I constantly am amazed at the quality of submissions I receive. Not just story, but the nuts and bolts of writing: grammar, spelling, punctuation, structure, and word usage. By far, most of my submissions are damn near perfect. So that's your competition. Don't waste an editor's time or a critiquer's time. Turn in spotless pages. Besides, you want a story critique, not a copy edit.
You all have a pretty good idea of formatting, yes? Courier or TNR, double spaced, inch margins, left justified, right ragged, start chapters 1/3 down. Folks aren't too picky about ordering the header, but it's cool to have your name, story name, and page numbers all on the top. Novels require a cover sheet with contact info, title, and word count. This info goes on the first page of a short story. And there's no need to use the copyright symbol. It just shows you don't know the law; your words are protected the moment you write them.
I want to expand on this, from the editor's standpoint. Some of us sound nitpicky over stupid things, like copyright symbols. But consider this: when I get copy that's formatted all funky: Notepad files, copyright symbols, giant font for the title, or lots of pretty illustrations (don't laugh, it happens) I make an involuntary value judgement about the writer. I think one of two things:
This is someone who hasn't done the necessary research.
This is someone who thinks the rules don't apply to them.
So at best I feel I'm going to have to explain, maybe even argue, over industry standards and why we've adhered to them lo these many years. It has happened. Ditto for submission requirements. Reading sub requirements takes ten seconds.
What does all this have to do with critique? Every group has an agreement on length, format, and level of quality. Follow these expectations. Also, compose your drafts in standard manuscript format and do your own copyedit before you submit. It will save loads of time later.
Formatting and grammar aside, what exactly should you expect from a critique of your work and how do you know if it's a good one? There's been a lot of talk about "gut instinct," and I respectfully submit that will only take you so far. When you talk about anything else: car engines, interior design, sport, they all have their own lingo. Learn your terminology and use it. That's the first step in recognizing it on the page when you see it. Maybe not at day one, but with practice and study, you should be able to pinpoint and discuss: point of view, telling v. showing, the premis, the inciting incident, resolution, the three levels of conflict (inner, personal, extra-personal), exposition, character development or arc, subplots, plot points, transitions of all sorts, opening and closing values, pacing, rhythm, story stakes, gaps in goal progression...
This is by no means a complete list, but if you can point to all these in a sub, you have gone a long way in helping the writer improve their work. Better yet, learn to realize when something important, like inner conflict, is missing. Learn to recognise when rule-breaking, like telling or exposition, actually works.
If this seems overwhelming, well, it is. It's a lot to know. But fortunately there are brilliant resources out there to help you learn. This is a partial list of some of the books in my library:
For nuts and bolts:
THE ELEMENTS OF STYLE Strunk and White
(This should be your coaster on your desk.)
(I like Oxford Pocket)
MAPPING THESAURUS (I don't have one, but I have a gift card that I'm going to use on one.)
OWL (Online Writing Lab)
STORY Robert McKee
WRITE AWAY Elizabeth George (premier on character study)
GOAL MOTIVATION CONFLICT Debra Dixon
WRITING THE BREAKOUT NOVEL Donald Maass
THE ART OF FICTION John Gardner
HOW TO WRITE SCIENCE FICTION AND FANTASY Orson Scott Card
**A word on print dictionaries vs online. There are epiphanies to be had between the pages of a print dictionary. First of all, you have to think of the word, but if you don't quite have it, you see a ton of other words on your way to finding it. Also, you get exposed to words, just many, many words. Ever read the dictionary? It's addicting. A single word can answer a question or set you off in a direction you never thought of. Words are your business, so immerse yourself in them.