Back in the last century, I was an MFA student in Creative Writing. The centerpiece of our program was The Workshop (which deserves its capitalization). Each week, one of us would hand out a copy of our latest short story (all they taught us to write was the short story) for "workshopping." The following week, we fed.
While the writer sat in silence (after all--you don't get to talk back to your reader at home, do you?) A bunch of 22-year-old "artistes" spent 2.5 hours explaining to that silent writer everything that was wrong with his little tale. As an undergrad, I, at least, had been trained to "say something nice before you criticize." Not everyone had had my training, apparently. The object of the exercise, most weeks, was to impress the professor moderating the session with your brilliant, incisive dissection of your neighbor's work. I, to my credit, only cried once--and only after class was over.
Now I have entered the world of Critique Partners. I've begun the process with a couple of writers in my RWA chapter whom, after many months of scoping them out, I've determined are (a) kind people and (b) at least as smart as me.
They might not know it (in fact, I'm sure they don't yet), but I have a couple of unwritten rules for being a CP, and couple of expectations from my CPs:
(1) The CP's primary motivation should always be to help their partners write the best story possible.
(2) CPs comments should always answer the specific question, "How can I make this story better?" Scathing derision, sarcasm and non-specific opinions about the story such as "I don't care for this heroine. She's just kinda blah," have no place in a critique. If I cannot give a specific recommendation about how to improve something, I don't mention it at all. Anything else is either mean or lazy.
Right now, my CPs are reading this and going, "WTF?" So let me just state that they already intuitively know how to be useful CPs--and how to write well. I'm really glad I found 'em.
What about you? Do you participate in a critiquing process? And if so, what are your expectations?