Peer feedback: Secret ingredient for quick progress with your writing

Do you struggle with producing clear & compelling texts? Do you feel like your writing is lacking something, but you don’t know what? Do you wonder whether the revisions you just introduced really improved your text? Then stop wasting your time and embrace peer feedback! Because getting & giving peer feedback is one of the most effective methods how you can quickly improve your text — and your writing skills as well.

The whole writing process from first ideas to the polished piece often feels long and tedious. That’s especially true for the revision phase — even if you use our practical revision checklist.

What will help you progress much faster with your writing is feedback from a peer. Even more, peer feedback is one of the main ingredient how you can develop great writing skills easily and without pain.

Peer feedback benefits both sides: author & feedbacker

It’s obvious how getting feedback benefits you, the text author: you get an outside perspective on your text, an additional pair of eyes looking for ways to improve your text. The feedbacker is your test reader: they will tell you where they couldn’t follow or didn’t understand what you mean.

But how can giving feedback bring benefits to your own writing?

  1. Giving peer feedback requires you to take the role of the reader, and understanding reader’s perspective is important for writing texts that are clear & comprehensible.
  2. It’s a great way to practice revising: Revising texts of others is inherently easier than revising your own texts. We are not so attached to the texts of others as we are to our own texts, so it’s easier to get the required distance to effectively evaluate the writing quality, recognize problems, and find solutions. Moreover, we are often blind to our weaknesses and mistakes (because we don’t know what we don’t know 😉 ). The mistakes of others, on the other hand, easily catch our attention.
  3. We also learn by example, by observing what our peer has done really well. And we learn even if we are not consciously aware of it.

In a nutshell, giving peer feedback is an excellent training for revising your own texts and improving your writing skills.

Ideal feedbacker for your text: your peer

You might think that feedback from an experienced editor, writing trainer or your supervisor is best — but research shows that feedback from your peers who are on a similar level with their writing skills as you is highly effective as well.

Moreover, peer feedback has an important advantage over teacher or trainer feedback with regard to autonomy and self-efficacy of student writers: Since teachers and trainers are perceived as an authority, student authors tend to relinquish control over their text and implement the suggestions from a teacher/trainer without a critical examination or active engagement. On the other hand, peer feedback tends to stimulate reflection and further interactions with the text, ultimately increasing the learning gains from the feedback.

Mindset: feedback vs. criticism


For the feedback to be useful — and the feedback sessions enjoyable — both the feedbacker and text author need to approach the feedbacking with the right mindset. And that’s the mindset of help & growth, not the one of criticism and denunciation.

As a feedbacker, avoid harsh words that would make the author feel bad about themselves. Don’t forget that your feedback is only suggestions: the authority & responsibility for the text stays with the author.

It’s rude to go in the text with a red pen and cross out words or sentences. If you are writing your feedback on a printout, use a blue or black pen and write your remarks on the sides, pointing to the related text passage. If you are feedbacking an electronic text, use the comment function of your text editor.

As a text author, try to not take the (negative) feedback personally and learn to separate yourself emotionally from the text. This can be hard if the text is “your baby”, something that you have worked on really hard. But if you feel attacked by the feedback, you will tend to defend yourself and your choices, which prolongs the feedback session unnecessarily and can frustrate the feedbacker.

Even worse, if you feel attacked you might just close yourself off and feel reluctant to work with the feedback and improve your text. So if you feel negative emotions during the feedback sessions, just acknowledge them and focus your attention on the text, leaving yourself out of the picture.

Feedback at different writing stages

Feedback is useful in every stage of the writing process — even before you start writing. Indeed, getting frequent feedback from early on helps you finish your text quickly and with much less suffering than if you worked only on your own.

The following suggestions are not only great for peer feedback: you can use them as guidelines when asking for feedback from your supervisor and/or co-authors.

1. Figures & tables: Feedback on storyline

Before you start writing up a research article manuscript, it’s best to clarify the storyline of the article. In life sciences and other disciplines where results are shown in figures and tables, you can use these display objects to create the storyline.

Write a one-sentence caption summarizing the main message of each display object and use these captions to order the display objects such that they are telling a coherent, logical story.

Then show the ordered figures & tables to a peer — or your co-authors — and tell them the story of your manuscript, ideally using only the information stated in the captions.

Ask your peer (or co-authors) for feedback: does the story makes sense to them? Could they get the main point(s)? Was it clear and well-structured? Is anything missing? Do they have any questions? Do they have any suggestions for improvement?

You should definitely do this round of feedback at least with your co-authors. If you are not satisfied with the story you came up with in the first place, you could get a feedback from a peer before you meet your co-authors.

2. Giving talk: Feedback on content & macrostructure


After you have agreed on the storyline with your co-authors, it’s best to prepare a talk about these results and present it to your colleagues. Maybe you can give a lab talk, in your group or your institute’s colloquium, but you could also just ask a couple of colleagues — and/or your co-authors — to listen to you and give you feedback.

It’s ideal to give such a talk before you start writing up your manuscript: in a talk, you have to include an introduction and discussion part and introduce your methods as well — and that’s basically your whole article, recapitulated orally.

The reactions and questions of your audience tell you which parts are not clear or unconvincing, where you have forgotten important details and maybe even where you got something wrong.

