writing-peer review

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Problem Description Peer Review Tips

In reviewing peers’ work, it is important to strike a balance between offering broad comments about the

paper’s content and specific comments about the writing style. Sometimes, focusing too much attention

to issues of grammar and word choice can divert attention away from the overall content of a paper.

Similarly, too much attention on the overall content can sometimes prevent the reviewer from making

important comments about the writing clarity. When approaching the peer review, balance your

attention between the overall content and specific writing issues.

It is often helpful to praise what works well in the draft before addressing what’s missing. So, try to

begin your comments with a positive note. For example, you might say, “Your paper clearly describes

the division in the parliament of Northern Ireland. However, you bring up a lot of background about the

broader conflict (for example, the British colonization of Ireland) that isn’t directly relevant. It would be

helpful to give more information about the different parties in the N Ireland parliament. What

constituents do these parties represent? Why do people support certain parties?”

It can be helpful to read the paper first for content. Try to understand the larger issues first. The

problem description should very clearly accomplish the following:

Define a specific problem related to the conflict case.

The writer should NOT identify the

question of statehood as the problem. For example, the writer’s problem should not be the

question of whether Palestine or Abkhazia should be an independent state. Similarly, the writer

should not address whether Northern Ireland should be part of the United Kingdom or the

Republic of Ireland or whether Nagorno Karabakh should be part of Azerbaijan or Armenia.

Describe the current context of the problem.

It should be clear what caused the particular

problem and how the problem is related to the greater conflict. For example, a student writing

about the economic consequences of the Gaza blockade should clearly describe why there is a

blockade on Gaza and how the Gaza blockade relates to the broader conflict between Israelis

and Palestinians.


The writer should NOT use the problem description section to describe the history of

the conflict. For example, a writer describing the Gaza blockade should not include

details about the colonial roots of the Israel-Palestine conflict. The details about the

broader conflict should directly relate to the problem at hand.

Convince the reader that the problem requires attention.

The writer should clearly describe the

consequences of the problem in order to convince the reader that the problem needs to be

addressed. For example, a student writing about polarization in the N Ireland parliament should

explain how the polarization affects the potential for violence to resume in N Ireland.

Build a framework from which the policy options can be argued.

The policy option section will

follow the problem description section. Each of the policy options will aim to resolve the same

particular problem, but they will aim to solve the problem in different ways. By the end of the

problem description section, it should be very clear which single problem the policy options will

aim to resolve.

After reading the draft, respond to the following questions:

What is the specific problem addressed?

What caused the particular problem and how does it relate to the broader conflict case?

Is there background information that’s not directly relevant to the problem at hand? What other

information do I need to understand the problem instead of the background details presented?

Why is the problem important? What are the consequences of the problem?

After I finish reading the problem description, I’ll read the policy options section. Do I know

what problem each of the policy options will tackle?

On the whole, what are the greatest strengths of the paper?

Where should the writer focus his/her energies on revising the problem description?

If you don’t know the answer to any of these questions, then let the writer know what’s unclear. Be sure

that your comments are specific. So, don’t just say, “I don’t know what particular problem is addressed.”

Instead, say, “Your paper talks a lot about the violence in the conflict, but it would be helpful to focus

your description more on a particular issue. What specific problem would you like to address regarding

violence? You address perpetual violations to ceasefire agreements, the sale of weapons, the use of land

mines and other weapons that allow indiscriminate killing, and lack of transparency in investigating

human rights abuses. Which one would you like to focus on in the paper?”

Once you offer broad comments about the paper’s content, then re-read the paper and offer some

suggestions about the writing clarity. You can note the following:

Instances of poor word choice

Complicated sentence structure

Sentences that are too long

Paragraphs that are too long

Paragraphs that lack a coherent flow from one sentence to the next and a clear topic sentence

Grammar errors

Comments about writing style are best made in the text (as opposed to at the end of the text). So, don’t

leave a comment at the end indicating that there are many grammatical errors in the paper; instead,

make a note in the text pointing to specific grammatical errors. In your note, explain “There’s an issue

with subject-verb agreement here.” Alternatively, you can correct the grammar error.

Because this is a writing class, it’s important for the writing to be very clear and concise. So, please be

sure to devote enough time and attention to commenting on your peer’s writing style. Writing is

difficult. Everyone can improve their writing. So, your review should have some comments about

shortcomings in your peer’s writing.

You should submit both your in-text comments about your peer’s writing style and your answers to

the questions at the top of the second page to your peer through Canvas and to the Canvas Peer

Review assignment folder. Thus, you should submit two documents to two places


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