Peer Critique Assignment for Professional Writing

[Students often feel that they have little to say in peer critiques. In response, I have developed a fairly extensive set of instructions to give them. My hope, which I found to be largely true, is that if they follow my recipe then they will have too much to say. They can then select what is most important. Please feel free to use this in any way that you like. I would love to hear about it, too, so if you do find this page useful drop me a line [jamesraywatkins at] or leave a comment below.]

As I have said, one of the most important differences between writing in a professional setting and writing in college is that professionals always collaborate. This may be in formal collaborations, as when a team of writers produce a text together, or it may be more informal, as when a colleague asks another for help in editing. Collaboration is, of course, a two-way street and you must learn to both take advantage of your peer’s insights and  produce critically helpful advice. In order to give you practice in this important skill each of the papers you will write for this class requires that you collaborate with one of your classmates by reading their text and then writing a 300-600 word peer critique. (I will assign you a writer/collaborator when the time comes.)

The goal here is to produce a useful, succinct commentary that will help your partner improve their writing and clarify their ideas. To that end, I have provided a step by step description of how to produce a Peer Critique. I recommend that you treat this process as a kind of recipe, completing at least a rough draft of each stage before you move on to the next. Once you have completed all of them, you can then go back and polish up organization, grammar and the like. Remember, one of the keys to helpful criticism is clear, concise communication: do not assume that what you see or read is obvious! Explain; offer examples! And finally, note that time management is an important skill in collaboration — if you don’t manage your time well, you won’t produce a critique in a timely fashion, and so you won’t be able to be an effective collaborator.

Step One: Summarize the Assignment

Begin by going back to the original assignment — it’s on the web site, of course — and write a short summary of what you believe to be its main purposes and goals. It’s very important that you learn to articulate what you believe to be the main point of any assignment (and it may not be obvious what the professor is asking you to do). Also, you cannot really evaluate how well your classmate has met the goals of the assignment until you state clearly for them what you feel those goals were.

Step Two: Summarize Your Peer’s Text

Next write a short summary of your peer’s text. This step must be kept separate (as best you can) from step one if you are going to be able to accurately evaluate your collaborator’s work. One mistake that students often make in peer critiques is jumping too quickly into evaluation, before they try to paraphrase what they see as the main ideas and themes of the text they are critiquing. The task here is not to say if the text is good or bad but to describe it as best as you can. Once you have summarized the assignment, and your peer’s text, then you can move on to an evaluation.

Step Three: Compare Your Peer’s Text to the Assignment

After you have completed Steps One and Two, write a summary of how well your peer’s text meets the main purposes and goals of the assignment. That is, compare what you found in Step One (the assignment) to what you found in Step Two (your peer’s text). Keep in mind the importance of a professional tone here; you must do more than simply praise your partner’s work, and your advice must be offered in the spirit of collegial cooperation. This is the best way to produce an overall, general evaluation of your peer’s work. In order to be really helpful, however, you need to offer them some advice on how to improve their work in specific ways. This is the purpose of Steps Four and Five.

Step Four: Textual Editing

Review each sentence of your peer’s text to see if it is grammatically accurate, direct, succinct, and so on. Write down any sentence that you feel does not meet these criteria; rewrite at least three sentences to illustrate your ideas. For each original/revised sentence pair, provide an explanation for the revision. Remember, you must practice what you preach! The point here is to not just tell them what you believe are their problems, but to show them both the sentences that you feel need work and the kinds of revisions that you feel could best achieve the goals of the assignment.

Step Five: Structural Editing (Thesis and Transitions)

If relevant, identify the thesis statement and write it down. Identify any transition sentences. Note these as well. Analyze each according to the criteria that we have discussed in class (you may have noted these sentences in Step Four). Offer revisions of any that you feel could use work (if there are too many to use all of them, pick what you feel are the most important). As in Step Four, the point here is not so much to talk about whatever problems you see but to show your writer specific sentences that you feel need work, as well as revisions that in your opinion would help them clarify their ideas, strengthen their writing, and so meet the goals of the assignment.

Step Six: Put it All Together

Now you must decide how you will organize the material you developed in Steps One through Five. Consider carefully your audience, and what you feel are the most important issues. What do you want to emphasize? How can you help them understand the things that you feel are important, without being insulting or rude? Do you want to include only negative comments, that is, things that can be fixed, or should you also note some things that were done well?  (Remember that praise is nice, but it is also not that helpful!)

Finally, in order to succeed at this assignment — both in terms of your grade and in terms of being helpful to your writer — you must include concrete, specific examples drawn from the text you are critiquing. Do not just say that their essay is wordy; quote the sentence that you are referring to (or one that can serve as a good example) and then show your writer how you would go about revising it.