If you’re a graduate TA in the humanities, chances are you’ll eventually teach an undergraduate writing workshop or two. Although undergrads sometimes resist these workshops (due to the dreaded peer review), I find that they improve the quality of the final papers I receive. Over the years, I’ve tried different formats and strategies and settled on a few that I like.

My first piece of advice? Instruct students to print out and bring hard copies of their papers. Here are some more ideas to help your writing workshops run smoothly:

Focus on one thing at a time

You may be tempted to tackle a dozen writing issues at once. In my experience, however, tossing out a laundry list of writing problems is overwhelming and counterproductive. Students improve most when they’re given one thing (maybe two) on which to focus. You might pick one of the following topics and center your workshop around it:

  • How to construct a strong argument
  • How to organize a longer paper
  • How to write a good introduction and conclusion
  • How to work with primary sources
  • How to cite properly and avoid plagiarism
  • How to write well (in terms of style)

Use preexisting resources

Countless university writing centers provide handouts on virtually every aspect of writing well. There’s no need to spend hours reinventing the writing workshop! My personal go-to is the UNC Writing Center, which has dozens of handouts, some of which offer instructions for specific classroom activities. For instance, this handout on using evidence suggests exercises such as making a reverse outline and color-coding your paper, both of which can be adapted to suit a peer workshop.

Finally, I always mention to my students if I’m using material I’ve found somewhere instead of created myself. It’s good practice to model citation for your students, and they appreciate the links to further resources that can help them.

Put students in pairs

I run most writing workshops by pairing students up to edit each other’s papers. Some students hate this. They may lack confidence in their evaluation skills and fear that they have nothing of value to teach their peers. They may also feel uncomfortable with offering frank feedback.

Most of my students, however, learn a lot from peer writing workshops. They enjoy seeing the topics their friends have chosen, they learn how to be better readers and editors, and they end up with final drafts that are vastly improved. Furthermore, there’s only one of me, so it’s simply not possible to run one-on-one writing workshops with everyone.

If your students are leery of peer editing, here are a few additional tips:

Edit a paper together

Consider spending fifteen minutes at the start of the workshop going over one paper with the whole class. Ideally, choose a short anonymized paper with the author’s permission or write one yourself and fill it with common mistakes. Then have students read it aloud, make comments, and suggest corrections. This will build their confidence and give them practice making constructive comments.

Provide clear guidelines

I usually have students fill in a handout answering short questions about both their own papers and their partners’ papers. I also provide a list of discussion questions. These practices circumvent the problem of excessive niceness, in which students tell each other “good job” and consider the workshop over. This kind of scaffolding—specific questions, suggested scripts, and so on—teaches them how to provide effective feedback instead of vague praise and a high five.

Here’s an example from a writing workshop I recently led on crafting an argument:

A good argument is specific, debatable, and evidence-based. Discuss with your partner:

  • What is the scope of the paper? How much ground does it cover in terms of time/space/etc.?
  • What is the paper’s argument? Underline the sentence(s) in the text that you think best encapsulate it. Is the argument debatable? What could you reasonably offer as a counterargument?
  • Compare your summary of the paper’s argument with your partner’s assessment of his/her own argument [on the handout]. Do the two match? If not, can you pinpoint why the argument might be unclear?
  • Underline concrete evidence that your partner uses (references to text, specific examples). Are examples and direct quotations from primary sources explained and analyzed? In your opinion, what are the strongest pieces of evidence? Why?
  • Make note of topic sentences and the main points of each paragraph. Does each paragraph contain a central idea? Are you able to follow the thread of the argument, or are there a few gaps?
  • Are there any other edits you would make to your partner’s paper?
  • What does your partner do best?

These questions are written with Linda Nilson’s research on peer feedback  and David Gooblar’s advice on peer review workshops in mind. Nilson finds that students generally resist criticizing each other or evaluating each other’s work harshly. Instead of asking students to pronounce judgment (“Is your partner’s argument good?”), it’s often more productive for them to identify the components of a strong paper and describe their observations (“What is your partner’s argument?”).

Have students identify areas on which they want feedback

Ask students to write down or discuss parts of their own papers that they think might be weak or unconvincing. They might ask questions like:

  • Does this example work here? Or should it be moved later?
  • Is there enough background context on source X?
  • I think my conclusion is too short and just repeats things I’ve already said. How can I improve it?

The peer editor then uses this information as a point of departure, knowing that feedback on that area will be well-received and useful. Plus, asking students to reflect on their own papers encourages them to think of writing as a process in which their work is polished over the course of multiple drafts.

Debrief at the end of the workshop

Take questions and invite students to share their experiences. What kinds of edits do they plan to make to their work? What impressed them about their partners’ papers? Any new insights into the course material from reading someone else’s perspective on it? You’ll get a sense of how well the workshop went and how you can improve it next time.