Witing for Government

Guidelines for Peer Editing

Few writers can rely on their own judgement to know whether something they've written is clear to someone else. For one thing, by the time we finish writing anything, we usually know a lot about the topic. We know it too well to tell whether it would be clear to someone who is reading about it for the first time.

Peer editing sessions give writers an opportunity to find out what their writing looks like to someone else. Reviewers can help you discover whether what you've written is

  • appropriate to your purpose and intended reader
  • organized so that it's easy to follow
  • clear, concise and easy to read

Peer editing will also help you get used to having others review your work. In most government workplaces, it's very common to be asked either to provide your work in draft form for others to review or to review draft documents written by others. In either case, it's useful to know what works best.

When You are the Reader

Here are some suggestions for approaching a piece of writing that you are reading as a peer editor:

Always read through a piece twice

Use your first time through just to get familiar with the piece. Your second reading is your opportunity to really try to understand what is being said and how. If you still aren't sure after two readings, the writer needs to know.

Take the role of the intended reader

What writers need most is someone who will read in the same way as the intended reader will—that is, someone who is reading for content not for errors. The most valuable editing advice concerns content, organization and style. Peer editors whose only comments are about punctuation, mechanics or spelling may help the writer write a more correct piece of writing, but it still may not be clear or engaging. Leave the copyediting to the writer.

Avoid "fixing" the problem

Your role as peer editor is not to fix the problems you find but to bring them to the writer's attention. Do not take on the writer's work as your own. The biggest help you can offer is to point out what works and doesn't work for you as a reader.

Be honest but constructive

It can be hard to say what you really think about a piece of writing. It's often tempting to say "Looks fine to me," but your writer will learn nothing from the exercise. A good approach is to start by telling the writer what you like and then mention what doesn't work. Be tentative: rather than saying "This is really muddled" try something like "I wasn't completely clear about what this sentence meant."

Be specific

Try not to make blanket judgements ("It's really hard to understand) or vague statements ("Your description here is ok) in favour of specific instances ("This list really makes the procedure clear"; "I think you need to make this point more clearly"). Wherever you can, say why you found that something worked or didn't work.

When You are the Writer

Here are some suggestions for how you can get the most out of having a peer editor review your work:

Explain the purpose and audience

Always explain the purpose and audience to your peer editor as well as any other information that will help your editor understand what the intended reader of the piece might need.

Take advantage of the opportunity

Writers benefit from the feedback they get from peer editors, even if they don't much like it at the time. When you write, try to think of your work as open to revision. Take advantage of having someone read your work to make what you write clearer and more readable.

Ask when you don't understand

Feel free to ask your editor for clarification if you find the person's comments too vague or otherwise unclear. Similarly, if your peer editor says what you've written "looks fine" ask about specific parts of your draft ("Did you think the purpose was clearly stated in my introduction?").

Don't take it personally

If you feel rather bruised by the comments of your peer editor, remind yourself that the comments are about your writing, not about you. If someone finds what you've written unclear, confusing, muddled, repetitive or just plain boring, that's one person's opinion. Accept it and see what you can do to correct it.

Feel free to decline

If you've considered your peer editor's advice and don't feel that it's helpful, you're always free to ignore it. But usually if a reader says there's a problem it's worth taking a careful look.

Send questions or comments to sdoyle@uvic.ca. © Susan Doyle, 2013