The previous chapter was all about valuing all types of language and using language creatively. This chapter focuses on a writing situation that often calls for more conventional language use: writing a professional email. An email is often a form of communication that we use to make requests in academic and professional settings, and an email is often the way we make a first impression on our professors and supervisors. We live in a world where some people may judge you negatively if you send a professional email that is filled with grammar, punctuation, or spelling that is confusing or unfamiliar. Therefore, in this chapter, we focus on using so-called “Standard English.”
Before you practice writing in Standard English, it is useful to consider what “Standard English” means and where this variety of English originated. The essay, “What Does ‘Proper English’ Mean?” by Elizabeth Little, printed below, gives some insight into these questions.
“What Does ‘Proper English’ Mean?” by Elizabeth Little
Listen to a podcast recording of this essay here.
What Is Standard English?
Today we’re going to tackle an interesting question: When we talk about “Proper English,” what exactly do we mean? Do we mean the English that you can take home to your grandmother? Do we mean the English that will impress your boss? Or do we mean the English that everyone will understand?
Most of the time, we mean all these things. When we go looking for grammar guidance, we’re hoping to refine our tone, our sophistication, and our clarity. We want, at the end of the day, to be better writers.
But if we mean those things, then what we should really say is “Standard English”—although it would probably be even more accurate to say, “The English That a Very Few People Agreed Upon About 600 Years Ago and That We’re Now Mostly Stuck With.”
Setting the Stage: The History of English
I like to think of a standard variety of language as the lingua franca for speakers of a single language. A speaker from West Texas, for instance, might have trouble understanding a speaker from South Boston, but neither one of them has any trouble watching the national news, which is conducted in Standard English—the type of English that just about everyone will understand wherever it’s spoken.
English first flirted with written standardization back in the ninth century, when Alfred the Great noticed that everyone’s Latin wasn’t what it used to be (is it ever?) and requested Anglo-Saxon translations of “those books that are most necessary for all men to know.” (From the preface to Alfred’s Anglo-Saxon translation of Pope Gregory I’s Pastoral Care.)
When William the Conqueror showed up in 1066, however, he brought with him a slew of scribes and courtiers whose languages of choice were Latin and Norman French, and English was more or less exiled to the monasteries for the next few centuries.
Still, English never ceased to be a widely spoken language. So when England ultimately distanced itself from France, English was right there waiting, ready to reassert itself into official business and the written record.
It happened slowly at first, but by the time of Henry V, English had displaced French as a language of government almost entirely.
Soon the use of written English was spreading rapidly, from guild masters to merchants to churchmen, many of whom must have been wildly relieved to be able to conduct business in a version of their native language.
As English began to be used for increasingly important purposes, it become increasingly important to use a form of English that everyone could understand—and that everyone would respect. But still, who determined the rules?
The Rules of the Game
At first standards were largely—though not exclusively—determined by the language of the royal clerks. The rise of the printing press also played a key role in standardizing language, particularly with regard to spelling. For instance, we have foreign compositors and typefaces to thank for the use of “gh” instead of “g” in certain words (such as “ghost”).
Soon enough, though, the subject of language standardization was taken up by dictionary writers, grammarians, and even general linguistic busybodies.
The Influence of Scholars
Many of the early English dictionaries and grammars ostensibly sought to describe prevailing usage—they were not meant to be prescriptive. But, of course, the selection of any one variety as a representative form is, in and of itself, a kind of prescription.
These early and influential dictionaries and grammars relied on a variety of criteria to determine their recommended words and rules. In his landmark Dictionary of the English Language, Samuel Johnson—a man who famously remarked that “the chief glory of a nation arises from its authors”—leaned heavily on citations from widely respected authors, a trend that continues to this day. Grammarians had their own guiding principles, often calling on logic (decrying double negatives and superlatives) or etymology (railing against the substitution of “nauseous” for “nauseated”).
Others rationales were more subjective. Some writers, for instance, believed that it was better to use one-syllable words whenever possible because they were closer to the language of Adam and Eve. And then there were those who felt so strongly about the linguistic virtues of Latin and Greek that they could come to believe, as John Dryden famously did, that a preposition at the end of a sentence is something to be strenuously avoided.
