How to Write a
Peer Critique

Want to Level Up your paper? Not only can performing a peer-review earn you bonus points for some class projects, but it will also improve your paper! This page contains a bunch of guidelines and tips for doing a great job on a peer-review.

Peer-reviewing is a vital part of every professional writer's life. It's tough to see flaws in our own work, because we know what we meant to say! Getting an outside perspective is hugely useful. Building up a few colleagues you trust to share peer reviews makes you both better writers! Start acting like a professional now, and your results will start looking professional much sooner! (You'll also see better scores on your school papers, and your outside-of-school writing is much more likely to see publication.)

What is peer-reviewing?

  • Working cooperatively to create the best project.
  • Helping your partner from the first inklings of an idea through the completed document (developmental editing).
  • Sharing knowledge (content editing). This includes making suggestions about content, including language, graphics, organization, and so on.
  • Helping refine the document.
  • Editing, line-by-line, to help improve the micro-writing.
  • Learning about the subject matter - here the peer-reviewer can benefit, too!
  • Sharing understanding of audience:
    • Do you have special knowledge about the audience? Let the original author know!
    • What can you learn about the audience from performing a peer-review?

My Expectations

If you're reading this because you intend to perform a peer-review and critique in one of my classes (either as an assignment or to earn Level Up bonus points), I need to see your work.

Turn in the following items, under the appropriate Blackboard assignment (such as "Mid-Term Peer Review"):

  • Your partner's paper, showing your markups, which you gave back to your partner after reviewing it. This is probably a .doc file, with Track Changes turned on to show your markups and comments.
  • Your critique document, which you also gave to your partner. This is also best as a simple .doc file.

If you're reading this so you can better self-edit your own work, super! But consider finding a peer-review partner. We all need help improving our work.

If you're reading this just because you want to become a better peer-reviewer, you're full of awesome. The universe appreciates people like you.

Getting Started with a Critique

Before you start writing comments, make sure you understand what the author was trying to do. Follow these steps:

  • Read the document specification or call or whatever prompted the project.
  • Perform a quick read-through to get an idea of what the author was trying to do, the "Platonic ideal" of the document:
    • What is the author trying to teach, share, or say?
    • If it's not apparent in the work itself, that suggests something the author might need to address.
    • If it's a bunch of things that aren't really focused, that's something else.
    • What gets in the way of the work's perfection?
    • What does it need to attain its optimal state?
    • What are the strengths of the materials?
    • What issues or problems do you see?
    • What other questions arise for you as a reader, or by putting yourself in the audience's point of view?

While composing your overall thoughts, address Goethe's recommendations for critics by framing these questions:

  • What did the author intend to do?
  • How well did she or he do it?
  • Last and least important: Was it a good thing to do?

Keeping these things in mind will help guide your recommendations. Don't think about what you would do with this project; think about what the author was trying to do, then help him or her achieve that as best you can. 

Writing the Critique Document

Some tools and techniques to have on hand while performing a peer-review:

Getting started:

  • Perform a "Save As..." with your partner's draft right away by adding your name.
    • For example, if I get a document named Kirk-Trek.doc, I rename it Kirk-Trek-McKitterick-edit.doc for version-control, in case something goes wrong.
    • Creating a second version helps prevent the original author from saving over the original draft, just in case.
  • Turn on Track Changes in your text editor so the author can see your line-edits.
  • Read through your partner's draft before you even start critiquing. You'll be surprised how many things which you don't understand the first time through that become clear during the second read.
  • Once you've read it through, write out the essay's thesis statement (or come up with one if the author didn't make it clear).
  • Mark up the text as you go along - with Track Changes turned on. You'll return this document to the original author, in addition to your (separate) written critique.
    • Make copyedit, formatting, and other markups in the manuscript itself. This helps the author improve the micro-writing and professional appearance, two things vital to success.
    • Use annotations or comments for larger suggestions, questions, and so forth - substantive recommendations on how to best improve the document. Or save these larger comments for the critique document.

Next, write out a full outline of the essay's main points (skipping the introduction and conclusion). Now answer these questions:

  • What do you see as the main topic or topics?
    • That is, what do all the sentences and paragraphs have in common, subject-wise?
    • Is this the optimal structure to make this overall argument?
    • Are all the parts directly related to that overall topic?
    • Does everything support the overall theme or thesis?
  • What do you see as the main thesis?
    • Do all the paragraphs compare, contrast, and come together to form the argument?
    • Does this agree with the author's stated thesis?
    • In what ways might the draft need to change so that its thesis and structure accurately reflect each other?
  • Where is more evidence needed?
  • Where are more interpretations or discussion needed?
  • Where do more connections or explicit contrasts need to be made between points?
  • Does the paper open in an appealing, purposeful way?
  • How else might it begin, to better capture and direct the reader's attention?
  • Does the paper draw a thought-provoking conclusion that puts its argument in a larger context?
  • What else might the conclusion explore?

