In Stephen King’s On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft, he famously suggests that an important part of any writer’s toolkit is to create space between an initial draft and a later read. Some of his novel manuscripts would sit for months in a room before getting a fresh look. It takes time to achieve the right perspective.
Waiting that long isn’t practical for student writers, but it does suggest a certain mindset for thinking about early drafts. For the most part, powerful writing doesn’t emerge spontaneously from a writer’s mind in a fitful night of inspiration. Instead, experienced writer’s build critical distance into their writing process and view early drafts as something to be reworked.
This chapter offers suggestions to how to achieve such critical distance, as well as what it means to rework—or revise—a rough draft.
How to receive good feedback from other writers
This section on Peer Review has been adapted from Writing for Success, Chapter 8, CC-BY-NC-SA 4.0.
After working so closely with a piece of writing, writers often need to step back and ask for a more objective reader. What writers most need is feedback from readers who can respond only to the words on the page. When they are ready, writers show their drafts to someone they respect and who can give an honest response about its strengths and weaknesses.
You, too, can ask a peer to read your draft when it is ready. After evaluating the feedback and assessing what is most helpful, the reader’s feedback will help you when you revise your draft. This process is called peer review.
You can work with a partner in your class and identify specific ways to strengthen each other’s essays. Although you may be uncomfortable sharing your writing at first, remember that each writer is working toward the same goal: a final draft that fits the audience and the purpose. Maintaining a positive attitude when providing feedback will put you and your partner at ease. The box that follows provides a useful framework for the peer review session.
Using Feedback Objectively
The purpose of peer feedback is to receive constructive criticism of your essay. Your peer reviewer is your first real audience, and you have the opportunity to learn what confuses and delights a reader so that you can improve your work before sharing the final draft with a wider audience (or your intended audience).
It may not be necessary to incorporate every recommendation your peer reviewer makes. However, if you start to observe a pattern in the responses you receive from peer reviewers, you might want to take that feedback into consideration in future assignments. For example, if you read consistent comments about a need for more research, then you may want to consider including more research in future assignments.
Using Feedback from Multiple Sources
You might get feedback from more than one reader as you share different stages of your revised draft. In this situation, you may receive feedback from readers who do not understand the assignment or who lack your involvement with and enthusiasm for it.
You need to evaluate the responses you receive according to two important criteria:
- Determine if the feedback supports the purpose of the assignment.
- Determine if the suggested revisions are appropriate to the audience.
Then, using these standards, accept or reject revision feedback.
How to leave good feedback for other writers
by Joel Gladd
When other writers ask us to give feedback, it’s tempting to mimic what so many English instructors have done to our essays: go through the rough draft with a red pen in hand (literal or figurative), marking grammatical errors, and crossing out words and sentences. Peer review, in this manner, feels like flogging. The more criticisms we can offer, the better we feel about our comments.
As the author of the draft being reviewed, how does that kind of feedback feel? Were you motivated to excel? Did you feel empowered to move forward and hone your expertise as a burgeoning writer? Some might, but most feel the opposite. An entirely critical (in the negative sense) approach to peer review might make the reviewer feel good about themselves, but it only demotivates the author.
Leaving feedback that is constructive, on target, and empowering is a life skill. It’s not only something you’ll do in writing courses. Nearly all professional jobs require employees and administrators to review one another, usually on a fairly consistent basis. Here are some tips for practice helpful feedback.
Start by noticing
Eli Review offers a high-quality platform for doing peer reviews, and part of its framework is inspired by Bill Hart-Davison’s strategy of Describe – Evalute – Suggest, summarized by this short video:
The Hart-Davison heuristic works in part because it encourages peer reviewers to begin by noticing what the writer is doing (or attempting to do). This first step aims to be as neutral as possible. Language that notices might sound something like:
Overall, I see that you’re arguing ___________. Your essay opens by ___________.You then ___________. Finally, the last few paragraphs of the essay ___________.
Feedback that notices accurately “says back” to the writer what’s happening in the draft. This saying-back allows them to see how their draft is being received, in comparison with what they thought they were doing.
When evaluating, share criteria
The second move in Hart-Davison’s heuristic is to evaluate a draft by clearly sharing the criteria the peer reviewer is using. In a course, these criteria might be the course outcomes, or the more specific outcomes pertaining to that Unit. Perhaps an assignment expects a student to practice certain persuasive strategies; or, instead, an essay prompt might ask students to analyze something according to certain key concepts. The peer reviewer should read and offer feedback with those particular outcomes in mind. But there are also broader composition strategies that apply to nearly all writing situations. Writing for unity, coherence, cohesion, and style are important goals for all forms of writing. The second half of this chapter offers tips for tackling those areas.
