The co-ordinator of the third group I visited caught my attention when he announced the group's goal: every writer should get better each week. In addition, writers did not read their own work so they could hear it the way a reader hears it; they couldn't defend their work, they should bring work they wanted to refine, and they should be ready to spend time and effort helping other members improve their work.
I knew I'd found a writers' group after my own heart.
Gretchen Griffith, author of Lessons Learned, Wheels and Moonshine, Called to the Mountains, and When Christmas Feels Like Home says, "I most appreciate the honesty and professionalism I get from my critique partners. When I walk away from a session I am confident not necessarily that I am right, but that I have the tools to work through a manuscript. I realized recently that the revisions I'd made caused me to stray from my intended theme. I went back and looked at it through their perspectives and made adjustments."
Vijaya Bodach, author of numerous science books for children and a new picture book, Ten Easter Eggs writes, "There is no comparison to an in-person group. Make the effort to find a couple of trust-worthy folks to be a support to one another. Remember to be kind and honest in your critique. The point is not to impose your view, but to make the manuscript better. I find that a cold reading is very beneficial. Let another person read aloud and let the writer listen. It engages a different sense and allows you to perceive your work from another angle. Do not defend your work, listen, take notes, and return the favor."
Shannon Wiersbitzky, author of The Summer of Hammer and Angels and What Flowers Remember says, "I’ve been with the same group for 10+ years. Given the length of time, the trust is absolute. These are the first folks that should be alerting me I have spinach in my teeth! There is time for kindness after a critique, but during, it must be utterly candid and all about making the work better."
In addition, I've found it helpful to print out and read aloud my work before I submit it. In this way I catch more of my own mistakes before I ask for input from critique partners.
The best book I've found on starting, building, and running a critique group is Becky Levine's, The Writing & Critique Group Survival Guide. I'm not ready to give away my copy--but I hope you'll check her book out.