Participating in a critique group is a great resource and appears to be a necessary step backward in your work. For if you, and you should, bring in your ‘best’ work to be looked upon with fresh eyes of the writing world, you must be prepared for the succeeding maiming. Works I have presented are now beyond recognition.
Whether or not these ‘polished’ works ever made it to the public eye cannot convince you to let your work be torn-down in the first place. It is in the process of receiving constructive criticism that you learn new abilities such as being able to take such criticism in stride and rationally. Do not rise to the defense of your work; these views are what normal people see of your work based on what you’ve given them. If they are not picking up the right context, then perhaps you did not present the setting and backstory as well as you originally thought. Additionally, any critique group I attend, I make a point of encouraging my peers to ‘sandwich’ their comments. Begin by stating something of which you approve in the work before coming out with the areas where you believe improvement is needed and then round it off nicely with one more positive comment. If structure is off, how is the use of active verbs? Riveting? If the dialogue is weak, how is the story idea overall? Inventive?
After several sessions throughout the years, I write with a new critical eye, one that is not merely my own but the voices of my group. No more maiming is required, until the professional editor gets his/her hands on it, because, as I write, a certain bird with a hawkish eye sits on my shoulder and makes sure my every thought can be conveyed clearly for a readership.
The Rocky Mountain Writers Conference guided critique groups throughout the Denver area and beyond. The group I attended had moderators at each table and were as invaluable as the rules. For example, the person being critiqued cannot add anything to the criticism. They are encouraged only to answer questions by the critiquing party. This encourages listening, discourages open-mouthed defenses that disable what you came there to do–you want to know what others think of your writing. When a reader opens your book, flips through your article, you won’t be there to explain your thinking; here is your chance to hear how others will interpret your work versus what you intended in the first place. And it is amazing the different perceptions gained in one group.
Some critique groups I have visited seem to be less guided, more of a random romp in conversation. I still have a very welcome opportunity to talk writing with my peers but feel less enthusiastic about sharing my work in an atmosphere lacking such professionalism. But, if you write for the fun of it, this kind of group might be the spot for you. I just want to make sure you’re aware there is a variety of groups out there.
Also, read your work aloud at these groups, or have someone else do so, gain a feel for pace, structure, rhythm, and maybe you didn’t mean for it to rhyme at the time, but there it is.