Language that evaluates might sound something like this:
When reading your draft for coherence and cohesion, I notice a few areas that feel unclear to me as a reader. On page 2, for example, ___________.
When making suggestions, remain constructive and ask questions
The final move in the Hart-Davison heuristic is to “make suggestions for success.” This is where a reader can begin to offer more targeted comments on what steps the writer can make to improve their draft. Even here, however, it’s important to think about how your feedback will be received. Tone matters. Notice the difference between the following two suggestions:
You make a lot of grammatical mistakes on page 3. Fix them.
I think I understand the main idea of your third paragraph, but it took me awhile to figure it out. Can you add a sentence or two earlier in the paragraph to make it more obvious?
The first example above sounds harsher. It’s also a little vague. As a writer, if I’m told I made a lot of grammatical mistakes, I’ll probably feel like I’m failing the English language more generally (that’s how it comes across). The second example avoids generalizing the identity of the writer because it’s highly targeted. The second example also has a more constructive tone because it frames the suggestion as a question rather than a demand (can you _______? vs. do __________!).
When completing your peer reviews, you don’t have to follow each stage of the Hart-Davison heuristic. Sometimes it might feel more appropriate to jump right to the Evaluation stage, for example. But your peer feedback should usually:
- accurately “say back” to the writer what their draft is doing,
- evaluate according to clearly defined criteria,
- offer constructive and empowering feedback.
Peer feedback that does those three things, in one way or another, will result in better drafts and help you become a more effective collaborator in whatever environment you’re in.
The remainder of this chapter will offer revision strategies that both writers and peer reviewers should use to read an early draft critically.
Revising and Editing: Five Steps for Academic Writing
by Liza Long
Have your ever been told to “revise” your paper or to “edit” a peer’s paper? What do these words mean? Just as writing is a process, effective revising and editing also involves several steps. If you focus on one step at a time and take a break between steps, you’ll be able to make sure that your paper includes all of the required elements in the right order and that your academic style is confident and competent.
Step One: Revise for Unity
When we talk about unity in academic writing, we mean that all of the parts of the paper are unified with the thesis statement. When you revise for unity, you’re making sure that you have a clear thesis statement and that every part of the paper clearly supports the thesis statement in some way. Here are some questions to ask yourself as you revise for unity:
- Does the paper meet the requirements of the assignment?
- Do all parts of the essay support the thesis statement?
- Does each paragraph have a clear topic sentence that relates to the thesis statement?
- Do all of the sentences in each paragraph relate to the topic sentence?
- Are your paragraphs too short? An effective paragraph has a clear topic sentence, 3-4 supporting sentences with specific, concrete details, and a concluding sentence.
- Are your paragraphs too long? If you see a “monster” paragraph (a page in length or more), you may want to make sure that the paragraph has unity. Even though you may have written about a single topic, when your paragraph is too long, you have probably shifted your ideas about the topic. It’s okay to write two (or more) paragraphs about a single point.
Step Two: Revise for Adequate Support
In this step of the revision process, you’ll want to look at the ideas and sources (if required) that you use to support your thesis statement.
Here are some questions to ask yourself:
- Does the paper use sources and/or relevant personal experiences to support the thesis? In some types of essays such as narrative essays, you’ll rely on your relevant personal experiences. In other types of essays such as exploratory research, you’ll rely more on sources. Argument essays often include a mix of sources and relevant personal experiences.
- Are the sources/experiences used relevant to the thesis? Make sure that the examples you use clearly support your thesis statement. For example, if you are writing a paper about apples and you have an example that involves oranges as support, you may need to find a better source.
- Are direct quotes used? In papers where source use is required, a good rule of thumb is to make sure that direct quotes are no more than 10% of your overall paper. If your paper is 1000 words long, no more than 100 words should be directly quoted. If you directly quote, you must cite your source. Here is an example of a direct quote: “To be or not to be: That is the question” (Hamlet 3.1).
- Does the paper paraphrase sources to support the thesis? When your teacher asks you to use sources, you will likely need to paraphrase, or put quotes into your own words. Even when you paraphrase, you should still cite your source. Here is a paraphrase of the direct quote above: Hamlet wonders whether existence has a point (Hamlet 3.1).
