Monday, February 6, 2012

By a Jury of Your Peers

We talk a lot about valuable aspects of writing, the most important (aside from actual writing, of course) being revision, polishing up that rough stone so it glimmers like a diamond. Or something. Bad simile aside, you have to know where to polish the stone. Speaking literally, that's pretty easy--anywhere there's a blemish on the stone it's clear where you need to polish.

Writing is not quite that easy, however. When we first write, we go through the process of proofreading. We go through it once, maybe twice, maybe three times if you're hardcore, but we're sometimes not sure if we've caught everything. The truth is that we likely haven't caught everything. At that point we could use another set of eyes.

Peer review is a way instructors will implement this idea of bringing a fresh pair of eyes to an essay. Another person's going to be coming in with a "clean palette" in a way. They haven't tasted your essay yet, so they'll be able to tell you where your flavor wins and where it loses. Best of all, this is usually before your instructor gets to see it, which means you don't have to worry about him or her going Gordon Ramsay on you about it.

Say we're in class and you hand over your paper to me. You see that glint in my eye--you think that maybe, just maybe, I'm going to tear your paper apart, both figuratively and literally. I might look at it, say it's the worst thing ever written and tell you to quit college and just start working a menial job for the rest of your natural life. Then I might start chomping away at your paper because I didn't have breakfast or lunch yet and it's about two o'clock in the afternoon.

But I won't. Instead this is what I--and what others should do when peer reviewing--will do:
  1. Offer constructive feedback - Doing what I could've done earlier (curse the reader's name then eat his/her paper) does not fall under this category. What you want to do is give them feedback that is going to help them. This does not necessarily mean be solely critical; you should also point out strengths of their paper. Every paper has a strength.
  2. Be respectful - There's that old adage, "If you have nothing nice to say, don't say it at all." Obviously, you can't give every paper you read a glowing review, unless of course every paper you read deserves it. It's important to remember that, yes, people have feelings and, no, you shouldn't hurt them.
  3. Be receptive - When being reviewed, it's not only polite but important to listen to all of your peer's critiques, even if most of them might seem undue or the product of poor reading. Your peer will no doubt at least have some comment that will help you out, especially if it's noticing a pattern of error or a poorly worded phrase. You never know, a comment of theirs might end up being a diamond in the rough (ugh, enough with the diamond imagery).
There are many other rules that one should consider when peer reviewing, but these, I feel, are perhaps the most important and helpful. If nothing else, they'll keep a peer review sessions from turning into a cage match.

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