Part 1: The Writing Process

5 Peer Review


Jim Beatty

Peer review is a daunting prospect for many students. It can be nerve-wracking to let other people see a draft that is far from perfect. It can also be uncomfortable to critique drafts written by people you hardly know. Peer review is essential for effective public writing, however. Professors often publish in “peer-reviewed” journals, which means their drafts are sent to several experts around the world. The professor/author must then address these people’s concerns before the journal will publish the article. This process is done because, overall, the best ideas come out of conversations with other people about your writing. You should always be supportive of your peers, but you should also not pull any punches regarding things you think could really hurt their grade or the efficacy of their paper.



The least helpful thing you can do when peer-reviewing is correct grammar and typos. While these issues are important, they are commonly the least important thing English professors consider when grading. Poor grammar usually only greatly impacts your grade if it gets in the way of clarity (if the professor cannot decode what you are trying to say) or your authority (it would affect how much readers would trust you as a writer). And, with a careful editing process, a writer can catch these errors on their own. If they are convinced they have a good thesis statement and they don’t, however, then you can help them by identifying that.

Your professor may give you specific things to evaluate during peer review. If so, those criteria are your clue to what your professor values in the paper. If your professor doesn’t give you things to evaluate, make sure to have the assignment sheet in front of you when peer-reviewing. If your professor provides a rubric or grading criteria, focus on those issues when giving advice to your peers. Again, don’t just look for things to “fix.” Pose questions to your classmate; let them know where they need to give you more to clarify and convince you.


Resist the powerful urge to get defensive over your writing. Try your best not to respond until your reviewer is finished giving and explaining their feedback. Keep in mind that your peers do not have all the information about your paper that you do. If they misunderstand something, take it as an opportunity to be clearer in your writing rather than simply blaming them for not getting it. Once you give a paper to another person, you cannot provide additional commentary or explanations. They can only evaluate what’s on the page.

Perhaps the biggest challenge in peer review is deciding what advice to use and what to ignore. When in doubt, always ask your professor. They know how they will grade, so they can give you a more definitive answer than anyone else. This holds true for the advice you get from a writing tutor too.


Don’t think of peer review as an isolated activity you do because it is required in class. Make friends in the class that can help you outside of it. Call on people outside the class whom you trust to give you feedback, including writing tutors. Integrate peer review into every step of your writing process, not just when you have a complete draft. Classmates, writing tutors, and your friends can be an invaluable resource as you brainstorm your ideas. Conversations with them can give you a safe, informal opportunity to work things out before you stare at a blank screen wondering what to write. A writing tutor can help you talk out your ideas and maybe produce an outline by the end of your appointment. A friend can offer another perspective or additional information of which you are initially unaware. Again, you can get the most direct advice by visiting your professor during office hours to go over ideas and drafts. Take advantage of all the formal and informal resources surrounding you at SLCC to help you succeed.


Far from being scary or annoying, peer review is one of the most powerful tools at your disposal in the life-long process of becoming a more effective public writer. No good writing exists in isolation. The best writing comes out of a communal effort.

Providing Good Feedback

by Jenn Kepka

chalkboard of happy customer restaurant feedback
Customer Comments chalkboard by Flickr user Lisa @Sierra Tierra CC-BY

Think about the most helpful feedback you’ve ever received from a teacher, a coach, a parent, or a friend. What did they tell you? How did they phrase it? Why did you believe what they were saying?

In general, we accept feedback best from people we trust because we believe they have our best interests at heart. In a college class where the faces around you change frequently, it’s hard to develop that level of trust. So in peer review, we have to create credibility — that’s trustworthiness — through a process of Restating, Praising, and Criticizing.


The first step in providing good peer feedback is to prove to your peer that you’ve actually read and tried to understand her writing. If you’ve ever been through peer review before, you know that receiving feedback where the reader has completely missed your point is discouraging; it’s also hard when someone else doesn’t seem to have paid much attention to what you’re saying.

To show a writer that we’re on her side, we can restate her main idea (also known as her thesis or topic sentence). This will show that we’ve read the piece and tried our best to understand what the writer wanted to say — not what we wanted to hear, but what she was trying to say.

To provide a good restatement of the piece, follow these steps:

  1. Read the piece at least twice.
    • On your first read, don’t pause to highlight or make notes or mark mistakes — just read to see what’s going on.
    • On the second read, start to mark places where you have questions, places that you particularly like, or places where you’re sure some fix is needed.
  2. After you’ve read the piece, get a separate piece of paper and, without looking, write down a sentence or two that sums up what you think is the author’s main point.
    • Try to complete this sentence: I thought your major point was _______________.
    • Sometimes, in an early draft, it can be hard to nail down a precise main point. In this case, try to put yourself in the writer’s shoes, and think, “What do I think they most want to say in this whole thing?” Then fill in this sentence: The point I think you want to make here is ___________, though you also spend time saying _____________ and/or _______________.

You may need to complete this process more than once just to feel secure that you understand what the piece is saying. That’s great! That means you really are working with the paper, and your peer will appreciate your efforts.

If you provide peer feedback in person, this is also a valuable place to start. Think how much nicer it would be to have someone say, “What I thought you were writing about was _________” rather than just having him jump in with criticism.


We tend to focus on what’s going wrong in a paper because, as writers and students, we want to know what to fix as we go through the revision process. However, most good feedback will include a section on what’s actually working in a paper, too. Positive feedback encourages a writer in a couple of ways:

  • It shows him/her that the reviewer isn’t just “out to get me.”
  • It can demonstrate some patterns or habits that are worth repeating. For example, if someone says, “I thought your transitions were well done,” you can be prepared to add more and use them more confidently in the next paper.
  • It builds credibility for the reviewer by providing feedback a reader is more likely to agree with before providing critical comments.