- Is there enough support? The answer to this question will depend on the assignment requirements. One way to make sure that your paper has enough support is to make sure that you have met the word or page count requirements for the assignment. If your paper is too short, you may want to consider adding more information from one of your sources or even finding another source. You could also consider adding relevant personal experience, depending on the assignment requirements.
- Are your quotes and paraphrases all integrated into your paper? One of my students once coined the phrase “dead-dropped” for a quote that was dropped into a paper without context. You should check all of your direct quotes to make sure that you have introduced them appropriately. For example, you can use the phrase “According to X” to introduce a direct quote (where X is the author’s name).
Step Three: Revise for Coherence and Cohesion (Flow)
Once you’ve determined that your paper has unity and that you included adequate support, you’ll need to check the coherence or “flow” of your essay. When we talk about coherence in writing, we mean that the ideas flow logically and are connected and organized. One easy way to check this is to read your paper out loud. Do you find yourself stopping and starting, or wondering how one paragraph connects to the next? You may need to include transitions and other cues to help the reader follow your good ideas. Here are some questions to ask yourself as you revise for coherence:
- Do you have an effective introduction and conclusion? An introduction gives you a chance to “hook” the reader, while a conclusion circles back to the introduction and explains “so what?” to the reader. Framing your essay in this way will help your reader to understand your ideas and your point. Because the introduction is so important, I often write the introduction to my essays last, after I have set out all of my ideas and explained why they matter in a conclusion.
- Does the paper flow logically? There are several ways that you can organize your ideas. Time or chronological order makes sense for narratives or for essays where historical context matters. Order of importance may work well for argument, where you can start with either your strongest or your weakest point (inductive or deductive reasoning).
- Do you use transitions to connect your ideas? Transitional expressions are critical to your essay’s flow.
- Does the paper “make sense”? This is one place that a peer review can really help you. Sometimes my ideas make perfect sense to me–but another reader may struggle to understand how I reach a conclusion or organize my argument. Pay attention to your readers’ comments here.
- Are the paragraphs in the right order, or do you need to move things around to make them more clear? One of my own writing challenges is making sure that my paragraphs are in the right order. Sometimes we get the idea that our paragraphs or even our sentences are “fixed” once we put them on paper, but nothing could be further from the truth! Think of your essay draft as a sandbox. You need ideas to work with, but you may need to shape those ideas differently once you have them on paper. One trick that I use myself is to print my papers out, cut them up into paragraphs, and try moving paragraphs around to see what flows best.
Step Four: Revise for Style
Once you’ve written an effective introduction, organized your paragraphs, and connected your ideas with transitional expressions, it’s time to focus on academic style. One common misconception is that academic style involves big fancy words and passive construction. Here is an example of what some students think of when we talk about academic style:
In the present instance, it must be construed that rhetorical constructs are most efficacious when these constructs elucidate the matter at hand.
And here is the same sentence written in plain English:
As we can see, rhetorical constructs are most effective when they clarify the point we are trying to make.
Remember that the goal of writing, first and foremost, is to communicate. It’s okay to use a fancy word once in a while (my own personal favorite is the verb ameliorate, which means “to make things better”). But in general, it’s best to eschew obfuscation (avoid unnecessarily difficult terms) when writing for an academic audience.
Here are a few things to look for as you revise for academic style:
- Academic (formal) tone—no “you” or “one” because these pronouns are broad and vague (but “I/we” are fine)
- Appropriate language
- Clichés and colloquial language
- Sentence variety (simple, compound, complex)
- Author voice
- Active vs. passive construction
I wrote the paper. YES!
The paper was written by me. NO!
Note: use a grammar checker as you revise for academic style. For example, the blue squiggly lines in Word’s grammar checker may indicate style problems.
Step Five: Edit for Mechanics/Format
All of us make minor grammar and spelling errors from time to time. And academic format can be tough at first, especially if your teacher requires a citation style that you aren’t used to. For example, I teach APA style in my rhetoric and composition classes because this is the citation and format style that most students will use in their majors. Here’s a quick checklist of things to look for in this final step of the revising and editing process:
- Spelling (pay close attention to words that are often confused, such as “affect/effect”).
- Punctuation (pay special attention to commas).
- Paragraph formatting–tab indent and remove spaces before or after paragraphs.
- Citation format. The OWL at Purdue is a good resource for both MLA and APA style.
- Essay format–check your instructor’s requirements and ask for help if you aren’t sure about something.
As you can see, the editing and revising process is an important part of your overall writing process. By taking the time to focus on these five areas, you’ll ensure that your paper is polished and professional.