3. Rough draft: Feedback on topic sentences

Ideally, a first draft should be only read for content and the overall structure, ignoring little imprecisions and mistakes that the author can fix by themselves later.

In reality, these little mistakes and imperfections can be very distracting to the untrained feedbacker. It’s common that the feedbacker can’t resist to start fixing things at the superficial level instead of focusing on the big picture.

A great solution to this problem is getting feedback on content & macrostructure before you start writing (see previous tips). And once you have the first draft, ask the feedbacker to read just the topic sentences — the first sentences of each paragraph.

Prof. Plaxco is doing exactly this with the texts of his students. And if he can’t follow the content just from the topic sentences, back goes the manuscript to the student for some more work.

This procedure might seem weird on the first sight but it’s actually very effective: if the paragraphs are well structured, then the topic sentences reveal the structure & content of the whole text really well.

Moreover, this procedure forces the author to think thoroughly about the text structure and write well-structured paragraphs: paragraphs that discuss only a single idea and express the topic or main point of the paragraph in the topic sentence. This improves the clarity and readability of the text immensely and avoids frustration that is inevitable on both sides when feedback is given on the full first draft.

4. Revisions: Text feedback with a focus

The best way of approaching text revisions is in stages: proceeding from content & macrostructure through microstructure, and fixing language & style at the very end. This step-wise procedure helps you minimize chaos and avoid feeling overwhelmed by the revision process.


The same principle applies to peer feedback: When you ask for feedback, choose a focus for the feedback. This can be one of the revision levels like content or language. But the focus can be even more narrow and formulated as a question, for example: “Did you get the main message?” or “How can I improve the flow in this paragraph?”

Having a focus helps the feedbacker give better feedback and it helps the author actually implement what is necessary. (Because one of the problems of unfocused feedback is that it’s convenient for the author to only implement what is easy — these are usually line edits concerning language & style — and avoid the harder issues — which are more important, like fuzzy structure or unclear main message.)

Also essential: don’t overwhelm and exhaust the feedbacker by giving them a whole manuscript or thesis to feedback. It’s much more effective to select 1–2 pages for feedback so the feedbacker can focus well and do a good job. The selected text could be even as short as a single paragraph.

So pick a short text passage and set a focus for feedback — but ask for feedback frequently. That’s the secret behind quick progress with your text 😉

Four comment types

Now that we have clarified the optimal mindset and discussed feedback at different writing stages, let’s have a look at which comment types we can use in our feedback.

1. Praise: positive remarks on the strengths of the text

When giving feedback, we often focus on the problems so much that we don’t notice the strengths of the text. However, we can learn a lot also from the positive examples, from observing how something can be done well.

And it’s important to share these observations with the text author, as they might not be aware of these strengths. Moreover, (deserved) praise helps to raise the writer’s confidence in their skills, which increases their self-efficacy and helps them become a better writer.

Example:

Concerning language and sentence structure, I think you did a great job! The language is clear and concise, the sentences have an appropriate length and connect together logically.

2. Problem detection: remarks about what is weak or doesn’t work

It is valuable to indicate problems in a text, not only to suggest a fix. It may happen that the author does not understand why you are proposing a change in the text. Or they don’t like the solution you are suggesting.

By showing them the problem in the first place, you help them learn about their mistakes and maybe even find their own solution.

Example:

One thing that stroke me was the rather many abbreviations you are using. These make especially the last two sentences hard to read — and these are the most important sentences containing your results.

3. Problem diagnosis: reasoning about why the problem happened


After detecting a problem, try to think about reasons why this problem happened. When you want to fix a problem, it’s helpful to know why it happened in the first place.

However, be careful with your phrasing: maybe your reasoning is not correct, so use words like “I think”, “maybe”, etc., to indicate that this is just your guess. If you can’t come up with anything, you can, of course, skip this step.

Example:

I think you are very familiar with those abbreviations, so you do not see them as a barrier in reading. But someone who is not directly from your field might find it problematic to follow.

4. Solution suggestion: advice about how to fix the problem

If you can, provide a suggestion for improving the text weakness. Also here, be careful to not use a strict tone — remember, these are just suggestions, and the authority to decide what to do should stay with the writer.

The example below is a full sentence that you would typically say to the author rather than write down. When making brief notes with suggestions in peer’s text, you could use a questionmark, “e.g.”, or “maybe” to indicate that your ideas are, in fact, just suggestions.

Example:

You could have a look at those abbreviations and see whether you can skip or write out some of them.

Join a feedback group — or start your own

Peer feedback brings the most benefits if you do it frequently. Ideally peer feedback should be a part of your lab culture, something you & your colleagues are doing regularly.

Then you don’t feel like a burden when asking for feedback and you don’t feel exploited when your colleagues ask you for feedback. Because you all will experience the positive effects of regular peer feedback: great texts and fast progress with your writing.


If you are not a part of a lively research group, or your group colleagues can’t be bothered about peer feedback, then join our peer-feedback group on Facebook! There you can get & give peer feedback as well as look for researchers from your field who would be interested in forming a long-term (closed) feedback groups.

What are your experiences with peer feedback on your scientific texts? What worked well and what didn’t? Please, share your experiences and feel free to ask questions in the comments!

Next article from this series is about group feedback — an especially powerful form of peer feedback. It shows you how you can structure group feedback rounds for maximum benefit at a minimum time investment of only 30–60min per session.

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