The following instructions would be appropriate for a standard expository paper.
You should spend 30 to 45 minutes on each paper. The goal is to provide honest feedback, thus helping the writer to improve the paper in a subsequent draft. The feedback can take two forms:
(1) Criteria-based, which helps the writer find out how s/he’s doing with respect to the objective criteria used to judge expository writing. If you see, for example, that a paragraph has a coherence problem, indicate it and suggest an improvement--perhaps the addition of a transitional word or phrase between sentences. Also be on the alert for errors in spelling, grammar, and form.
(2) Reader-based, which provides raw data about the effect the writing is having on you ("good opening paragraph--really grabs me!", "this paragraph is boring me," "terrific point … maybe a little more proof," "you begin to lose me here," "what vivid detail!")
In general, consider your function to be less that of editor or proofreader and more that of intelligent, sensitive reader. Here are some suggestions that may help you:
1. Read the paper through at least twice--the first time to get an overview, the second time slowly and with pen in hand. During the second read, clarify your general impressions (how you react or fail to react to the piece) and in the margins or the text itself, jot your reader-based and criteria-based responses.
Some questions to ask yourself:
2. As you read the second time, read with pen in hand and make comments and notations in the margins.
3. Write a fairly detailed note to the author of the paper.
You might begin by first explaining to the author what you think his or her main purpose or idea is.
If your interpretation is close to the author's intention, you've immediately established your credentials as a sensitive reader, and your criticism is likely to be considered attentively. If it turns out that you've gathered from the essay opinions, ideas, and/or purposes that the author feels are not what he or she set out to do, that sets the stage for a dialogue between you which aims at discovering where the writing or the reading, went astray.
Then make a general evaluation of the paper, considering the following areas:
Keep in mind that your role as editor is to champion the interests of the readers of the final draft to come. At the same time, you are also advocating for the writer, helping him or her to see where s/he stands with respect to the formal expectations of the writing situation.
Note: Knowing that their peer editing will subsequently be evaluated by the writers of the drafts sometimes tempts editors to be overly generous in their comments. Generally, however, students receiving the highest marks on their editing are usually the bluntest and most thorough critics. Serious writers are more grateful for honest, constructive criticism than for empty compliments, and they instinctively respect the reader who is committed to high standards.
At the same time . . . be lavish with your praise when it's deserved. Exercise some empathy (how would you respond to your criticism?) Be a friend.