Writing for Classmates

Next to the teacher, your most probable school audience is your peers. More and more teachers are finding value in asking students to read each other's writing, both in draft stages and in final form. You will most likely be asked to share your writing with other students in a writing class, where both composing and critiquing papers are everybody's business. Don't be surprised if your history or biology teacher asks you to do the same thing. But you could initiate such sharing yourself, regardless of whether your teacher suggests it. The benefits will be worth it.

Writing to other students and reading their work is distinctly different from simply talking to each other; written communication demands a precision and clarity that oral communication does not. When you share your writing with a peer, you will be most aware of where your language is pretentious or your argument stretched too thin. If you ask for feedback, an honest classmate will give it to you—before your teacher has to. I think that students see pomp and padding as readily as teachers do and are equally put off by it. What's the point in writing pretentiously to a classmate?

The following are some of the possible ways to make sharing drafts profitable:

1. Choose people you trust and respect to read your draft. Offer to read theirs in return. Set aside enough time (over coffee in the snack bar?) to return drafts and explain your responses thoroughly to each other.

2. When possible, you decide when your draft is ready to share. I don't want someone to see a draft too early because I already know how I am going to continue to fix it; other times, when I am far along in the process, I don't want a response that suggests that I start all over. There's a balance here: it's better that I seek help on the draft before I become too fond of it, when I tend to get defensive and to resist good ideas that might otherwise help me.

3. Ask for specific responses on early drafts. Do you want an overall reaction? Do you have a question about a specific section of your paper? Do you want help with a particularly intricate argument? Do you want simple editing or proofreading help? When you share a draft and specify the help you want, you stay in control of the process and lessen the risk that your readers will say something about your text that could make you defensive. (I'm very thin-skinned about my writing—I could lose confidence fast if I shared my writing with nonsupportive people who said anything they felt like about my work.)

4. When you comment on someone else's paper, use a pencil and be gentle. Remember how you feel about red ink (bad associations offset the advantages of the contrasting color), and remember that ink is permanent. Most writers can't help but see their writing as an extension of themselves. Writing in erasable pencil suggests rather than commands that changes might rather than must be made. The choice to do so remains where it should, with the writer rather than the reader.

5. Ask a friend with good language skills to proofread your paper before submission. Most readers can identify problems in correctness, clarity, and meaning more easily in another person's work than in their own. When students read and respond to (or critique) each other's writing, they learn to identify problems in style, punctuation, and evidence that also may occur in their own writing.

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