Congratulations on deciding to form a graduate peer review group! Sharing in-process work with peers while in graduate school is important for many reasons, including:

  • Peer review can help us to figure out what in our writing is and is not making sense to our readers and to develop specific questions to ask our advisors about our writing and our discipline’s conventions. Graduate students are often asked to write in genres that are new to us and that we have not received any formal training in (e.g., literature reviews, conference papers, grant proposals, dissertations). What these genres look like also varies from discipline to discipline. Many professors, even if they offer feedback on our drafts, do not make those conventions explicit to us. Moreover, as Hedengren and Harrison (2018) emphasize, “advisors are important but not sufficient to fulfill all the needs graduate students seek from writing support networks” (p. 34). 
  • Peer review is an essential component of academic discourse and culture. Anytime you send an article to a journal to be published, it will need to be peer-reviewed by others in your field. By practicing peer review as graduate students, we become better scholars: learning to see ourselves as part of a larger conversation and figuring out the types of questions to ask one another in order to collaboratively contribute to that conversation. Mangelsdorf and Ruecker (2018) even claim that “peer review interactions …  can assist graduate students in the process of enculturation into academic discourse communities” (p. 25).
  • Peer review can help us battle imposter syndrome and the loneliness of academic work. Sharing the frustrations and questions that we encounter in our writing can help us to see that we are not alone; our peers share the same writing anxieties. We can empower one another to realize that we are capable readers, writers, researchers, and thinkers, to share tips, and to find and build resources together. 

First Steps

Before you read each other’s work, have a conversation about your writing processes, writing goals, and what type of feedback you are looking for. Mangelsdorf and Rucker (2018) emphasize the “importance of being open to language difference and seeing difference as a resource that can benefit all learners” (p. 25-6), recommending that graduate peer review groups begin by having conversations about each member’s disciplinary and linguistic backgrounds and differences. If time permits, you might consider having this conversation at a preliminary meeting before your group reads any drafts or meets to discuss feedback. 

You might ask each other:

  • What is your native language?
  • How did you learn academic English?
  • How did you learn the specific discourse of your field? How comfortable are you with it?
  • How long have you been training in this discipline? How did you come to it?
  • Are you and your peer reviewers in the same or similar fields? What are the similarities and differences in your research questions and methodologies?

Once you begin to share specific drafts, here are some important questions to discuss:

About writing goals:

  • What is this piece of writing for? When is it due?
  • Is this a familiar genre of writing for you? Why or why not? What do you know about what it is supposed to look like and what the purpose of the document is? Have you written anything similar before? If so, what did you learn from writing that?
  • Who will be the audience (e.g., a fellowship selection committee, your advisor, editors/reviewers at a journal, attendees at a particular conference)? What do you know about that audience: What discipline/subfield might they be a part of? What is their role in the field? How does your field of research relate and diverge from theirs? 

About writing processes:

  • What do you think that you are doing well?
  • What are you struggling with?
  • How much time do you realistically have to revise, and how many more drafts are you planning to need to write?

About feedback:

  • What would you like your peer reviewer(s) to focus their comments on? Are you still at the stage of developing the content and analysis? Are you interested in the organization and structure of the draft? (These are “higher order” concerns.) Or, are you at the point where you need help with making sense at the sentence level, with a focus on cohesion and/or proofreading (“lower order” concerns)?
  • Are there any particular parts of the draft that you would like them to focus on?
  • Have you already received feedback from someone else? What advice did they give you? Have you integrated it, and if so, how? Do you want to get these readers’ responses to that previous feedback?

A logistical question: In order to give each other’s writing the attention that it deserves, you may want to schedule time to read and comment on drafts asynchronously before an in-person meeting where you discuss your feedback and brainstorm revisions. But if you are doing this, you will want to have this initial goal setting conversation beforehand—or you may decide to write each other a “cover memo” to send along with the draft describing the above goals. If you decide instead to both read and workshop your drafts in person, this conversation can happen at the beginning of the meeting before you begin reading.

How to Read a Peer’s Draft

It’s a good idea to read or skim through the draft in its entirety before starting to make comments on it. This way you can get a sense of the writing and the document, and you can assess what kinds of comments to prioritize giving.

Here are a few ways of reading and questions to consider as you give feedback:

  • Be a general reader:
    • Where do you get confused or find that something does not make sense to you? Why do you think there is a barrier to your understanding there? Is there information that you need that is either not there or that feels out of order?
    • What are you understanding? It can be helpful to describe/summarize to the writer what you are taking away as the main argument/narrative, so that they can compare that to what they think they are trying to say.
  • Imagine that you are the document’s intended audience: 
    • What will the ultimate intended audience be expecting from this piece of writing? 
    • Does the draft include everything that that audience will be looking for? What is it missing? Is there material in the draft that this audience does not need to be told?
    • Is the tone or writing style appropriate to that audience?
  • Pay attention to the genre:
    • What do you know about the conventions of this genre? What do you not know about it, especially if you are in a different field or have never written in this genre?
    • Does anything stick out to you as possibly out of place or unusual for this genre?
  • Offer praise: What is the draft doing successfully? What should the writer continue to do that they are already doing well?

Most importantly, make sure that you are addressing your peer’s questions and concerns. What kind of feedback is the writer actually asking you for? You don’t need to address all of the above questions in a single workshop—some may be more or less appropriate depending on the stage of the draft, the deadline, and the writer’s priorities and concerns.

Making Revision Plans

Finally, you can work with each other to brainstorm plans for revision. Carter and Kumar (2017) call this type of response to writing “feedforward,” or “advice that does not pass critique on what has been submitted, but directs the author forward to the next level of development” (p. 69).

Here are some possible next steps to consider:

  • What are you going to revise first? Does it involve writing a new section, cutting something out, or reorganizing what you have?
  • What part of the draft are you happy with? What ideas/paragraphs/sections/structures are you keeping?
  • Have you formulated questions for your advisor, either about the purpose and conventions of the genre in general, or about the content of your specific research?
  • Is there anyone else you would like to consult during your writing process?
  • What is your timeline for revision and for going to your next set of readers?

The more that you work with the same peer reviewer(s), the better you will get to know one another as writers and understand each other’s feedback needs. Use this resource as a guide to structure your conversations and feedback, but always make sure to ask each other for the help that you need—whether or not it appears as a suggestion here. 

Works cited:

Carter, S. & and Kumar V. (2017). ‘Ignoring me is part of learning’: Supervisory feedback on doctoral writing. Innovations in Education and Teaching International54(1), 68-75.

Hedengren, M. & and Harrison H. V. (2018). Academics alone together: Liberal arts graduate students’ writing networks. The Journal of Teaching and Learning12(1), 21-37.

Mangelsdorf, K. & Ruecker T. (2018). Peer reviews and graduate writers: Engagements with language and disciplinary differences while responding to writing. Journal of Response to Writing, 4(1), 4-33.