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  • Madeline Topf

we could all use some positive feedback

The unspoken rule in my Creative Writing class is that you can’t give negative feedback.

The closest I received was “I just didn’t understand it, but that’s just me” on one of my more experimental pieces, on if bacteria were human and if antibiotics were a huge fire that killed off an entire town, saving one person (microbe) whose skin was fireproof (antibiotic resistant). The resistant woman would later go on to reproduce asexually and seed an entire town of clones. The bacteria connection was not explained until the very end, and a couple scenic representations I emphasized were not explained at all. All to say, it was not very good.

If you do want to provide constructive criticism, you must do it as a compliment sandwich. “It was great, a blast to read,” one of my classmates began. “I might want to add more about the microbial world so we can understand it better.” It was a great, well-deserved idea. My essay was incomprehensible. She went on, “I mean that’s just a comment, I mean don’t take it if you don’t want to.” Why not just tell me it sucked? I thought. At least I’d know where she stood.

I, personally, struggled with the compliment sandwich. My feedback came out as devastating personal criticism flanked by half-assed enjoyments. “This story was well-written, so it gave me something to react to,” I said, of a peer’s essay about her late hamster. Her essay detailed the escapades of her hamster escaping unnoticed into rooms, an image that disgusted me, the idea you could know a rodent is somewhere but not sure exactly where. Then, after an exciting two years, the pet abruptly went to, in her words, “the hamster wheel in the sky.” “I really don’t understand how you can love a hamster, which in my mind is a rat, so I would have liked more details on your relationship,” I added, stomping on the grave of beloved Spock, whom she had mourned days for. “But I thought your use of descriptions was spot-on!”

A week earlier, my microbiology PhD cohort-mates and I met to critique each other’s fellowship applications. We were all vying for a shot at the modest raise and prestigious CV addition only 10% of applicants receive. Looking around the room, after having read applications far better than my own, I felt my chances were grim. In science, we compete brutally for a shot at prestige, publishing, and funding. It’s cutthroat, and so are our critiques. After reading each other’s writing, we point out all of the faults we see, one by one. For me, this is extremely helpful, or I believe it is, at least. It’s how I think: the good is not recognized, only the areas of improvement are.

In science, feedback is always negative. There is always a reviewer 3. My reviewer 3 was a man who, after reading the introduction to my personal statement, said “I really didn’t like it.” Good to know! I thought, scowling.

But, in my creative writing class, I am slowly learning that the value positive feedback. It doesn’t just feel much better, it also builds confidence. After my first peer-reviewed piece in my creative writing class, I felt on top of the world. The positive far outweighed the negative of what was in my mind a piece of trash. In some ways, I felt odd, like somehow my peers were hiding their true feelings from me, but I realized I really didn’t care. I loved to bask in their admiration. I wanted them to like my piece even more- I was inspired to revise and edit. More so, I was inspired to not give up.

Perhaps this phenomenon is that creative writing is seen as deeply personal, wheras scientific writing isn’t. Are we deluding ourselves in creative writing, assuming everyone is a great writer and that everyone’s pieces were captivating? If so, what’s the harm in that? Maybe we need more positive feedback in science writing. It builds confidence, inspires people to improve, and it begins a more fruitful discussion on things that could be improved.

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