I missed my in-person critique group tonight. It wasn't intentional; I forgot all about it until the meeting was already over. I felt badly about it. I was so absorbed in the manuscript I was working on that I forgot all about the meeting, but that's no excuse.
In the middle of castigating myself, I started thinking about the differences between an in-person critique group and an online critique group. Also the differences between a known critique group and an unknown critique group. I've had experiences with all of the above in the last two years.
I've said it before and I'll say it again: the best thing a writer can do for herself is to find critique partners as soon as she can. Asking family and friends to read your material is worse than useless because, more than likely, they'll lie to protect your feelings. You need impartial reviewers with no stake in the outcome to give you an unbiased opinion.
Benefits of an in-person group: You'll get used to listening to your material read out loud (whether you read it or another group member reads it); you'll get used to listening to others make painful comments about your work; and you'll learn to develop a tough hide, which you'll need down the road. If your critique group has a decent structure, you'll learn not to argue or to defend yourself against what are essentially opinions; you'll develop camaraderie with fellow writers; and you'll learn to network.
Benefits of an online group: There is more flexibility in when and how you will critique and be critiqued (you can critique an excerpt at 2 AM in your jammies). You'll learn to be more precise in your comments because you won't have the benefit of facial expressions and voice tone to help you convey your meaning to your CPs. You can develop strong personal relationships (seems counter-intuitive, but I've found it to be true). Networking opportunities are sometimes better.
Additional note here: I've been the Critique Coordinator for the Sisters in Crime Guppies group for nearly a year. I've watched critique groups fall apart and have worked to put groups back together. I've developed some strong opinions on the subject. In my mind, an ideal group is four or five members. I don't think it's as important that they be writing in the same genre as it is that they be in the same place in their careers and their manuscripts. A writer who is just starting a manuscript and who is struggling to establish her characters and story is going to be in a very different place than a writer who has a finished manuscript she is anxious to get edited before sending it off. Exchanging chapters twice a month seems to work well. Once a week can be a little overwhelming.
For a short while, I submitted chapters to the Critters Writers Workshop (www.critters.org). This is primarily a SciFi/Horror loop with hundreds of other writers. You don't establish relationships with individuals, and the skill level of your CPs is very diverse. I was also uncomfortable posting my work on a public loop where anyone could access it. After a couple of months, I dropped out. I'd learned that I preferred CPs who knew me and knew my foibles as a writer ("Maya, you've used passive language again").
At any rate, missing my group tonight just reminded me of how important they are in my life. I need to say that when I see them next.