No matter how persuasive the scholarship, the facts remain the same: the variety that would become Standard English was based on the varieties of the political, economic, and intellectual elite—not because they were necessarily better, but because they were the ones who got to decide.
The Authority of Salesmen
This is when things start to get a bit tricky.
The literary market in the 17th and 18th centuries was not so different from our own. There wasn’t much demand for linguistic observation—what readers wanted was linguistic guidance. And again and again, scholars and linguists from Johnson to Webster to Henry Higgins did their best to fill this need. Even Robert Cawdrey’s 1604 Table Alphabeticall, the earliest English dictionary, makes explicit on its title page that it has been “gathered for the benefit & helpe of Ladies, Gentlewomen, or any other unskilfull persons. Whereby they may the more easilie and better understand many hard English words.”
But as social mobility increased, the standards of the written language exerted more and more influence on the spoken language, which was looked to as a measure of refinement and “politeness.” Soon the demand for linguistic instruction outstripped the scholarly supply, and readers began to snap up handbooks and how-tos whose advice was justified not by years of study—or any study at all, for that matter—but rather by the ruthlessly efficient principle of “you should.”
Or, more accurately, “you shouldn’t.”
So it was that non-standard language became a nuisance to be dealt with (like troublesome household vermin, as in the 1878 volume Enquire Within upon Everything) or a bad habit to be frowned upon (like breathing through your mouth, as in 1888’s Don’t: A Little Book dealing Frankly with Mistakes & Improprieties more or less Common to All).
And when you teach that there is only one way to be right, it’s only natural to conclude that every other way is wrong. We can see next how that plays into stereotypes.
The Slippery Slope
As long as we’ve had language varieties, we’ve also had stereotypes about the people who speak those varieties. But the implementation of the standard form of a language—couched as it so often is in terms of elegance, propriety, and correctness—can take an otherwise unassuming us/them split and institutionally marry it to a set of pernicious value judgments: what is “right,” what is “educated,” what is “civilized,” what is “good.”
Linguists and philosophers, and just about anyone who has ever stopped to think about it, have been doing battle with perceptions like these for centuries—just as they have been doing battle with similarly ingrained stereotypes relating to race, ethnicity, class, and gender. And they’re having about as much luck with the former as they are with the latter. Today conspicuously non-standard varieties of English—particularly those spoken in the South and by African-Americans—are still routinely characterized as “defective,” “lazy,” and flat-out “wrong.”
But the truth is this: every variety of English is equally regularized and expressive—just as every language is equally expressive. They all have their own internal rules and grammar. Despite what the usage mavens of yesteryear might have us believe, proficiency with Standard English has nothing to do with innate linguistic superiority, or cognitive or moral superiority. Though the language we use in any given situation is surely a product of external circumstances, it is in no way a function of internal worth.
That doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t learn Standard English—quite the contrary, given the importance placed upon its usage, it would be irresponsible to suggest otherwise.
But surely there’s room for one more standardization: that we all agree to do away with the idea that there’s a single, objectively superior form we call “proper” English. It’s much more accurate to refer to what many think of as proper English with the term language scholars use: “Standard English.”
Little, Elizabeth. “What does ‘proper English’ mean?” Quick and Dirty Tips, Episode #317, 12 April, 2012, www.quickanddirtytips.com/education/grammar/what-does-%E2%80%9Cproper-english%E2%80%9D-mean (included on the basis of fair use)
After reading “What Does ‘Proper English’ Mean?” by Elizabeth Little, discuss or journal about the following questions:
- Little writes that “Standard English” could also be called “The English That a Very Few People Agreed Upon About 600 Years Ago and That We’re Now Mostly Stuck With.” What does she mean by this?
- Little writes, “As long as we’ve had language varieties, we’ve also had stereotypes about the people who speak those varieties.” What stereotypes have you encountered about people who speak various varieties of languages, including English? Have you ever experienced negative stereotyping because of the variety of language you were using?
