By Susan Carter
Doctoral peer review of writing seems like wise practice to me. It widens the source of feedback: if students have any dissatisfaction with the way their supervisors review their writing, quite simply, they can supplement that elsewhere. The groups I run are generic, with people bringing writing from any discipline. Groups can be really productive within departments or faculties, or can be, like mine, centrally situated.
Setting up a group recently where there was some initial uncertainty about how to give helpful feedback to colleagues, I set out some criteria. Since no one could think of more to add, we set out with this as guidance:
Watch out for emotions. You will get the most from the session if you are open to critical feedback, but try to gauge how much advice works best for you as an individual. Then as a reviewer take care according to the sensitivity climate. Humans have a tendency to be critical rather than praising: we are trained as researchers to do this. Remember that in this case reviewers must talk about what works well as well as giving constructive feedback for improvement: begin with what works well and why before moving into what could be improved. Ending on a reaffirmation is often recommended too.
Being concrete and specific about what has worked well is important: group talk about exactly what we like gives pointers to improving writing. It has benefits beyond the emotional boost for the writer.
Writers can ask for specific areas to be given thought:
- Is the structure ok?
- Are you convinced by the X section?
- Is the Y section clear?
- Do I need to explain more about Z?
- Is this just too simplistic?
- Is this too obscure and hard to read?
- Do I sound authoritative in my use of theory?
- Could you watch for grammar or punctuation problems?
- Please suggest better words for any of my phrases.
As a reader follow the writer’s direction. You could also look for other stylistic qualities.
- Are there any times when the tone slips, for example, when language becomes too informal, or too stilted, or too obscure, or too naive?
- Are there any disjunctive colloquialisms? Any dead clichés? Or any words that you suspect may be problematic (e.g., ‘naturally’ if you are in a constructivist framework where nothing is assumed to be natural)?
- Is the tension right? Could the prose be tightened: is it too loose with many sentences yielding little of real value? Or is it too tight and dense to be understandable?
- Is the level of definition and explanation right? Are there any points when you need more explanation? Or are there places where there is too much spelt out so that this detracts from the flow of ideas?
- Are there repeats at word level or in sentence structure that would be better avoided?
- Are there any sentences that are too long and complex? If so, suggest a way of splitting giant mutant sentences into more than one.
- Are there times when emphasis seems inaccurate?
- Could you add any suggestions at times when ideas seem promising but not fully developed?
In peer review practice, I suggest that while staying aware of the emotional dimension reviewers should offer any suggestions that they believe would be helpful. Whenever a sentence is hard to follow, they should indicate this, and offer a way of clarifying it. It is so helpful when reviewers suggest how to restructure more logically, or find a more precise word, or ask questions that drive the author to see what is missing. The author has the option of rejecting suggestions, but will get something of value: a truthful view of their own work through another reader’s eyes.
That was where my criteria ended. As the group met for review over several sessions, we learned more about the mechanics of peer review.
This semester, several participants commented that it is really helpful getting feedback from someone who is not in their discipline.
A light came on for me when a reviewer said ‘I don’t know how to review this; the topic is so far out of my understanding,’ the biophysicist author helpfully suggested, ‘if you replace this big term with A and this one with B and this one with C, would it make sense to you?’ She’d articulated what I have found for years: if you ignore the content, and follow reading for logical progression, structure and grammar, you can give a great deal of useful feedback to writers without actually understanding the content fully.
In many ways this sort of feedback from someone who doesn’t understand is as important as feedback from insiders who do: the outsider reader is then reading the mechanics of language without being distracted by engagement with the content. Clarity is likely to result from a diligent unknowing reader. Another participant noticed that she really liked what she called experiential comment: times when someone said ‘at this point, I wondered why…’ or ‘here I am feeling that…’ and gave a real sense of the reader and their needs as they move through the writing.
The impetus generated by reviewing writing together is huge. One of the huge benefits of peer review is that it literalises the reader, someone who can slip out of focus if you are writing alone from a writerly perspective. In a writing group, the reader gives formative rather than summative feedback. It’s friendly. There’s sometimes laughter. Yet a lot is achieved too.
Several people in the group had significant breakthroughs with how to structure their work by talking through the difficulty they were having with sympathetic listeners hoping to help. In that group now, some of our time allows for problem talk and feedback. I suspect that in each case it wasn’t so much the feedback that caused the threshold crossing moment, but the act of explaining what was hard led the writer to solve their own problem.