Wednesday, June 26, 2013

The Power of Peer Reviewing Your Writing

Gordon Stamper, Jr.
As I begin each college composition course, I teach my students the need for peer reviewing.  They are hesitant to listen because they 1) had the partners who said or wrote "nice" or "it was great" for their in-depth writing analyses; 2) experienced the student critic who thought personally attacking the writer would earn brownie points with the instructor (it doesn't); or 3) had peer reviewers who would bleed comments or corrections on the written page, whether they were solicited or not.
Students are even wary after they see my "foolproof" peer review forms, which force their partners to answer questions and comment on a separate sheet, in a constructive and detailed manner.  But those who dive into the process see the value both for others and themselves as writers, and this value continues outside the classroom in the professional writing world.
Peer reviewing allows a writer to play the roles of critical reader and editor.  She can ascertain what parts of a piece’s wording and organization are cohesive, flowing, or disjointed.  She can see where a writer is or is not doing service to his topic with sufficient development and details for his reading audience.  Also, when prompted by her partner, a peer reviewer can help with later-stage proofreading issues.
Another natural byproduct is the two-pronged personal benefit for the writer.  One relates to human nature, in that when she sees what works or doesn’t work in someone else’s writing, she learns more about her own craft.  The other is when she receives a critique, she gets insight into her work that she normally wouldn’t have, perhaps having a blind spot or closeness to her own writing that the peer reviewer doesn’t have.  Yet this latter benefit is also the one that many beginning or intermediate-level writers are not willing to receive, often becoming defensive or not listening when receiving even the most constructive criticism.
Learning to receive criticism is a valuable part of the peer reviewing process.  As writers gain more experience exchanging comments on their own and others’ texts, they learn about what writing suggestions to keep or ignore.  Also, the wisdom is gained that even the best readers can have bad days and share off-base advice.
However, where does one go to get input after leaving the controlled classroom setting and entering the professional world?  As writers, we don’t outgrow the need for an educated set of eyes to read our drafts.  The shoddy peer reviews of the past should not dissuade writers from receiving valuable commentary.  All the previous points I made about peer editing still apply.  I tell my students that even the most experienced business professionals, lawyers, or writers need colleagues or editors to read their work.
Some have the good fortune of editorial staff and agent commentary, while others find a writer’s group or trusted set of readers.  Outside my classroom experiences, I have had the fortune to attend formal and informal writers’ workshops, and Northwest Indiana writing groups such as the late great Writers’ Expressions and the alive-and-kicking Highland Writers Group.  All have enriched my writing knowledge base.  They have allowed me to be a much more constructive and empathetic editor, and an improved writer who responds to the needs of my reading audience.
Please find a writer’s group or trusted set of colleagues to give a second look at your work.  The support and knowledge given can be invaluable for any level of writer.
Gordon Stamper, Jr. is an adjunct faculty member of Ivy Tech Gary, limited-term lecturer at Purdue University North Central, a published writer, and moderator of Highland Writers’ Group, which meets in Griffith (Grindhouse Café) and Valparaiso (Blackbird Café) on alternating Saturdays.
Editor's Note: You can find a list of Northwest Indiana writers' groups on Indiana Writers' Consortium's website at

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