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Some tips for workshopping papers

As a reader of someone's paper:

Approach every peer review session as if you were a reader encountering the work for the first time. A reader with a new perspective is often just what the writer needs most.

If you become confused as a reader, you need to tell the writer about it. Reader responses are a good clue to places in a paper where the writer can profitably concentrate attention during revising.

Concentrate on big issues first. Talk about the overall meaning of the essay, its focus, organization, and support before you get into issues of spelling and punctuation. If problems with large issues lead to major revision, the problem sentences may go away by themselves.

Don't simply say something sounds wrong. Explain the problem you have as a reader. Often, the most helpful response begins with, "Here I thought you meant X, but I discovered here that you meant Y." Also, try to think of ways to help the writer revise.

Avoid the "I don't want to hurt the writer's feeling" syndrome. Remember, if you say a piece of writing is good when it isn't or clear when it confuses you, you will hurt the writer's feelings even more when he or she is surprised by a low grade on the essay. You can be honest without being cruel.

How can I critique without being cruel? First, explain how you understood the paper and compare that with the writer's explanation or apparent goal. Next, ask questions wherever possible: "I'm not sure if you mean X or Y at this point. Could you clarify this?" "You seem to be saying X here. How does this fit in with your claim or thesis? Make that connection clearer." Finally, give specific advice about potential problems: "Look again at the sample essay in our book. Why not try that approach for an introduction?" "Do you think you've given enough evidence here? Look again at how X develops her argument in the essay we read last week."

What if I think the essay is great? No essay is perfect (ask any professional writer). Even as you read strong essays, you should still be able to offer some advice to strengthen the piece still more. Point out where you think the essay is strong: writers learn by recognizing their strengths. But also point out where revision could still help. If all the large issues are strong, then you can always turn your attention to style and minor editing.

As the writer getting feedback:

Try not to get defensive. We all get attached to our writing, and we tend to take comments about our writing personally. But fight this temptation as much as you can. Listen quietly or force yourself to read all the comments before you decide that the reader has been thick-headed or picky. If you have time, read the comments through completely and then put them away for a day (or at least a couple of hours) before you try re-reading your paper from your reader's perspective.

Indicate where you need help. Writers often know just where they've had trouble with a piece of writing, or they where the writing doesn't yet say what they want it to. If you point out these places to your reader, you may be better able to get the most helpful kinds of feedback about a piece in progress.

Don't necessarily assume the reader is right about a problem. On a question of style or emphasis, your first instincts may be better than your reader's. Get another opinion. Often two readers will give contradictory advice about a particular point. It's your writing, after all, so you need to decide what and how to revise. And don't revise something unless you honestly agree that it needs changing.