- Given the evidence that Little presents for all varieties of English being equally expressive and rule governed, do you think it is still important to learn the rules of Standard English? Why or why not?
As we think about when and how to use Standard English, it is useful to think about genre. Genre is a word we use to describe different types of communication for different audiences and purposes. For example, a professional email to your boss at work would be considered one genre of writing, while a text message to your friend would be considered another genre of writing.
Just as we use different types of spoken English for different audiences and purposes, like different varieties of language for home and school, we also use different types of written English for different audiences and purposes. Most likely, when you are writing a professional email to your boss at work, you will want to use Standard English, while when you are texting with a friend, you may not care so much about using capitalization, spelling, or punctuation that is consistent with Standard English. In fact, if you obsess too much about capitalization and punctuation in your text messages, some people may even perceive this as overly formal or even cold.
As Elizabeth Little shared in her essay, it is not the case that one variety of English is superior to any other, but it is true that certain varieties are perceived as more appropriate for different genres, intended for different audiences and purposes. Just as you most likely would not wear a swimsuit to a formal event like a wedding, you also would not likely use non-Standard English in a professional context like an email to a boss or an academic publication.
Of course, there is room for creativity and pushing the boundaries in most genres. Maybe after you get to know your boss well, for example, you find out that she really likes to communicate with emojis. Even though emojis are not considered part of Standard English, you may start to use emojis in your emails with your boss because you know that your intended audience appreciates them. Similarly, there are certain academic journals and professional organizations that encourage the use of code-switching or translanguaging.
The most important thing when deciding what language variety to use is to consider your audience and purpose to decide which variety will most effectively communicate your message. You may also find that as you progress in your career and become more familiar with the genres that you use regularly, you will have more confidence to bend those genres and use them creatively in new ways. Just like language, no genre is ever set in stone; rather, genres are always changing based on the communicative practices of the communities they are used in. There will be times when you seek to conform to conventions of genres, to avoid being negatively stereotyped, and there may be times when you feel comfortable pushing the edges of a genre by doing something more experimental with your language.
To learn more about genre, read “On Genre” by Clint Johnson, a chapter in Open English @ SLCC.
Laura Portwood-Stacer is a published author and scholar who now works as a developmental editor and publishing consultant, helping other scholars go through the process of turning their ideas in to published books. She wrote the following essay to help college students understand the genre of email to a professor. Many professors complain when students write emails that they perceive as impolite or sloppy. Portwood-Stacer wants students to understand the typical requirements of this genre of writing before they fall victim to the negative judgement of professors who expect students to be familiar with this type of email writing.
But now, clueless students have no excuse, because they can read this post. Profs, share it with your students. Students, share it with your friends. Or don’t, and be the one person in the class your prof enjoys receiving email from.
10 Elements of an Effective, Non-Annoying Email
Here’s a template you can follow in constructing your email to a professor. Each element is explained further below.
Element #1: Salutation
Right off the bat, here’s where you can establish that you view your relationship with your professor as a professional one. Use “Dear,” or if that feels horrifically formal to you, you can use “Hello” or “Hi.” (“Hi” is pushing it. See note about exceptions below.)
Element #2: Honorific
This is where a lot of students unwittingly poke right at their professor’s sensitive ego and sense of justice in the world. You didn’t think this little word was a super big deal, but it actually is to them. An honorific is a title used to communicate respect for a person’s position. Whether or not you, as a student, actually respect your professor’s authority or position, it’s a good idea to act like you do. The simplest way to do this is to address them as “Professor.” If they have a PhD, you can technically call them “Dr.” but you’re safer with “Professor.” Not all instructors have PhDs (and many won’t even have the word professor in their official job title), but if they are teaching a college class they are inhabiting the role of Professor and can be addressed as such. The bonus of “Professor” and “Dr.” is that they don’t require you to know anything about your professor’s gender identity or marital status. If you call your prof “Mrs.” or “Miss,” lord help you.
