Put together your own writing workshop

As an English teacher, even one who taught AP Lit to gifted and talented seniors, I gave up on peer review. Having others look over your writing to give feedback and suggestions is intensely helpful, and I’m glad that some of my students were able to get value from peer review. But many, probably the majority, of them got little that was useful. By the last time I tried peer review, I had my guidelines and questions up to four pages, each covering a different approach. It asked open-ended questions and detail-specific questions. I asked for general impressions and asked about certain sentences. I tried to cover everything, and to make everyone contribute something. And yet, there was still the person who did nothing but (incorrectly) mark a few commas as a problem. And there was still the person who wrote nothing but “You go girl!” at the end of his friend’s essay. I was done.

What I did after that was encourage “non-peer review.” I gave a shortened version of the guiding questions, and I told students “find someone, anyone, who you think is a better writer than you are. Ask for their help. Get them to look over your essay and give feedback.” It was better than in-class peer review, but not a whole lot better. The feedback wasn’t as helpful or as thorough as I would have liked, and some students just marked up their own paper, pretended someone else did it, and got zero actual help. It was frustrating.

Last week I was inspired and energized, though. I was invited to be one of the instructors at a week-long college admissions essay writing workshop. Even though I was brought on as an admissions coach and gave talks about things like test scores and how to understand holistic admissions, the organizers still let me lead a workshop group of six students as they took a college application essay from planning to a third draft. It was exciting to see people get real help from peer review, and all week I kept thinking to myself “people can do this at home.”

So today I’d like to share what made the workshop successful, and how a small group of students could set up their own workshop of peers.

Keep it small. Your group should be at least four people, but no more than eight. Each day my group had five or six people, and it still took about two hours to work through everyone’s draft and have time for feedback and questions.

Group members must be dedicated. Don’t invite anyone to your group who isn’t seriously interested. And set up a rule before-hand that everyone there must have a complete piece of writing to share. The draft, the whole draft, and nothing but the draft. Keep each other accountable, and don’t let your friend come to the meeting if they say “I haven’t got anything written yet, but I have some ideas to throw out.” Refuse to look at a “few opening lines” on someone’s phone. Don’t invite a moocher or someone who will just write “You go girl!” at the end of your essay. The group only works if everyone in the group will work. You know your friend who is really great but doesn’t contribute to group projects? Don’t invite that person. If a group member is really good for the first two meetings but doesn’t have an updated draft for the third, then that member shouldn’t go to the next meeting.

Keep up a quick pace, and go through multiple rounds. The workshop I was part of met every day for five days. Monday had instruction and exercises; Tuesday we looked at three possible opening paragraphs; Wednesday through Friday we looked at a new draft each day. So students left Friday having a solid third—but probably not final—draft in hand of a single essay. I’d encourage you to do something similar. Maybe meeting every day for five days isn’t feasible, especially once school has started. But once a week for five weeks is feasible. Plan all five weeks on the calendar, and make everyone commit ahead of time to being at a minimum of four of them. If you have one get-together and decide at the end to try to get around to planning the next one, there probably won’t be a next one.

Have some structure. The first round is always a little weird as people get warmed up. There may be some awkward silences, and it helps to have some questions pre-written. You want a mixture of general, big-picture questions as well as more specific questions. The questions that we kept returning to in my group were:

*What qualities about the writer does the essay reveal? Are they qualities that would be appealing to a college admissions committee? How can the essay better discuss these qualities?

*What works about this essay? Which parts have the most energy? What do you want to see more of?

*What questions does the essay raise, and how could the writer address those questions?

*For early drafts: what do you expect the final draft to look like? Where is this essay going? What’s left for the writer to do?

*Make sure you give the person whose essay you are discussing a chance to ask questions. They may have reactions to your comments and questions—though everyone should avoid being argumentative—and they may have specific questions they hoped the group would help with.

Expert instruction and guidance is useful. As much as I like to see peer review work, I still believe in non-peer review. While the students at the workshop I was at did the heavy lifting, emailing me drafts at all hours of the night, I know that it was also helpful to have professional writing instructors and coaches available. This, of course, may be more difficult if you’re organizing your own student group. But try to find a useful non-peer who can also contribute comments to people’s essay drafts. If your group is meeting at school, invite a teacher or college counselor to join you. If there’s a parent who would be good at this, ask them to join in. Perhaps there’s an Independent Educational Consultant in your area who would participate, and the group members could split their fee.

There are some pretty big benefits to setting up a small peer-review group for college essays: better feedback, a set schedule to keep you productive and ward off procrastination, a sense that you’re cooperating with your peers instead of competing against them. The only drawback? It takes a little bit of extra time. But the results will be worth it. You go girl!

Thanks for reading! Please send this to someone who would like to read it, or share it on your social networks. I’m on my summer schedule, which means I’ll only have posts on Thursday for a while. I’ll be back next week.

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Photo by Zoe Herring.

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