My critique group is awesome. The three of us have been together for a decade (!), supporting each other through myriad changes in our writing and personal lives. Over the years, the focus and format of our group has evolved. We now meet once a month by video chat, mostly to talk about what we've been writing and reading. Our critique function is only activated occasionally, when someone needs it.
The group gave me incredibly useful feedback on the second draft of THE EXTENT OF THE DAMAGE, working through the manuscript a few chapters at a time over the course of several months (we were meeting weekly then). When I someday reach the end of this draft (I will get there, I will!), the big test will be how the two other group members react to it.
I can guarantee they'll have plenty of conflicting opinions. We met this week to discuss my revised first chapter because I wanted to get their feedback before I submit it to Lit Camp. We spent a good portion of the meeting laughing over how often the two of them had opposite reactions to the contents of the chapter.
Getting their differing perspectives was hugely valuable. Readers aren't all the same, and it helps to get as many opinions as possible. With only two people in the group besides myself, I'm working with a very small sample size, so it's just as well that they don't always agree. (Incidentally, I have more critique partners outside this group who will also review the full draft when it's completed.) The debate during the meeting allowed me to get a better idea of why they felt as they did and figure out how best to respond with changes.
I can't overstate the importance of having other people read your work before you send it out. It's impossible to judge your own writing as if you don't already know what you meant to say and what all the backstory is that explains why the characters are doing what they do.
For example, I worked for ages on my opening paragraphs until every word was perfect. The reaction from my critique group (in this case, the two of them were in agreement) demonstrated that I'd still written a very confusing collection of sentences that left the reader unclear about what was going on. Furthermore, our discussion of the opening made me realize that for some reason I'd fixated on conveying something that doesn't even really matter. I can adjust the opening to omit this, and it will be much clearer and more effective. Despite all my attention to these paragraphs, I couldn't get to that realization without the help of people outside my own brain.
It's not an easy thing to hear criticism of your writing, and I'm a little overwhelmed thinking about the work that still remains on this chapter (not to mention the whole novel, eventually). But I'm glad I have a critique group I can rely on to react to my work honestly.
For more of my thoughts about requesting and responding to critique, check out this article I wrote a couple of years ago.
Good Stuff Out There:
→ On the Amwriting blog, Jason Black explains how readers are like Sherlock Holmes: "They miss nothing. Every detail matters. If you're a criminal, the very notion of trying to sneak something past Mr. Holmes should make you nervous. If you're a writer building the very world into which your Holmesian reader will stroll, you should also be nervous."