Element #3: Name
You might be surprised at how frequently students get their professor’s name wrong. This is not difficult information to look up, people. It’s on your syllabus, it’s on the department website, it’s probably Google-able too. Use their last name. Spell out the whole thing. Spell it correctly. If there’s a hyphen in it, use both names and the hyphen (this really falls under spelling out the whole thing and spelling it correctly, but I get it, it’s a special case and it causes a lot of confusion for some reason even though it is 2016).
Exceptions to #1–3 (do not attempt until you have leveled up to pro emailer status)
You may use a less formal salutation, and address your professor by something other than Professor Last-Name in your email, if, and only if, you have received an email from them where they use an informal salutation and sign it with something other than Professor Last-Name. For example, when I was a college professor, I would often sign off on my emails “Prof. P-S” because I knew my last name was long and confusing for people. I then rather liked it when people sent me emails addressed to “Prof. P-S.” But don’t deviate from what they call themselves. NEVER try to use a first name unless you have been given explicit permission to do so. If the prof cryptically signs their emails with only initials, best to stick to Professor Last-Name. Do not under any circumstances begin an email with “Hey” because some people get real huffy about that.
Element #4: Meaningless Nicety
It never hurts to say something like “I hope you’re enjoying the beautiful weather today,” or “I hope you had a relaxing weekend,” to start off. It shows that you see your professor as a person who has some kind of life. Professors like it when you see them as people who have lives outside of their classroom (however remotely this may resemble the truth). It doesn’t really matter what you say here, it’s more the ritual of polite interest that counts. If you can make it come off like you genuinely mean it, bonus points for you.
Element #5: Reminder of how they know you
This one is key, especially if it’s the first time you are contacting your professor. You can’t count on them to remember your name from their rosters or to be able to put your face with your name. If there’s something distinctive about you that would jog their memory and make them look upon you fondly, include that. For instance, “I stayed after class to ask you about the reading that one time,” or “I sit in the front row and have blue hair,” whatever. If you haven’t met them yet, explain your desired relationship to them, such as “I am interested in enrolling in your class next semester.” If you’re fairly certain they will know you by name, you can leave this out. But some profs are very bad at remembering names, so you might as well throw them a bone here. (If you are lucky, those profs will be self-aware and empathetic enough not to make you memorize any names for exams in their classes.)
Element #6: The real reason for your email
This is the whole reason you’re sending the email, so make it good. The important thing here is to get in and get out, while remaining courteous. Concisely state what it is you need from the professor without offering a bunch of excuses or going into excessive detail or sounding like you are making demands. If you can’t explain why you’re emailing in a sentence or two, consider making an appointment to meet with the professor in person, in which case your line here will be “I was hoping we could meet to talk about X. What would be a good time for that?” If they can’t meet and just want to discuss it over email, they’ll let you know.
Elements #7 and 8: This is where you prove you’re a wonderful person
There is a t-shirt for sale on the internet that says, “It’s in the syllabus.” Think for a second about why there is a market for this product. A vast number of emails sent to professors by students are seeking information that has already been communicated by the professor. Before even sending the email, you should actually check the syllabus and your notes (and the class website if there is one) to see if your question has indeed been answered there. It doesn’t hurt to ask someone else from the class too — this is why you should try to get a least one classmate’s phone number or email address during the first week. If you’ve actually done all these things and you still have a question, then your contacting the professor will actually provide helpful information to them that they might not have been clear about something.
If you can try to answer your own question, and you turn out to be right, that saves them a little bit of time in their response. For instance, if you are writing to set up a meeting, you could say, “It says on the syllabus that your office hours are Tuesdays at 3pm. Could I come this Tuesday at 3:15?” This also shows that you thought about the whole thing for more than two seconds before deciding to take up their email-reading time.
Element #9: Super polite restatement of your request
If you’re asking a question you need an answer to, you can say something like “If you could let me know at your earliest convenience, I’d really appreciate it.” If you need them to fill out a form, or contact someone on your behalf, or do something that requires more action than just answering your email, state that very clearly here. This helps them put it on their to-do list and get it done.
