here however, people like to write. Even though styles are different, I try to apply a more general set of guidelines when I edit someone else’s paper. I think that, even if it is disparate from the particular author’s style, they appreciate the help of someone with a little distance from the writing.

    Maybe what we need to start doing is anonymous peer review. We could take the names off the pieces and submit them to a google doc – that way, no one need be afraid of their comments being judged too harsh.

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