I went through a period in the last year where I desperately wanted a writing buddy. More than anything. I thought that having a supportive person to walk the wily road of publishing would help--maybe even be the secret weapon in my arsenal. So I signed up for anything that I could find. This was what my searching came up with:
1. Critters.org, an online critique group that's super-organized. You're supposed to critique a random post weekly.
Result? I hung in there for about six weeks before I got tired of sending critiques into the ether.
2. An online forum organized through an editor that matched people through their responses to a survey.
Result? Ugh. We each critiqued one piece of each other's writing before a new person joined and hijacked the group. First the only guy in the group gave her a critique in which he equated her with God, and the rest has been a rash of icky, smushy messages between the two. At one point she told us all that: no offense to anyone else, but she really only wanted to read his book. I haven't done a critique there since.
3. A Skype group organized through an old writing contact. We meet once weekly, sometimes critiquing something someone wrote, sometimes just catching up and chatting about books and life.
Result? Surprisingly awesome. For a while I wasn't sure--I had to suffer through a chick-lit novel (I thought it was awful until I read Bridget Jones Diary and realized that actually I mostly just hate chick-lit) and being the outsider (the rest had at least gone to school together and knew each other pretty well. I was just a cling-on). But the ladies are awesome, and they give fantastic, insightful feedback. I wouldn't trade it for the world.
4. An in-person critique partner. We met for exactly one in-person meeting. I loved what the man wrote, and told him so (it had been critiqued by exactly one million people before me. It was spotless.).
Result? I haven't heard from him again. Who knows--maybe I'd read all that he wanted to share. Maybe my praise was too much and he thought I had nothing to offer. Most likely my third head scared him away :-)
So there it is. I entered the world of feedback wide-eyed and enthusiastic, and have emerged much wiser and jaded. I've read so many blogs saying that the wrong critique group is toxic, and the right one is magic. I think from my experience, I've learned that it's really hard in the beginning of any new group to know if it's a good fit. I had a lot of doubts about my Skype group and the forum group, and time was really the only way to tell. The forum group has petered out on its own, but the Skype group is still going strong.
If I had to go back and give myself a piece of advice, it would be this: find people who make you a better writer and stick with them. If their advice makes you say, "You're right, I totally need to fix that," then they're a keeper. If they make you cringe and say, "Really? You really think so?"--run. Run far. Because I know my writing. I know it's not perfect and I know that there's a lot to improve. I also know the direction I want it to go. When someone in the forum spent paragraphs griping about the use of one word (while ignoring large plot holes), I knew there was a problem.
Even though I'm not writing as much as I'd like, having a weekly meeting to hold me accountable is awesome. It helps me reach out to other strong writers, and I feel like I'm growing as a writer through our interactions. I think at the end of the day, that's the most I can ask from any group of people.