Element #10: Sign-off
If you’re not sure how to sign off an email, “Thank you” is nearly always appropriate. You can do “Best,” or “All the best,” or “Sincerely,” or whatever, but some form of thanks here does double duty as both sign-off and expression of gratitude.
The hidden Element #11: The follow-up
If your professor hasn’t responded to your email, and social cues tell you they probably meant to by now, you can send a gentle follow-up. You can format the follow-up using all the elements here, but you can add in “Just following up on my previous email,” right before you get to Element #6. You don’t have to rub it in that they forgot to email you back, they will get the point (and if they genuinely forgot, they might feel bad). If they were not emailing you back on purpose, you probably already annoyed them the first time around, and you might as well be as polite as possible with the follow-up. When is it safe to send a follow-up reminder? You have to gauge this based on how quickly they usually respond to things and how dire your need for a response truly is. If it can wait a week, let it wait a week (or until you see them in person).
Why any of this matters
Learning how to craft professional emails is a skill you can take with you into the so-called real world. A courteous and thoughtfully constructed request is much more likely to receive the kind of response you want. And, let’s face it, professors are humans with feelings who just want to be treated as such.
You might think professors who are annoyed by student emails are over-sensitive and lazy (it’s their job to handle this shit, right?). And you might be right. But consider that while you only have a few professors at any one time, they might have hundreds of students. They are possibly getting the same question from ten different people. They might be an adjunct professor who is actually only paid for the hours they spend in the classroom (and they’re not paid very much for that even). They might have experienced a pattern of receiving less respect from people based on their gender or race. Make your email the one they don’t gripe to their friends about. Now you know how.
*This was corroborated for me when I interviewed a bunch of my former students about how they figured out how to navigate electronic communication in their college careers. The ones who felt confident and effective were ones who’d had a lot of experience interacting electronically with adults outside their family before they ever got to college. We don’t have to go into the sociological dimensions of who’s most likely to have had such opportunities, but you can probably fill in the blanks.
Portwood-Stacer, Laura. “How to email your professor (without being annoying AF).” Medium, 26 April, 2016, www.medium.com/@lportwoodstacer/how-to-email-your-professor-without-being-annoying-af-cf64ae0e4087 (included on the basis of fair use)
After reading “How to Email Your Professor” by Laura Portwood-Stacer, discuss or journal about the following questions:
- Which of the guidelines that Portwood-Stacer described for emailing your professor were new or surprising to you?
- Do you think professors are justified at getting annoyed when students don’t follow these guidelines in their emails?
In order to better understand the genre of student emails to a professor, we will analyze some example emails, which are based on real emails from students. Read the emails below, and then answer the genre analysis questions about each email.
Dear Ms. Smith,
I wish to apologize for not making it in to class to day. I have been bedridden since Friday afternoon I should be in by Thursday. If u have any questions please contact me at my cell (555) 555-5555 or my school email firstname.lastname@example.org.
I am sick today what is the homework please
I hope you are doing well. I’m sorry I couldn’t come to class. I was really sick. Could I please get your help before class on Wednesday? Is 6:15 okay?
I need an advice about my grade.
Genre Analysis Questions:
- How does this email introduce the student? Find quotes or specific information from the email to support your answer.
- How does this email make a specific request? Find quotes or specific information from the email to support your answer.
- Did the writer leave out any of the above topics? If so, why do you think the writer chose to leave out those topics?
- Did the writer include any additional content beyond the above topics? If so, why do you think the writer chose to include additional content?
- How does the writer begin or introduce the email?
- What kinds of transitions does the writer use to move between topics in the email?
- How does the writer end or conclude the email?
- What kinds of sentences does the writer mostly use (simple, compound, or complex)?
- How would you describe the language that the writer uses? Does it seem like formal or informal language? Does the language seem polite? How can you tell?
- Do you think this email is an effective email to a professor? Why or why not?
- If you could give this writer some advice to make their email stronger, what advice would you give?
Critical Genre Analysis:
- Do you think that professors and supervisors in the workplace should judge the competence of students or employees based on how well they write an email? Why or why not?
- Can you think of any situations in which it might make sense to send a professional or academic email that deviates from the conventions of this genre?
