When people call the Willamette Writers office and ask about finding a critique or support group, I suggest they consider that there are three basic types of groups: support, light critique, and heavy critique.
A Support group is for writers to come together and encourage each other to write. It might include social time for a meal or visiting.
A Light Critique group could have specific rules about offering a critique: a time limit for comments, a rule about starting or ending with a positive comment, time limits on how long someone can respond to a critique, etc.
There is no one convention about how a light critique group functions. Author Orson Scott Card has created a system he calls a Wise Reader to help get useful feedback. It can be used for light critique.
Heavy Critique groups are often authors published by a mainstream presses who meet to get feedback from professional peers. This kind of group is often a no-holds barred session, where an author just wants an unvarnished critique of a manuscript from writers with skills they admire or respect.
Heavy Critique groups tend to form and go off the radar, since such groups don't often revolve around mentoring or critiquing unpublished authors.
I get the occasional call from an unpublished author who only wants to be critiqued by New York Times best-selling authors. I can't help.
I suggest that authors try two or three different groups to find a group that meets their needs. Sometimes personalities will clash, or a group will have a too narrow focus (mysteries only, or horror, or fantasy).
Some groups start out as light critique groups and become support groups or social groups. That can meet the needs of some, but not others. This can also happen if too many of the members of a group are not consistently offering new work for critique.
Some groups will have authors who become defensive or angry when they are critiqued. This can become a question of whether an author is getting enough valuable feedback to figure out the personalities in a group. If someone gives a great critique but only wants vague praise in return, figure out if that works for you. Some people join groups for an audience, not a critique.
Some authors will have well-defined and defended boundaries around what they consider acceptable in a critique, and consequences for those who violate their boundaries. For folks like this, vague praise is sometimes the only safe bet.
In theater, you'll come across guided critiques when plays have public readings. A moderator can sit on the stage with a playwright and field questions. Questions that are considered outside the feedback considered appropriate are turned aside by the moderator. The goal is to ensure the playwright gets useful feedback and not unchecked commentary about how another playwright would rewrite his or her play.
This format is used for the script reading series that has been held at the Willamette Writers conference.
In classes I teach, I generally don't allow open-ended critiques of people's work because of a consistent problem with some people launching into 'this is how I would tell this story.'
Finding the right group can be difficult, but the rewards can be great.
That can also mean moving on when the rewards aren't there.
You'll know you're in the right group when you find it.
Bill Johnson is the office manager of Willamette Writers and the author of A Story is a Promise & The Spirit of Storytelling, http://www.amazon.com/dp/B004V020N0