The Levels System*: An Organization for Critiques

Once upon a time, I was catching a ride home with a friend after writing group.  The group had spent a good twenty minutes going on about the various flaws of the piece I’d submitted.  I held in my hands several pages of notes.

“I can’t believe that chapter was that bad,” I said.

My friend was shocked.  My chapter was fine, he told me.  In fact, he quite liked it.

I couldn’t believe it.  The group had elaborated on the problems of my chapter  for as much time and with as much enthusiasm as they had another submission, which I felt needed a lot of work.  In fact, I realized, they went on about the problems in everyone’s work with this same passion every week.  Good stuff, bad stuff . . . all the criticism was punctuated equally.

“How then,” I asked, “am I supposed to know how much work I need to do, if we all critique everything with equal fervor?”

(Okay, I didn’t really use the word fervor.  I probably didn’t use any of these words.  I just counted the number of years since I had this conversation, and it took me two hands.)

Huh, my friend said.  That is a problem.

And on that car ride, the levels system was born.  What we needed, we decided, was not to tone down our excitement about various critiques, but to find a way to label them, so the writer can tell whether a problem is small or large.

When we critique, we always start with good things.  No matter how many problems a piece may have, there are always good things to be said.  Listing them first helps to set a positive tone to the discussion, and helps the writer not to feel despair when the problems are numerous.

Then come the Level Three comments, or the problems that, if you encountered them in a published book, would cause you to put the book down and walk away.  In an ideal world, there won’t be any level threes.  (But sometimes there are.  That’s why we have writing group.)

Next come the Level Two comments, or other things that bothered you about the piece.  And last are the Level Ones–line-level problems, funny typos, and issues that you want to mention but that you really don’t feel that strongly about.  (Level Two is best defined as everything that is not Level One, or Level Three.)

My writing group has changed a lot in the intervening years since my friend and I invented the system, but we still use it, and I still love it.  I don’t mind when the group carries on enthusiastically about my typos or miswritten lines.  I know they are Level One problems.  I dutifully write them down, but I don’t have to feel like I need to rewrite the chapter over it.  I can begin to sort the comments everyone feels strongly about from the ones that are just idle conversation, right from the beginning.  (It also helps keep us on topic–inevitably when the conversation wanders, someone will ask, “what level are we on?” and we get back to work.)  I get better feedback, I’m better able to organize my thoughts for others, and I can begin to decide what magnitude of changes need to happen when I get ready to revise.

It makes my organizational heart happy.



*I know I’ve blogged about this before, but I’m pretty sure the post is lost somewhere in the depths of my livejournal, so here it is again.  Sorry if this is a repeat.