How to Get Useful Peer Reviews

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You’ve taken the time to turn those notes and reflections into writing that might promote a worthwhile idea at work, help your clients, or fit at an upcoming conference. But you’re nervous about sharing it. Maybe you’ve spent so much time in your head that you don’t know if the piece will make sense to anyone else. Maybe you aren’t sure if you’ve covered all the bases and sidestepped any landmines in the office or industry politics. Or you’ve always struggled with grammar and spelling and don’t want to embarrass yourself.

You know you need a review you can trust, but you’re leery because of some bad experiences.

I’ve been there! Every writer has.

You want your friend to scan for typos, and she rips apart your whole argument.

You want your colleague to tell you if the piece strikes the right tone, and he nitpicks about the Oxford comma.

You want your spouse to tell you if you’ve made your point, and she tells you she thinks you should add more humor or suggests an entirely different topic.

Of course, there’s, “That’s great!” which is kind but not particularly helpful.

Every once in a while, you get a reaction that is truly bizarre. A writing group peer once told me that a nonfiction essay I was proud of was “too realistic and therefore dangerous because people might believe what you say without question.”

What do you do with something like that? And what gives?

Consider how you watch your favorite television show. You let yourself get involved in the story without thinking about all that went into it. You may notice a virtuoso performance from a favorite actor, but you don’t pay deliberate attention to the writing, the acting, the direction, the art direction, the sound effects, and the camera work.

Trained editors understand that writing, too, has a lot of moving parts. That’s why we tend to specialize. Some give guidance on overall structure. Others focus on the use of language. Still others dig into the logical flow of a manuscript, such as the order of paragraphs and passages or, in fiction, whether a subplot adds to or distracts from the momentum of the story.

Here are a few tips to get the kind of review you’re looking for:

1. Identify what you need. Hint: This usually corresponds with your stage in the writing process.

If you have a rough draft, you may need someone who can verify that you’ve chosen a meaningful scope and effectively addressed the intended audience. A later-stage manuscript might benefit from a reviewer who can tell you if the ideas flow and suggest strategic additions or deletions. Still later, you may need a line-by-line edit that ensures your style is consistent, you have defined your terms, and there are no major errors of fact that set off alarms.

Or maybe this baby really is ready for posting to your blog or submitting to a publication as soon as somebody proofreads it!

2. Select the right reviewer(s) and understand their strengths. 

I’ve been in a lot of writing critique groups over the past 20 years. And I’ve observed that even writers, who are familiar with the editing process, will zone in on the things they’re strongest at. When asked broadly for “feedback on my piece,” poets often leap to word choice, journalists to the structure, and creative prose writers to the mood. (The eagle eye for grammatical errors and typos seems randomly distributed!)

If your colleagues aren’t writers, they undoubtedly still have distinct strengths and preferences as readers. That very analytical, detail-oriented project manager you work with may be great at noticing where you made confusing leaps of logic. That theater-addicted friend probably has a good ear. Ask her for help when you’re stumped on awkward sentences. Your wife the voracious reader of anything and everything might be wonderful at pinpointing seemingly tiny fixes that correct deep structural problems.

3. Communicate exactly what you want.

Explicitly direct the reviewer’s attention to the level of the piece you want them to evaluate.

“Can you give this a second pair of eyes?” is not specific enough. The reviewer won’t know whether you want a copyedit, an overall reaction, or something in between.

“I’m not sure if this flows right. What do you think?” is a little better. Now, the reviewer knows you’re looking for something about the sense of the piece.

Even better: “Do those case studies help make the point or, or are they distracting?”

In some cases, you might want to tell them explicitly what not to focus on as well. For example, “Don’t worry about looking for typos. My assistant’s going to proofread this. What I want to know from you is if those case studies work here.” Alternatively, “I need to submit this tomorrow! Can you take a quick look to make sure I’ve been consistent with those acronyms?”

Finally, recognize the limitations of review. No reader or editor can completely eliminate your sense of feeling exposed. The more you care about your project, the less anyone can do to reassure you that your work is good enough. If you are a new writer, take a risk! You’ll learn from your readers’ responses.

If you’ve been writing for a while, you may be facing a different challenge: The more advanced a writer you become, the less casual reviewers can do to help achieve your own standards. If you feel like you’ve followed all the rules you know and are stumped at how to make your piece better, seek a partnership, either with a professional (such as a coach or an editor) or with a colleague or who shares your dedication to the writing craft.

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