Information Sheet #143

January 22, 2004

Peer Readers:  Fighting Premature Closure

During a Writing Center conference this fall, a student shared with me how much she disliked in-class peer reviews. As I listened to her mild rant, it was apparent that one reason why she found the exercises so distasteful is because of the stress on the evaluation of other students’ papers:  the students were asked to judge what they liked and did not like about their peers’ manuscripts.  I would never suggest such evaluations are not useful.  It’s probably inevitable that most of us, when encountering drafts of student writing, will evaluate--and thus grade--these compositions.  But I do suspect there are advantages in constructing peer reading assignments that place the focus on less judgmental concerns.

What follows is a compilation of in-class reading/revising/editing exercises that I used this fall in four classes.  None is a surefire winner, but they have all been successful enough--at least in my classes--to deserve further experimentation.  A core principle in many assignments is an effort to “defamiliarize” the text for the authors, so they can examine their old compositions in unfamiliar ways.  Most students quickly tire from writing, reading, revising, and editing a text.  Bereft of fresh ideas, they are earnestly seeking the shortest path for finishing the darn paper and move on to more pleasurable tasks.  The exercises listed below won't magically solve any major writing problems, but the assignments might keep students thinking--and thus keep the text unsettled a few more hours.  If we can help student writers keep the doors and windows open, there’s always a chance some fresh air will sneak into their thinking and something good will happen. 

The first two exercises are adapted from John Bean’s Engaging Ideas, a marvelous resource for helping WAC faculty integrate writing assignments into their courses.  In his list of “General Principles for Conducting Peer Reviews,” Bean states that faculty should “not expect students to give each other very good advice about sentence structure or style. . . . they are not good at seeing stylistic problems in other people’s drafts, and they tend to make impressionistic comments (‘This doesn’t flow. . .’  ‘This sounds funny. . .’).”  Although I agree with Bean’s conclusions, this list of proposed exercises does offer some options on editing and style.  While students have difficulties knowing how to eliminate stylistic infelicities, some progress can be made when we ask them to focus on specific textual attributes.  For example, if we ask students to read someone else’s text, they seldom focus on wordiness as a problem.  But ask them to eliminate 100 words from a manuscript--without eliminating any content--and they will consistently identify unnecessary words. 

One final comment:  it helps to use exercises potentially relevant to all student writers, regardless of expertise.  While some tasks may seem arbitrary and even trivial, they may have the advantage of putting everyone in the same boat, struggling with issues common to all writers.  It may also be the case that while students are looking at sentence length or unessential words, they will gain a new understanding of theses, development of ideas, etc.                                         

Two Small-Group, Text Revising Exercises

Exercise #1:  Collaborative, Response-Centered Review

1.  Divide the class into small groups, 3-4 students per group. 

2.  Students distribute to others in their small group copies of their papers or excerpts from longer compositions.

3.  The author reads the paper aloud to the group.  Group members mark their copies as the text is being read:

  Underlining words or passages they find particularly effective

  Placing wavy lines under words or passages they find problematic, inaccurate, vague, etc.

  Writing question marks in the margins next to passages that may need clarification, development, or explanation

4.  Each group member explains to the writer what passages were marked and why.  [My directions emphasize that group members do not tell the author what is right or wrong with the text--nor do they tell the author how to revise the text.  Group members are simply expressing their personal responses and questions to the draft as they listened to it being read.]

5.  Review sessions are usually arranged so the writer is silent, listening to the responses, taking notes (a requirement), but not entering into the discussion, neither defending nor apologizing nor explaining the intentions behind a passage.  At the end of the discussion, however, the writer can offer “final” thoughts on the discussion, identifying what proved most helpful or insightful.

Exercise #2:  Collaborative, Advice-Centered Review 

[As John Bean notes, this approach is more product-oriented than the previous exercise.  These reviews work best later in the term when students have had more experience working together and thinking about the instructor’s expectations for these assignments.]

1.  Students are separated into pairs; each pair gives their drafts to another pair of students. 

2.  The two students in each pair collaboratively compose a review of each draft, addressing such issues as the following [the list would change according to the specific assignment]:

  State the key question, problem, or issues that each draft addresses.  [These responses can be written on a separate sheet of paper, at the end of a student’s paper, or on a handout specifically designed for this review process.]

  Write out the author’s thesis statement, either copying a passage from the paper or putting into words a thesis that may only be implied but not explicitly stated.

  Identify 2-3 particularly effective, insightful, well-developed passages.  [Students put brackets around these passages and write brief marginal notes explaining why they admire these passages.]

  Place question marks in the margins next to 2-3 passages that are confusing, inaccurate, misleading, difficult to read, or contradictory of other passages.  [Marginal notes can explain the reasons for these reservations.]