Now that you have analyzed some examples and reflected on what makes a well-written email, you will write your own email to your professor.
Instructions: After completing the readings and analysis activities for this unit, you are ready to draft your email. Write an email to your professor introducing yourself. Your email should include:
- An address to your professor
- An opening greeting (“nicety”)
- An introduction to yourself—where you are from, how long you’ve lived in your current location, your academic goals, and any other relevant details
- A few sentences about how, specifically, you hope to develop your English writing skills in this course and how your professor might be able to help you with this
- A question or two for your professor about the course
- A closing signature
Write a draft of your email, but do not send your email yet. You will go through a process of peer review and revision before sending your email.
Many students mistakenly think that the only step involved in completing a writing assignment is sitting down at computer with a blank document and writing the assignment from start to finish. While this may work for some students for smaller assignments, it is unlikely to work as you get into longer assignments that require more complex thinking. And even if the strategy of sitting down and writing from start to finish does get the assignment done, your work is likely to be lower quality than it would be if you were to engage in the writing process. Writing as a process means taking time to think carefully and critically about your ideas even before you start writing them on paper, collecting more evidence from sources, creating and revising multiple drafts of your writing, and getting advice from teachers or classmates to help you improve your writing.
Read the article below by Chris Blankenship to understand the writing process more completely. This article originally appeared in the textbook Open English @ SLCC.
You’re probably familiar with the root of the word: “cursive.” It’s the style of writing that you may have been taught in elementary school or that you’ve seen in historical documents like the Declaration of Independence or Constitution.
Invention: Coming up with ideas.
This can include thinking about what you want to accomplish with your writing, who will be reading your writing and how to adapt to them, the genre you are writing in, your position on a topic, what you know about a topic already, etc. Invention can be as formal as brainstorm activities like mind mapping and as informal as thinking about your writing task over breakfast.
Research: Finding new information.
Even if you’re not writing a research paper, you still generally have to figure out new things to complete a writing task. This can include the traditional reading of books, articles, and websites to find information to cite in a paper, but it can also include just reading up on a topic to learn more about it, interviewing an expert, looking at examples of the genre that you’re using to figure out what its characteristics are, taking careful notes on a text that you’re analyzing, or anything else that helps you to learn something important for your writing.
Drafting: Creating the text.
This is the part that we’re all familiar with: putting words down on paper, writing introductions and conclusions, and creating cohesive paragraphs and clear sentences. But, beyond the words themselves, drafting can also include shaping the medium for your writing, such as creating an e-portfolio where your writing will be displayed. Writing includes making design choices, such as formatting, font and color use, including and positioning images, and citing sources appropriately.
Revision: Literally, seeing the text again.
I’m talking about the big ideas here: looking over what you’ve created to see if you’ve accomplished your purpose, that you’ve effectively considered your audience, that your text is cohesive and coherent, and that it does the things that other texts in that genre do.
Editing: Looking at the surface level of the text.
Editing sometimes gets lumped in with revision (or replaces it entirely). I think it’s helpful to consider them as two separate ways of thinking about a text. Editing involves thinking about the clarity of word choice and sentence structure, noticing spelling and grammatical errors, making sure that source citations meet the requirements of your citation style, and other such issues. Even if editing isn’t big-concept like revision is, it’s still a very important way of thinking about a writing task.
In your previous writing experiences, you’ve probably thought about your writing in all of the ways listed above, even if you used different terms or organized the ideas differently. However, Nancy Sommers, a researcher in rhetoric and writing studies, has found that student writers tend to think about the writing process in a simple, linear way that mimics speech:
This process starts with thinking about the writing task and then moves through each part in order until, after editing, you’re finished. Even if you don’t do this every time, I’m betting that this linear process is probably familiar to you, especially if you just graduated high school.On the other hand, Sommers also researched how experienced writers approach a writing task. She found that their writing process is different from that of student writers:
Unlike student writers, professional writers, like Steven Pinker, don’t view each part of the writing process as a step to be visited just once in a particular order. Yes, they generally begin with invention and end with editing, but they view each part of the process as a valuable way of thinking that can be revisited again and again until they are confident that the product effectively meets their goals.For example, a colleague and I wrote a chapter for a book on working conditions at colleges, a topic we’re interested in.
