When they are good, they are very, very good. And when they are bad they are horrid. For many years I participated in a writers workshop where we did a kind of "final read" for each other. Also, at a conference I attended in Saratoga Springs each summer, they held critiquing sessions where, no one could say, "Oh, I loved it." or "I didn't like it." Instead, you read your work aloud, and the listeners must then answer three questions:
1. What happened in the story?
2. How did you feel while reading (or hearing) it?
3. What would you change if this were your story?
One year at the conference, I had a story I knew was perfect. It was a "coming of age" tale, about a young girl's first experience with an older man who had had his eye on her for some time. I used an alligator hunt as the metaphor for her losing her virginity. I packed that story with images, stuffed it full of carefully planned sexual symbolism and hidden meaning. In the end, the meaning was a little too hidden. Imagine my chagrin when I asked, "What happened?" and nine people in the audience said, "This girl and her brother went alligator hunting! Now, I knew perfectly well they were lovers, but I somehow didn't get that across in my story. It didn't matter a hoot whether the people in the audience liked it or not. I knew from that one comment that I had a lot of work to do, and I came home and did it.
The important thing about any writer's group is to set rules and stick too them. Beware the grammar police. I have a friend who was a professional proofreader and spent three hours defending to someone in her writer's group why she put in a comma. Needless to say she quit that bunch. Don't get involved in the kind of group that snipes at one another. Saying what you would change if a story were yours is much different than saying, "That story really sucks...I don't know, I just don't like it," and other remarks of that ilk. Look at groups, check them out, then decide if they are right for you. Usually the librarians at the reference desk of your local branch library will know writers in your neighborhood, and they may know of groups as well. If you can't find a group, consider starting one. If you do start one, set the groundrules right away.
You might want to consider joining a writing organziation as well. When I first started writing, I joined every writer's organization that would have me. Of them all I found International Women's Writing Guild the most helpful. I could never have succeeded or gotten where I am on my own path, without the help and support of my "sister writers." You can find them on the internet at WWW//iwwg.com, or contact them at Box 810 Gracie Station, NYC 10028, if you are interested.