Join a critique group! That's the advice I've heard over and over again, and so I've done that, and done that, and done that. Almost every time has turned out badly, and I'm afraid it has made me feel bitter about critique groups. I still think the right critique group can be a good thing so I've put together some tips to put you on the right path. This is definitely a case of "do as I say, not as I did".
Try to find an established group that is accepting new members, but make sure you are a good fit. Try to find out what level the members are writing at; are they newbies? Somewhat experienced? Published authors in the field? Make sure the number of submissions in a particular time period will allow you enough time to critique and still have time for writing. Find out what kind of submissions are acceptable; rough drafts? Polished manuscripts? Or somewhere in between? Be sure you understand whether critiques will be seen by the whole group or just the writer.
If you can't find a group to join, start your own, but be warned there are pitfalls. I suggest you ask potential members for a sample manuscript and a brief writing bio before accepting them into your group. Try to take members who are not too far apart in their abilities and drive. Decide in advance how many members you will take and stick to it. Have a submission and critique plan and a set of rules for everyone to follow. *Do not try to resolve difficulties between members, let them work out their own problems or you'll end up the bad guy.
Some critique group etiquette is in order. Don't join to get one or two manuscripts critiqued and then bail out. If it is a new group discuss problems, don't just quit without giving it a chance. Be sure you begin your critiques with some positive remarks. Never give out your phone number to someone you just met through a critique group unless you want frequent phone calls telling you what is wrong with your writing. (Yes that really happened to me.)If you have just joined a group don't quit as soon as you see their submissions without doing a single critique, it's insulting.
Try to find 3 or 4 writers with the same aspirations and similar ability that you can be friends with and then help each other get ahead on the road to publishing. Don't end up a bitter critter.
(c) Sharon A. Soffe 2005