Rethinking the Author’s Agenda

All, Teaching Tips

Peer review is an important part of many writing classrooms and has been a feature of every writing class I have taught. I have always known, as a writer, how much peer feedback can mean to the writing process. I have belonged to many writers groups and cannot count the hours spent sitting around kitchen tables and newsroom desks discussing my writing and the writing of others. There are still writing moments when I catch myself and then rewrite after thinking about some decades-old comment from a former writing group member. Writing is not a solitary endeavor. We are always writing for an audience and writers need to learn how to consider that audience as they write, revise, and edit.

However, teaching audience awareness is a tricky process and implementing peer review can be even trickier. There are so many ways that classroom peer review can go awry. As I have noted before, too many developing writers are hampered or paralyzed by the weight of old feedback that has told them time and time again that they cannot write and have nothing worthwhile to say. So how do we teach audience awareness without adding still more baggage to the load our writers carry into the writing process? How do we help students both learn to listen to the advice of others and develop their own robust strategies for improving their writing? I will share the five peer review strategies I have used in my decades of teaching writers, but first want to emphasize the secret to good peer review: community.

Give Them An Audience

Before you can focus on peer review and feedback you need to start with community. Creating a community of writers in your classroom helps build the trust and understanding necessary for an effective writing group, but more than that the process of building that community of writers should focus on low-stakes writing activities. In my current classrooms, those low-stakes writing activities include bell ringers, six word stories, and snaps. I use bell ringers to help students jumpstart their thinking and build a word count for upcoming projects. Sometimes we share the topic or excerpts of that writing with a small group or the whole class, and sometimes we don’t, but when we do share the focus is on the ideas, the thinking, the story or argument rather than the writing. The idea is for students to discover that there are people interested in their ideas and people whose ideas intersect with theirs. Snaps (simple Google slides that provide a “snapshot” of the writer’s thinking) are more developed and yet still low-stakes writing intended to help writers think through and shape the path their writing will take. The process of developing the snap is important, but the essential part is sharing that snap with the class community and interacting with the snaps of classmates (I use logbooks to support this interaction). I love watching students make connections between their ideas and the ideas of their classmates. Sharing snaps helps build an eager audience for the writer as well as providing a bridge from brainstorm to rough draft. Another important part of building a community of writers in my classroom is the focus on authentic writing. Themes serve as the apparatus for our writing, but ultimately my students write about their truth and topics that matter to their lives. Connecting on this personal level impacts both our writing and the community. This has been particularly true this year with our focus on shared values. But once my students have drafts in progress, how do I support the feedback process? I mix and match these five strategies:

Author’s Agenda

The author’s agenda is a simple statement of the author’s primary challenges and goals so the reader can read with those in mind. In the National Writing Project we are taught to consider whether we are ready for our work to be blessed, addressed, or pressed when we meet with other writers to discuss our work. Blessing means that you are not yet ready for criticism just a response to what is working or interesting about the piece. Addressing focuses on one specific issue or challenge that you want to address. Pressing means that you are ready (even eager) for all the feedback your reader has to offer. 

Praise, Question, Polish

Another NWP strategy I like to employ is Praise-Question-Polish (or PQP). This is often a comfortable formula for readers to follow at the beginning of the semester when our community is not fully gelled and everyone is still a little uncertain about this writing workshop thing we are doing. Readers pick out something to praise that they feel is working particularly well then ask questions about things they don’t understand and finish up with some tips to polish the piece. This is often the strategy I employ with my own feedback so they can see how it works.

State of Mind

Sometimes I just ask writers to write and share how they feel about writing in general, their writing in specific, and their current piece in progress. This might come early in the semester or just after a break. Essentially it is something that I pull out of my toolbox when I see writers struggling. It can be a real gift to expose those worries to the light of day. Sometimes I can put their fears to rest with some honesty and truth. Sometimes writers find comfort in realizing they are not alone with their fears and worries. Sometimes just taking a step away from the writing task for a few minutes helps them see it with fresh eyes. Almost every time the writing group benefits from the reminder that there is a real human writer behind both writing and feedback.

Standards-Based Feedback

For a long time my favorite method of peer review was the standards-based feedback process inspired by some of my NWP peers. As a class we develop the standards that will be used to assess the deliverable for that unit. We consult departmental and college expectations as well as what we have learned about the deliverable in question to develop a list of standards. Typically we create this list before students share their drafts with peers. Reviewers then can offer feedback using the standards as a guide. There is so much that I love about this process and how it helps students develop agency over their writing and provide better feedback. Some of the most powerful conversations about writing I have had with students have taken place during this work.

Inquiry Process

Now that I am #ungrading I have shifted my peer review work to an inquiry process inspired by Liz Prather’s Project-Based Writing. I have shifted our standards conversation earlier in the unit so we can focus our workshop preparation on crafting a handful of open-ended questions the writer would like answered about the work-in-progress. Usually those questions are drawn from the definitions and descriptions we have crowdsourced about the usual standards for the deliverable in question, but sometimes the questions are targeted to a specific goal or concern of the writer. The reviewer then annotates the draft to provide evidence answering the writer’s questions. I love the way this process gives the writer control over the feedback process and helps the reviewer target their feedback without worry. Liz Prather is a rock star, never doubt. Note: My process is adapted for my typical online workshop but you should check out Project-Based Writing to see how Liz does it in the classroom.

I want to emphasize once more the importance of community, first for developing the trust necessary for good peer review, but also for establishing feedback loops as part of the regular habits of the writing community. By the time the writers in my classes enter the more formal writing workshop, they have interacted multiple times with their peers ideas and writing. Creating a writing ecosystem can go a long way to improve peer review in your classroom and help your developing writers cultivate audience awareness. Do you have any peer review advice to add to my list?

2 comments

  • Thank you for these awesome ideas! I had a light bulb moment: having students create open-ended questions that they’d like answered about their own writing. I love this–the questions I develop never seem to lead to quality peer reviews. I will try this immediately.

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