However, positive feedback is only useful if it’s specific. Think how nice it is to see “Good job!” written on top of a paper — and then think about how useless that comment is if you really want to fix the paper. What do I do when I get a “good work!” comment? I probably just turn the paper in without any more revision.

Good, positive feedback should give the writer somewhere to go. It should encourage by making clear points about what’s working, where, and why. So instead of saying, “I thought this was funny!”, a good comment might say, “The way you turn the words around in the second paragraph so it’s almost like a tongue-twister was funny, and the dialogue in the third paragraph made me laugh out loud.” The writer can look at these and go, a-ha! I’m funny. I should add more like those two.

To provide useful, positive feedback:

  1. Number the paragraphs (in a longer work) or sentences (in a one-paragraph or one-page work) in the piece you’re reading so you can refer to them easily.
  2. Provide two or three one-sentence comments that point out things the writer has done that were interesting, clever, funny, surprising, smart, or lovely.
    • Don’t just look for funny jokes or big words (although complimenting the vocabulary of a section is a good piece of feedback!). Also consider how the writer uses detail, whether the story is believable (and why or how), if the title is informative, if the overall question being answered is creative, if the answer the student gives to the question of the assignment is unexpected, if the organization is clear, and if the introduction and/or conclusion are particularly strong.
  3. Always keep your focus on the idea of helpful feedback. Letting someone know they’ve chosen a nice font isn’t helpful, but letting her know that you like the places she’s chosen to break up her paragraphs will be!



Some writers struggle with giving negative feedback at all; others want to dive right in and provide only criticism. A balance of these two instincts is necessary in order to give useful feedback.

Think, again, about helpful feedback you’ve received in the past; now, think of a time when you received criticism that wasn’t helpful. Generally, writers respond to bad, negative feedback in one of two ways: 1). “How DARE you insult my beloved work? I’m not listening to ANYTHING you have to say!” or 2). “You’re sooooo right, it’s terrible, it’s all trash, I’m throwing the whole thing away and starting over, or maybe I’ll just give up!”

The results are the same: no revision is completed. Since the entire point of getting peer feedback is to get good ideas to help you revise, bad feedback is bad for the process.

To give the best critical feedback, then, reviewers must remember that the writer should be able to act on whatever you say. That means no bland, vague statements. If someone writes, “I just didn’t like it,” on a paper, there’s not much I (the writer) can do with that, other than cry or plot revenge. If, instead, someone writes, “I didn’t like paragraph 2 because it felt like the voice changed completely from the rest of the story,” then I can act on that. I can look at paragraph 2 and make changes.

Here are a few tips for providing good, critical feedback:

  1. Be specific. State where problems are found by line number or paragraph number. Quote or re-write sentences that need to be edited and show the problems clearly.
  2. Ask questions. There’s a huge difference between saying “I got lost in paragraph 2” and “What did you mean by ____ in paragraph 2?” The second one gives the writer something to do — she can answer that question and fix the paragraph.
  3. Limit yourself to a reasonable number of critical comments. Aim for an equal ratio of negative to positive feedback.
    • This isn’t just an ego-saver! If a paper is in such an early draft that you can only find 2 positive things to say, the author probably doesn’t need a pile of criticism yet.
  4. Be aware of the goals the writer had for the piece. Make sure you aren’t trying to get him/her to say something you like instead of letting him/her say what s/he likes.
  5. Don’t critique spelling, grammar, or punctuation unless you are an expert.
    • Colleges provide resources to help with mechanical errors, so don’t pretend to be an expert in commas if you aren’t one. It’s easier to get someone else more confused than it is to be really helpful.
    • Also, remember the writer may still need to rewrite and to do a final edit, so picking out every single spelling mistake might not be the best use of your time (unless the writer asks you to).

Finally, as a general rule of thumb, don’t write anything you wouldn’t say to the writer face-to-face. Always sign your name to anything you write on, as well, so that the writer can follow up if she has questions.


Celia Brinkerhoff

Your assignment may require that you include information from “peer-reviewed” articles. These articles are published in scholarly or academic journals after they’ve gone through a lengthy editorial process which usually involves the author making many revisions before final acceptance is made. The reviewers themselves are experts in the same field, and judge the strength of the article on the originality of the research, the methods used, and the validity of findings. The highest standard of peer review is “double-blind,” meaning that both the identity of the authors as well as the reviewers are kept anonymous in order to ensure that bias and subjectivity do not influence the process.

But be careful: Not all of the content in an academic journal is subject to peer review. There may be other content such as letters, opinion pieces, and book reviews that have been edited but not necessarily gone through a formal peer-review process.

ACTIVITY: Watch, listen, and learn

The following video describes the process of peer review.

ACTIVITY: Summarize the peer review process

But how can you, the researcher, recognize a peer-reviewed article?

Fortunately, the library’s Summon search and most of our databases have a filter or limit which will help you find the right type of information. Various databases will use different terms: look for “academic” or “scholarly” or “peer-reviewed.”

There are other clues you can look for.

Tip: Clues to help you decide if it’s peer-reviewed


Author’s credentials and affiliations Look for the author’s degrees, as well as the university or research institution they are affiliated with.
References Any peer-reviewed article will have a lengthy list of sources used by the author.
Submission guidelines Somewhere on the journal’s homepage will be a link for submitting an article for review. You may have to dig around a little!
Journal publisher Is the journal published by a scholarly society? a university press?


Activity: Summing up Module 2

Pick the correct statement.



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