WHAT IT IS AND WHY WE DO IT
Peer editing is a method in which students comment on preliminary drafts of each other’s papers. It offers two major benefits:
1. Students in the peer edit group receive ample feedback on their drafts, which enables them to do a thoughtful, informed revision of their paper-in-progress before submitting a final draft to the instructor.
2. The individual editors get valuable editing practice which enables them to edit their own work better in the future. One of the best ways to improve as a writer--other than through practice, practice, practice!--is by consciously using the criteria of excellent writing to make judgments about what is good in a piece of writing and what is not and then applying those criteria to one's own work. Thus students in writing classes that employ peer editing regularly praise the practice highly, sometimes reporting it to be a class's most useful aspect.
Peer editing can take various forms. It can be as simple as a group of students sitting in a circle and taking turns at reading their papers aloud, with the listeners then providing oral feedback. Or it can involve each group member's taking the group's drafts home and providing extensive written commentary using an edit guide prepared by the instructor, commentary which is then discussed in a subsequent group meeting.
Initially, many students believe that they can't do peer editing. They may lack confidence in their writing ability and believe that they don't have the critical knowledge to give somebody else quality feedback. After all, we're not all English majors, right?
Right. But there are two distinctly different types of feedback, and only one may require English-major-type knowledge. The other does not, is valuable in its own right, and can provide the foundation for a solid, helpful peer response.
We call the first type criteria-based feedback. What this means is that this feedback calls the writer's attention to “the rules.” On one level “rules” can refer to the specific instructions an instructor has given for the assignment (e.g., “Provide concrete evidence for all generalizations made in the body of the paper”). On another level “rules” can refer to criteria that would indeed by found in a handbook or, presumably, an English major's head. Punctuation, spelling, sentence structure: these, too, are the subjects of criterion-based feedback. "Right" and "wrong" often apply with criteria-based feedback.
The second type, however, does not depend upon accurate knowledge of the rules and conventions of English prose. What it does depend on is accurate portrayal of the reader's response to the piece of writing, and with this response every reader can be the world's leading authority. We call this second type of feedback reader-based feedback. The term itself comes from writing expert Peter Elbow, who argues that what an author most needs from a reader are "movies of the mind." After all, Elbow points out, all authors are trying to produce specific effects on their audiences through a given piece of writing. What better way to find out if the effort has been successful than to get reports on how the readers actually responded?
Reader-based feedback, then, provides a record of the reading experience. What were the high points and what the lows? Where did the narrative thread seem to get lost? Where did the reader feel particularly well oriented? Which points seemed unconvincing? Which word choices seemed particularly fine? Which instances of creativity should be particularly applauded? We are all active respondents when we read, but we're usually unaware of this activity. That is why peer-editing requires that we read a paper more than once, so that we are not simultaneously occupied with (a) processing what's being said, (b) being aware of our response, and (c) trying to compose this response for the writer.
Ideally, peer feedback combines criteria-based and reader-based feedback, with both types of responses being recorded in running commentary in the paper's margins and also in a final note to the author at the end. Different editors will balance the two types of response differently. Students who are insecure with criteria-based response at the outset can make it their goal to integrate more of "the rules" as the course progresses. Continued editing and group discussion will make an attentive student more knowledgeable.
What follows is a sample edit guide. First, however, an observation, concerning the tone of peer response. As the comments at the end of the sample edit guide indicate, "Serious writers are more grateful for honest, constructive criticism than for empty compliments." It is worth remembering that a major goal of peer editing is to enable writers to make effective revising decisions. Praise alone will not help; when it appears unalloyed, it suggests that the editor has not invested the necessary effort, not thought deeply about the paper's effects and the way the prose could be improved.
Nevertheless, the tone of the editorial response should be positive. Don't merely point out what's wrong. Identify the things that the author has done well: this way the author will know what to continue to do. We need to find out about our strengths as well as our weaknesses.
So . . . be thorough, but with a loving spirit. The collective goal is that we all improve--and, as this happens, that we develop a positive attitude toward the activity in which we are engaged. Give encouragement as we learn together.