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16.10 Techniques for Writing: Giving and Receiving Peer Responses

Reading and responding to someone else's writing makes you a better critic of your own compositions. Getting someone else's response to your writing helps you to see what works and what needs to be changed in your paragraphs. A peer response is a set of comments by somebody who is in a position like yours. Student writers can offer each other observations and explanations that are different from the comments of teachers.

Most published writing has been through many readers' responses. An author shows drafts to family, friends, colleagues, and editors, and gathers responses from them all as the revision process moves forward. Responses take many different forms. Throughout this chapter, some exercises have asked you to trade papers with a partner and respond to each other's work. These have been casual forms of peer response.

If you want to respond more systematically to a peer's writing, start with these six steps:

  1. Read the paper carefully, ignoring mistakes in grammar and usage.
  2. Note how each part of the paper fits together, supporting the main points.
  3. Suggest new ways of handling the keys to the paper's structure.
  4. Explain to the author any observations you've made in the study above. At this stage, you can also explain corrections in grammar in usage.

When you have received a peer response to your writing, take these two steps:

  1. Accept and reject responses carefully.
  2. Review your paper and decide what to change.

Exercise A: With a partner, trade your paragraphs on a leisure time activity, and follow the six steps that are explained in more detail below.

  1. Read the paragraph and decide on its main point. At the bottom of the page, write the ideal topic sentence for the paragraph in your own words. If your partner has already written a good topic sentence, don't be shy; write a new one expressing the same idea in a new way.

  2. Note the structure of the paragraph. In the margins, mark lines that offer examples, explanations, specific details, reasons, or any other kind of support that you can identify. Write the identifying words in the margins next to the lines they label.

  3. Suggest two new titles for the paper, and a new conclusion. Use your own words. Write these next to the author's title and conclusion. Put stars next to places where an example might help, and insert useful transitional expressions.

  4. Explain anything you've discovered in this process: places where you had trouble figuring out the structure, problems you had figuring out the main idea, things that impressed you about the paper, suggestions for other examples, etc. Talk about these; don't write.

    1. Start by explaining what you liked best about the paper (you can find something even in the most muddled paper) and then go on to suggest what you would do to improve it (don't say "Nothing. It's just perfect." Every paper can be improved.) Both of these are important; cover them fully before you go on to step b.

    2. Explain the most distracting grammar and usage problems. Don't make the corrections yourself. Let the author make the corrections based on your explanations.

  5. Get your paper back from your partner and decide which responses to accept and which to reject. Some responses may make you feel that your partner hasn't read carefully enough, and that may be true. But look carefully at spots that caused misunderstandings; you may see some other way of clarifying the point even if it's not what your partner suggested.

  6. Review your paper with the eyes of a responder. Stand back and look at it the way you looked at your partner's paper. Make your own observations about its structure and clarity. Make whatever grammar and usage corrections you need. Revise your topic and concluding sentences, your transitional expressions, your title. Reassert your own authorship over this paragraph.

When you are responding to an essay, a peer response may take more than half an hour. Remember that every minute you spend concentrating on how to clarify a friend's writing is an investment in understanding how to clarify your own.

Peer Response: before revising a draft
Read partner's paper and in your own words,
write one whole sentence restating:
  • Main point of first paragraph
  • Main point of next one
  • Main point of each of the rest of the paragraphs
  • Thesis (main point of the paper as a whole)
Note in the margins how the author supports
each main point. Some possibilities:
  • Gives background
  • Gives an example
  • Illustrates with details
  • Explains a reason
  • Tells a related story
  • Answers a challenge
  • Other (describe in your own words)
Suggest in writing on partner's paper:
  • Two new titles for the paper
  • One new concluding sentence
  • Places for examples and transitions
Explain in person to the author:
  • Why you had trouble with any of the above
  • What you liked best about the paper
  • What you would do to improve it
  • Any corrections to grammar or usage
Accept and reject responses to your own paper:
  • Respect misunderstandings
Review your own paper
  • Find new changes to make
  • Assert your authorship
check this out

Exercise B: Print out a student essay that grew out of a paragraph on a leisure time activity. (Click here for a once-page, printable document.) Follow the first four steps in the chart above to respond to the essay. You may want to work with a partner or a group.

Work especially on:

  • Potential topic sentences for the paragraphs
  • Thesis statement
  • Concluding paragraph
  • Title

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