  Place wavy lines in the margins next to 2-3 passages where the paper could use more support, illustrations, examples, evidence, graphic assistance, etc.

  Compose a short paragraph assessing the strengths of the writer’s ideas and insights in the paper. 

  Compose a second short paragraph discussing how the intended audience (the instructor?  anyone else?) will likely respond to the ideas and arguments in this draft.

  List 3-4 specific recommendations when preparing the next draft.  If there is sufficient class time, the partners can meet with the authors to discuss their reviews.

Because advice-centered reviews can easily absorb an entire class period, these may function best as out-of-class exercises.   One option is to have partners sign up for a session in the Writing Center so that the two readers are assisted by a neutral facilitator. The success of this partnership model is determined by how well the paired students collaborate with each other.  These collaborations can help students become more comfortable talking about writing and thus more accomplished revisers.

Seven Editing Exercises

For my classes this fall, I periodically created handouts that described several editing techniques, inviting students to choose which activity they wanted to do solo, with a partner, or in a small groups (usually a maximum of four students)--either in the classroom or the Writing Center.  All the exercises can be adapted for out-of-class revising/editing tasks.

Exercise #3:  Eliminating unnecessary repetitions. 

The repetition of words, images, and ideas is essential for good writing by emphasizing what is important in a paper.  But repetition can also harm a paper, stressing words that neither need nor deserve such an emphasis. These repetitions can make the writing sound flaccid, repetitive, and boring.  This exercise should help student writers think of repetition as a product of choice, not accident.

  Skim through your paper, looking only at the first two or three words of each sentence.  Do you find any sentences that begin with the same phrasing?   Practice rephrasing one or more sentences so these repetitions are eliminated.

  Read through your paper looking for repetitions of low-content words, such as very, really, this, that, I believe, I think, and I feel. Consider if the passages would be improved by their deletion or rewording.


Exercise #4:  Sentence length. 

Take a passage of 15-20 sentences.  Count the number of words in each sentence.  Locate passages with three or more consecutive sentences similar in length.  Break up the patterns, using such techniques as the following:

            • Divide a sentence into two shorter sentences. 

            • Combine two or three short sentences into a longer sentence.

• Delete unnecessary words or add new information to strengthen the paper’s content.

Exercise #5:  Use of effective short sentences. 

We often forget about the benefits of short sentences.  Rewrite the final two sentences of a paragraph in your paper so you have a sentence of 20 or more words followed by a short sentence of 5 or fewer words at the end of the paragraph.   Select two other passages where you can sharpen the focus on your content by the use of short, precise sentences mixed among longer sentences.

[In this and other exercises, students should compare original versions with the revisions, considering that not all revisions are improvements.  The original version may be superior to the revision.]

Exercise #6:  Cutting unnecessary words. 

Delete 100 words from a paper without cutting any content.  You may rephrase parts of sentences to help with the cutting, but concentrate primarily on the straightforward deletion of words.  [Comment:  this can be a remarkably productive exercise.  It never ceases to amaze me how much students’ writing can be improved simply by cutting words.  Even our least capable writers can practice this technique and often see that the new version is an improvement over the previous draft.]

Exercise #7: Looking at Word Choice.   

Trade papers with a partner.  Quickly read 1-2 pages, underlining words or phrases that catch your eye:  unfamiliar words, unexpected repetitions, words/phrases that you suspect deserve the author’s further attention.  You and your partner discuss each underlined word, including possible word substitutions that might help improve the paper.

Exercise #8: Focus on Sentence Structure. 

You and your partner read the paper aloud together, changing readers with each new paragraph.  Focus on sentence structure, using your eyes and ears to help locate awkward sentence structures, sentence fragments, comma splices, run-ons, unusually long sentences, etc.  If you have questions about identifying some of these sentence structure errors, please ask for assistance.  If you find problematic sentences, discuss options for revising and eliminating these difficulties.

Exercise #9: Reading a Paper Aloud.  

In short chunks of text (2-3 sentences at a time), your partner reads your paper aloud to you (or vice versa).  Each time the reader stops, discuss possible amendments, additions, deletions, etc. The partner never tells the writer what to do, but the peer reader can help locate problem spots that deserve attention. 

[This technique is fundamental to most editing conferences in the Writing Center, either the writer reading the paper aloud to the consultant or the writer listening to the paper as read by the consultant.  The key issue is helping students hear their own words, enabling the ear to assist in the revising and editing process.  The single most effective technique for helping students improve their own writing is getting them to hear their own texts.  For many students their ears are smarter than their eyes.]

                                                                                                                             ~Bob Marrs

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