Thursday, January 5, 2012

Four Eyes Are Better Than Two: Reviewing What You Write

One of the most powerful tools available to help you become a better writer is peer review. I cannot overstress the importance of having people carefully review and critique your writing before you inflict it on an unsuspecting world. As I tried to remember how I learned how to write, I realized that I learned a great deal from a few professors in college and graduate school who took the time to give me detailed critical feedback on papers I had written. By studying that feedback, I learned how to write better papers the next time.

Preparing a piece for publication involves at least four steps: your own review, peer review, editing, and proofreading. I’ll explore the first two activities in this post and the last two in my next post.

Take a Look Yourself

The first quality improvement round is your own critical review. After I've written a new article, book chapter, or blog post, I set it aside for at least a full day before I review it. Longer is better. If you review something immediately after writing it, you don't really review it: you mentally recite it. I like to let my memory of the piece decay for a while so I can look at it with fresh, less biased eyes. Sometimes I will then see sentences that make me wonder what in the world I was thinking when I wrote them.

When I'm looking over my writing, Occasionally I hear a little nagging voice. It says, "That part doesn't work; redo it or cut it out." I used to reply to myself, "Let's see how the reviewers feel about it." The reviewers invariably hated that section. I've learned to trust that little voice and to fix the issue right away. The voice hasn't been wrong yet.

Being naturally wordy, I use a little technique to help me tighten my writing. Each time I review an article or a chapter of a few thousand words in length, I try to remove one hundred words. I don't always achieve that goal. However, focusing on tightening the writing helps me deliver the maximum value per sentence to the reader.

Enlisting Other Eyes

Once the piece is in good shape to your own eyes, it's time for peer reviews. The peer review process varies depending on what kind of work you're writing. Obviously, if you're writing blog entries, it's entirely your choice whether to have someone else look at your work before you post it. Still, even if the piece is informal, I recommend asking at least one other person to review it. You'd certainly rather have a friend find an error or a silly statement than have a website visitor or prospective customer spot it. It's always a little embarrassing when someone finds a mistake in my work. But when a friendly reviewer spots it first, I consider that a "good catch."

Tough peer reviews are the most useful kind. They aren't much fun to read, but they sure help improve whatever you write. I've been fortunate in this regard. For each of my books, I have had one or two—never more than two—reviewers who just didn't let me get away with anything. Once I figure out who those reviewers will be on a particular writing project, I always dread receiving their feedback. I know that I'll feel like an idiot, and that I'll have to spend a lot of time processing their comments and reworking the piece. However, I also know that their input will greatly improve my work. Other reviewers just rubberstamp what I send them or point out minor typos. While I appreciate their time and the positive feedback, this kind of input just isn't very helpful.

I've observed that reviewing tends to make a document longer, whereas editing makes it shorter. Reviewers often suggest that I add more content, another example, or a figure to illustrate a point. By the time I've addressed all the reviewer input, the piece is perhaps ten to twenty percent longer than the original version. So then it's time to go back to my remove-100-words philosophy to tighten it up again, particularly if I'm writing against a length limit. Professional copy editing also will fix wordiness and redundancy problems.

Peer review is painful. You write the best piece you possibly can, you're proud of it, and you want to share it with others. It hurts when some of those other people don't respond as you hope and recommend major revisions. You have to learn to accept the critical input in the spirit in which it's intended. Quite naturally, authors get a lot of their ego tied up with their writing. As an author, you need to set your ego aside enough to be receptive to the input. Reviewers must set their egos aside, too. A good reviewer will show respect for the work and the energy the author put into the piece and will provide thoughtful, constructive feedback. The comment "This sucks," even if true, is not helpful. I've been passionate about peer reviews for a long time, even to the extent of writing a book titled Peer Reviews in Software: A Practical Guide.

In the next post, I'll talk about the editing and proofreading steps, which follow the review process.

(If you found this article helpful, please consider making a donation to the Norm Kerth Benefit Fund to help a consultant who has been disabled since 1999 with a traumatic brain injury from a car accident. You can read Norm's story or donate here. Thanks!)


  1. You are on point to set the work aside before you take a critical look. Cutting ten percent of the words out is also great advice. Thank you.
    Una Tiers

  2. You raise some great points in this post. Peer reviews/technical reviews are an integral part of the process whether it be a commercial computer book or corporate technical document but so many organizations get it wrong. I used to freelance as a technical editor in computer book publishing so I am glad to see posts like the one you wrote online to help get the message out about the value of peer reviews.