To write a useful critique:

  • Start with a positive comment. Even if the draft is weak, begin with a positive statement: "You've obviously put a lot of work into this, Joanne. Thanks." Or, "This is a really good start. Thanks, Joanne."
  • Discuss the larger issues first.
  • Begin with the organization and development of the draft, the use of logic and evidence, and the design and use of supporting materials or graphics.
  • Next, focus on paragraph development, and then on sentence-level matters and word choice.
  • Leave editing and proofreading as markups in the draft.
  • Talk about the writing, not the writer:
    • RUDE
      You don't explain clearly why this statement is relevant.
    • BETTER
      I'm having trouble understanding how this concept relates to the topic.

Exercise diplomacy!

Suggested Outline for Your Critique Document

Never performed a serious peer-review before? Here's a great outline for writing a truly useful critique:

  • Paragraph 1:
    • Detail what works well in the item you're critiquing.
    • Avoid using the language "I liked": articulate how or why something pleases you and thus "works" for the essay.
    • Make use of the language and specialized vocabulary from our readings and discussions about science fiction.
    • Be as specific as possible.
    • Examples:
      • The essay opens immediately inside the argument.
      • Organization is strong.
      • I easily followed the logical progression of your argument as I read through the topic sentences.
      • Best is the topic sentence in paragraph 8, which has the tricky role of transitioning us into your counter-argument.
  • Paragraph 2:
    • Paraphrase the essay's argument as you believe the author intended.
    • This is your shortest paragraph - do not provide a detailed summary or critique of the idea (you can do that elsewhere when critiquing how well the author supported her ideas with quotations and other citations).
    • Example:
      • You argue that, while some critics see The Arabian Nights as a misogynistic text (the "They Say"), Shahrazad's wit and ability to save herself require us to rethink our perceptions of the role of women (the "I Say").
  • Paragraph 3:
    • Consider the quality of the argument. Again, avoid the language of likes and dislikes.
    • Does the author provide enough solid evidence to support the paper's claims, using quotations and other citations from the texts at hand or secondary texts (about the subject matter)?
    • Consider whether a reasonable reader could argue with the author, whether there is evidence to support the claims, whether the argument is oversimplified, and so forth.
    • Examples:
      • Instead of a larger argument, you've written a list of points which simply delineate the way J.J. Abrams' films betray the themes of the original Star Trek series.
      • Claiming that Kirk is not a hero by using a moralistic argument does not work, because values aren't fair game for making a logical argument.
  • Paragraph 4:
    • Detail what didn't work in the essay beyond the argument.
    • Avoid discussing spelling or grammar issues unless they truly inhibited your comprehension of the essay. Use markups within the draft document, itself, for this.
    • Begin with the most serious problems first.
    • Example:
      • Organizing the paper by moving from one source to the next source prevents you from clearly comparing sources or fully stating your own thoughts.
  • Paragraph 5:
    • Make suggestions for the rewrite.
    • Prioritize the problems you identified.
    • Examples:
      • Find source evidence for every claim you make, especially in paragraph 6, where your argument is the most contentious.
      • Add a counter-argument in the penultimate paragraph.
      • The ratio of evidence to discussion is highly skewed toward evidence - expand the discussion of your own ideas.
      • The ratio of discussion to evidence is highly skewed toward discussion - provide more citations and examples throughout to support your arguments.
  • Paragraph 6:
    • End with your overall, concluding thoughts about the essay as a whole.

Finally, a checklist of things to look for in a great document. Does it meet all these measures?

  • Interesting
  • Novel or unique
  • Relevant
  • Could have a social impact on the reader or the field
  • Well-argued with sufficient evidence
  • Concise
  • Comprehensive
  • Clear
  • Consistent
  • Well-organized
  • Understands the audience
  • Appears professional
  • Grammatically correct
  • Demonstrates understanding of the essay form
  • Demonstrates mastery of the writing tools

If the draft doesn't meet all these measures, describe why not and suggest how the author can improve it. If it meets each measure, go ahead and point that out - it's just as useful to hear what we did right as to hear what went wrong, so we can repeat that success!

If you follow these guidelines, you'll not only earn full points (or Level Up bonus points) by writing great critiques, you'll also provide a valuable service to your peer-review partners by helping them revise their drafts into better, more-professional finished projects! And you'll become a better writer, yourself. Win-win!

Last updated 7/8/2021