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From the Writing Desk: What You Should Know About Peer Editing

Peer editing - also referred to as peer-reviewing - is often unavoidable in higher education. Across the different degrees and fields, you will most likely have to edit and/or review someone’s paper before the end of your college career. Back when I was taking freshman writing courses, professors would tell us, “You know how to peer edit! You learned it in high school!” Except, we didn’t. None of us knew what to do. The feedback people gave was vague at best and rude at worst. I grew frustrated with statements like, “I like this!” and “That was garbage.” After three years of discouraging peer review sessions, one professor finally explained how to peer edit properly. At that point, I was in my last term before earning an undergraduate English degree. What I learned about peer-reviewing in that final course felt too little too late. As a Master’s student and writing tutor, I’ve learned even more about effective methods of reviewing and editing the work of other writers. Here’s what I wish I’d been taught about peer editing:


Taking Criticism

The first step to giving constructive criticism is knowing that criticism can be difficult to take. Remember that the writer is a person, and while you may both be peer editing as an assignment for class, it’s still important to be kind and understand that words have an impact. Taking criticism - whether it is constructive or not - can be tough. No one wants to hear that something they worked hard on has issues. Whether you’re reading or writing feedback, keep in mind that the exercise of peer editing is beneficial for growing as a student and communicator.


What to Look For

When most people start peer editing, they often look for low-hanging fruit like typos and grammatical errors. While this can be helpful in the very final stages of writing, peer editing is more a revision process. As a reviewer, it’s your job to look for issues such as confusing points, a lack of a thesis (the main point), not enough context, and unclear conclusions. The big questions to ask yourself when reviewing is this:


Is what the writer is trying to say clear and well-supported?


A typo is most likely not going to change the meaning of the entire paper, but a confusing point will. Try to focus on the larger issues instead of the smaller ones. This not only helps the writer improve their own work, but it also helps you practice written analysis, which is a skill useful in many fields!


How to Comment

So, you’ve read the paper, and now it’s time to write comments. Remember to keep it constructive, positive, and inquisitive. One of the best ways to add feedback is to form it into questions. Questions show the writer that you have an interest in their topic, and these questions force them to think about what they’re trying to say and how to improve. Another important element to good feedback is removing the personal. My favorite way of doing this is to ask questions in terms of what the paper is doing and not the writer themselves. Let’s look at an example of a common comment and how we can make it more constructive and less aggressive.

                “You don’t have enough details.”

Here’s what you might consider saying instead:

                “Should this paper include more details to help give context for the reader?”

Not only does this revision focus on asking the writer a question about the paper itself, but it also gives a very brief explanation of why they should even care about the suggested edit. Giving context to readers is something most writers want to do!

The wording is also very important. When peer editing, remember that the goal is to improve your communication skills and while practicing analysis. The words you choose can have a major impact on how the writer receives the feedback. 


Here are some words to avoid in your comments:

wrong - This word is harsh, sometimes objective, and can be a huge demotivator for writers.

bad - same as above

incorrect - same as above

like - People often say “I like this!” when they don’t have any feedback. If you want to talk about liking something, try this: I like this because... or I thought this worked well because...

dislike - Unless there’s a reason given (I dislike this because...) don’t use this word! It's not usually helpful and tends to be a big demotivator for writers.

interesting - This word is often used as a filler when someone doesn’t know what to say.

boring - This word shows a lack of interest from the editor and demotivates a writer.


Now to flip that, here are some words that work fantastically in feedback:

context - A writer needs to know if they’ve included enough background to guide their reader.

because - Always give reasons for your feedback! This word makes it easy to include reasons.

explain(ed) - This shows the writer if they’re giving enough context.

structure(d) - This shows the writer if their content is formatted in a way that makes sense.

confusing - If something doesn’t make sense, this is a good word to use.

(un)clear - This gives the writer an understanding of how much their message is coming across.

concise - This is a good way to let a writer know if something is too long, too short, or just right.


Put It on Repeat

Oftentimes, peer editing isn’t just a one-and-done situation. Most likely, you’ll be asked to go through at least two rounds of review. This is to create a dialogue between editor and writer. On the second reading, look for not only sections you commented on earlier but also for finer details. When a writer is working on an edit, make sure to wait for them to finish and return it to you before starting a new edit! I know it’s nice to have projects done quickly, but the revision process can be slow. Remember to communicate with the writer to see when it’s okay to review something!


Concluding Remarks

Peer editing isn’t an easy task, but the more you practice, the better you’ll get. Just remember that everyone involved is a person with feelings and motivations, and communication is always key.


Annika G.R. Bunney is an interdisciplinary creator focusing on traditional writing, nature-based creations, and assorted textual pieces. She is a second-year in the Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing and Poetics at the University of Washington, Bothell. Her ever-evolving work draws on classic literature, folklore, and mass media. When not working on academics, she can be found taking care of her many cats and playing with her rescue dog. She also loves wandering in the outdoors, curling up with a good book, or playing video games.
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