Let’s suppose that you just gave your paper to your roommate and asked her to look it over. You explain that you’ve been working on the paper for three days and that you really want to earn an A. “I want your honest opinion,” you say. “Don’t worry about hurting my feelings. What do you think?”
You watch your roommate’s face as she reads your paper. She grimaces. Laughs. Yawns. Finally, she hands you the paper back and says, “This sucks.”
This may be the type of “review” you are accustomed to receiving—overly critical and not very helpful. Perhaps you agree that your paper is in trouble and needs help, but without a better understanding of what’s wrong, you aren’t likely to be able to do much about it. Furthermore, how can you trust your roommate’s judgment of your paper? What if it just so happens that your roommate is neurotic about starting sentences with “But,” and, seeing such sentences in your paper, decided right there that the paper was terrible?
Ultimately, what makes an evaluation worthwhile is the soundness of its criteria. As a writer, you want to know not just whether someone likes your paper but also what factors they are taking into consideration when they review your paper. Both the reviewer and the person being reviewed need to be as clear as possible about the criteria that will be used to evaluate the work. Are your reviewers only looking at your grammar, or are they also determining the rationality of your arguments? Does a comma splice make a bigger difference than a rough transition between paragraphs?
All of these matters should be spelled out clearly beforehand, either by the writer or the reviewer. As a writer, what are you personally working on? It's not a bad idea to think about your strengths and challenges as a writer before handing over your paper to a reviewer or to use work that has been returned to you in the past with feedback. For example, if you’re writing a paper for a professor you’ve had before, and who has made comments on your past work, use those comments to provide your reviewer with a focus. If you are the reviewer in this situation, ask to see the assignment and rubric, if possible. You can also ask the writer for specific guidelines, areas of greatest need, or even anything s/he might know about the grader. Is the person giving the grade unconcerned with punctuation conventions but obsessive about tense shifting? The point is, the more focused the reviewer and writer are, the more effective the reviews are.