For me, critique groups are essential. I need feedback from other people--specifically, other writers--to let me know if I'm on track or lost in the deep weeds. In addition, I learn a tremendous amount about writing by reading other people's manuscripts. Fortunately, I’ve been involved in two excellent groups, and I know—for an absolute certainty—that they both helped me improve my writing immensely.
What do I look for in a critique group?
Honesty. It does me no good if all I get is lip service. I want substantive comments--I'm trying to make the work better, not get validation (or trashing) of my writing skills.
Both big picture and little picture suggestions. Anything is fair game, from overall plot ideas and themes, down to comma usage and word choice. I prefer a "no comment too small" policy. (Don't like the paper the ms is printed on? Let me know.).
Fair, balanced, and constructive comments. It's fine if someone has an agenda; I just don't want to hear about it in the guise of criticism.
Writers in similar genres. I don't think I can provide much feedback for stories in genres I don't often read, such as historical fiction or vampire lit. I want to be able to contribute to the group!
Writers in a similar "writing stage" as me. I don't want to feel like I'm teaching all the time; conversely, I don't want to feel like I'm holding everyone else back, either.
Writers who take constructive criticism well. I know this may sound harsh, but if a writer can't take criticism in stride, then things are bound to get unpleasant. The road to publication is paved with rejection after rejection after rejection after....
No sad sacks. Writing is hard and so is getting published. I don't suffer whiners very well. I want my time in a critique group to be pleasant, as well as productive!
As far as structure/format, I prefer a group that:
Reads pages ahead of time. I've been in situations where the writer reads a selection aloud and feedback is provided on the spot. Frankly, with my auditory processing issues, I stink at it. (I'm still working on the first sentence as the reader plows into the third paragraph.) Plus, I need time to think. Typically, I like to read pages at least twice, the second time after I've had a chance to stew on things for a while.
Has only two or three others in the group. Small groups mean you can get through your pages more quickly, and you have enough time to do a thorough job.
Meets frequently. I don't want to lose the momentum of what I'm reading (I forget names, too, after a long absence). A regular meeting time helps.
What do you look for in a critique group?