The art of writing, invented roughly 5,000 years ago, represents a blip in human history. It’s younger than agriculture, music, and construction. And as recently as the Revolutionary War, a majority of Americans couldn’t put pen to paper. In short: Writing remains a new feat of technology. We’re still figuring it out.
Despite its relative youth, writing has evolved into a vital skill. Today, we broadly recognize that citizenship requires the ability to read and write. As Orwell put it: “If people cannot write well, they cannot think well, and if they cannot think well, others will do their thinking for them.”
Perhaps as importantly, writing is a key skill for professional success. Hiring managers, for example, are more likely to cite writing skills as “very important” for new hires, compared to technological and quantitative reasoning skills. If students leave campus without refined writing skills, we’ve done them a great disservice.
Luckily, a recent survey suggests faculty believe their most important task is teaching students to write. Time and technological constraints, however, often prevent every instructor from providing intensive feedback. This is why providing spaces for peer writing feedback is a vital component of the educational experience.
The Value of Peer-to-Peer Writing Feedback
Writing, at its best, is a social activity. This piece passed through multiple hands before arriving in the virtual pages of this publication. The authors of other pieces on thissite will likely sing a similar tune. We know many eyes can sharpen prose.
The same logic led to the evolution of writing centers on college campuses. Refining writing skills is a lifelong journey, and colleges recognize that these muscles must be exercised all four years, across all corners of the curriculum.
And while faculty and specialized instructors remain vital conduits between students’ thoughts and the logical distribution of words on a page, peer feedback has emerged as a core component of strong writing programs, particularly in the modern college environment.
Last year, as COVID-19 forced a shift to virtual and asynchronous learning, students lost the benefits of a centralized space dedicated to writing. And learners juggling work and family obligations faced heightened scheduling challenges. These disruptions prompted many students to seek support from their peers.
Peer feedback has been a common feature of strong writing for centuries. Emerson leaned on Thoreau for more than free lodging. The Bronte sisters didn’t change literature by chance. And feedback does more than smooth syntax. In the words of S. Kelley Harrell: “A good editor doesn’t rewrite words, she rewires synapses.”
Peer feedback shows students the value of thinking in stages, from the uncertainty of rough drafts to the solidity of a completed work. It reminds students that they’re writing for readers, not themselves. And ongoing feedback throughout college busts the myth that a single first-year writing course is the beginning and end of prose development.
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