- When we started, we had to come up with an idea for the text by talking through our experiences and deciding on a purpose for the text. [Invention]
- Although we both knew something about the topic already, we read articles and talked to experts to learn more about it. [Research]
- From that research, we decided that our original idea didn’t quite fit with the research that was out there already, so we made some changes to the big idea. [Invention]
- After that, we sat down and, over several sessions on different days, created a draft of our text. [Drafting]
- When we read through the text, we discovered that the order of the information didn’t make as much sense as we had first thought, so we moved around some paragraphs, making changes to those paragraphs to help the flow of the new order. [Revision]
- After that, we sent the rough draft to the editors of the book for feedback. When we got the chapter back, the editors commented that our topic didn’t quite fit the theme of the book, so, using that feedback, we changed the focus of the ideas. [Invention]
- Then we changed the text to reflect those new ideas. [Revision]
- We also got feedback from peer reviewers who pointed out that one part of the text was a little confusing, so we had to learn more about the ideas in that section. [Research]
- We changed the text to reflect that new understanding. [Revision and Editing]
- After the editors were satisfied with those revisions, we proofread the article and sent it off for final approval. [Editing]
In this process, we produced three distinct drafts, but each of those drafts represents several different ways that we made changes, small and large, to the text to better craft it for our audience, purpose, and context.
Although your future professors, bosses, co-workers, clients, and patients may only see the final product, mastering a complex, recursive writing process will help you to create effective texts for any situation you encounter.
- “Revision Strategies of Student Writers and Experienced Adult Writers” in College Composition and Communication 31.4, 378–88 ↵
Blankenship, Chris. “Writing is Recursive.” Open English @ SLCC, 1 August, 2016, https://slcc.pressbooks.pub/openenglishatslcc/ (Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License)
An important part of the writing process is peer review. To understand the meaning of this phrase, we can break it down into its parts. A peer is someone, like a classmate or coworker, who is at the same level as you. To “review” a text means to look it over and give suggestions to improve it so that it more clearly communicates its message to the desired audience. All levels of writers, including professional authors, use peer review to get feedback on their work and improve it.
Here is a video by writing professors at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) to help you better understand the purpose of peer review for students as well as for professional researchers and scholars:
In the article below, which originally appeared in the textbook Open English @ SLCC, Jim Beatty gives some tips for successful peer review:
“Peer Review” by Jim Beatty
Peer review is a daunting prospect for many students. It can be nerve-wracking to let other people see a draft that is far from perfect. It can also be uncomfortable to critique drafts written by people you hardly know. Peer review is essential for effective public writing, however. Professors often publish in “peer-reviewed” journals, which means their drafts are sent to several experts around the world. The professor/author must then address these people’s concerns before the journal will publish the article. This process is done because, overall, the best ideas come out of conversations with other people about your writing. You should always be supportive of your peers, but you should also not pull any punches regarding things you think could really hurt their grade or the efficacy of their paper.
How to Give Feedback
The least helpful thing you can do when peer reviewing is correct grammar and typos. While these issues are important, they are commonly the least important thing English professors consider when grading. Poor grammar usually only greatly impacts your grade if it gets in the way of clarity (if the professor cannot decode what you are trying to say) or your authority (it would affect how much readers would trust you as a writer). And, with a careful editing process, a writer can catch these errors on their own. If they are convinced they have a good thesis statement and they don’t, however, then you can help them by identifying that.
Your professor may give you specific things to evaluate during peer review. If so, those criteria are your clue to what your professor values in the paper. If your professor doesn’t give you things to evaluate, make sure to have the assignment sheet in front of you when peer reviewing. If your professor provides a rubric or grading criteria, focus on those issues when giving advice to your peers. Again, don’t just look for things to “fix.” Pose questions to your classmate; let them know where they need to give you more to clarify and convince you.
How to Receive Feedback
Resist the powerful urge to get defensive over your writing. Try your best not to respond until your reviewer is finished giving and explaining their feedback. Keep in mind that your peers do not have all the information about your paper that you do. If they misunderstand something, take it as an opportunity to be clearer in your writing rather than simply blaming them for not getting it. Once you give a paper to another person, you cannot provide additional commentary or explanations. They can only evaluate what’s on the page.
Perhaps the biggest challenge in peer review is deciding what advice to use and what to ignore. When in doubt, always ask your professor. They know how they will grade, so they can give you a more definitive answer than anyone else. This holds true for the advice you get from a writing tutor too.
Make Peer Review Part of Your Life
Don’t think of peer review as an isolated activity you do because it is required in class. Make friends in the class that can help you outside of it. Call on people outside the class whom you trust to give you feedback, including writing tutors. Integrate peer review into every step of your writing process, not just when you have a complete draft. Classmates, writing tutors, and your friends can be an invaluable resource as you brainstorm your ideas. Conversations with them can give you a safe, informal opportunity to work things out before you stare at a blank screen wondering what to write. A writing tutor can help you talk out your ideas and maybe produce an outline by the end of your appointment. A friend can offer another perspective or additional information of which you are initially unaware. Again, you can get the most direct advice by visiting your professor during office hours to go over ideas and drafts. Take advantage of all the formal and informal resources surrounding you at SLCC to help you succeed.
Far from being scary or annoying, peer review is one of the most powerful tools at your disposal in the life-long process of becoming a more effective public writer. No good writing exists in isolation. The best writing comes out of a communal effort.
Beatty, Jim. “Peer Review.” Open English @ SLCC, 1 August, 2016, https://slcc.pressbooks.pub/openenglishatslcc/ (Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License)
Now that you know the basics about the writing process and peer review, exchange emails with a classmate to try the peer review process.
Instructions for Peer Review of Emails
First reading: Read your peer’s email completely. The first time you read it, just try to understand the meaning. Do not focus on providing comments or correcting anything.
Second reading: Read your peer’s email again. This time read with these questions in mind:
- Are there any areas of the email that are confusing or unclear to you as the reader?
- Does your peer’s email include all of the components described in the assignment instructions?
- What needs to be developed with more explanation or detail?
- Does the email seem polite and professional in tone?
- What areas of the email could be improved to make the email stronger or more clear?
- Did you notice any patterns of grammar errors?
After reading: Discuss your peer review observations with your partner. Remember that your purpose is not to criticize your partner but to help them improve their writing to more clearly express its reading for its intended audience and purpose. Avoid evaluative comments like, “This is bad” or “Everything is really good.” Instead, try to point to particular parts of the email that could be improved and explain how to improve them and point out particular parts of the email that are effective and explain why they work well for the intended audience and purpose.
Now that you have received peer feedback on your email draft, it is time to revise it and edit to make it the best you can before sending it. If you think about the word “revision,” there are two parts, “re-” and “vision.” “Re-” means “again,” and “vision” means “to see,” so “revision” means to see something again. When you revise your writing, try to look at it with new eyes. Think about whether any parts of the content or the way you organized it could be changed to more clearly express your meaning to your intended audience.
After you have made your larger-scale revisions, you are ready to edit. Editing is usually the last thing you do before submitting your writing. When editing, you want to look for sentence and word-level changes that could help you express your meaning more clearly for your intended audience. If you are trying to write in Standard English, you may consult grammar resources or a dictionary to make sure you are using words correctly and with the correct spelling.
Once you have revised your email and edited it to make it the best you can, you are ready to send it to your professor.
After you have completed this assignment, reflect on the process that you used to write your email, and think about how that process was similar to or different from your typical writing process. You can discuss these questions with your classmates:
1. What do the various stages of the writing process (invention, research, drafting, revising, editing) typically look like for you?
2. Do you usually follow a linear process, like a typical student writer, or a nonlinear process, like a professional writer, as described in the Blankenship article?
3. What areas of your writing process would you like to improve or give more attention to? How do you think giving more attention to certain parts of your process would improve the quality of your writing?