Few writers master their craft in isolation. Yes, reading well-written works and learning from books helps, but working with mentors, peers, and mentees will elevate your work.
The problem is who do you listen to?
The fundamental answer is people you trust. The two key ingredients to trust in life are competence and goodwill. You can only trust people to help you who have capabilities and skills and who have your best interest in mind.
In writing, a key demonstration of competence is the work itself. The writing of your critic, teacher, reviewer, or student must show qualities you respect and include some elements that point toward possibilities in your own work. So read what those who are part of your Circle of Writing have written.
Mentors need to have an additional capability -- they need to be able to clearly explain concerns about your work and approaches you might take. They need to put things into a greater context and to provide examples that are relevant and revelatory.
Peers need to lead by example in their own work, introducing you to aha moments you can adapt to your own efforts. And they need to grasp the intent (including genre considerations) of your work and provide responses on three things -- where they were confused, where they were bored, and whether the ending was satisfying.
Mentees and students need to provoke questions and force you to articulate and define your own views and approaches to writing.
And what about the other element of trust, goodwill? How do you determine that the people in your Circle of Writing are working on your behalf? To me, the best piece of evidence for mentors and peers is that they listen. Ultimately, they need to know, appreciate, and respect what your intentions are with regard to specific works and your career. If they dictate or they fail to ask any questions, be careful.
And what about mentees? They provide an invaluable mirror, showing you how well you are listening to them. Whenever they resist, it's a learning opportunity. Generally, you'll find you need to probe more on their intentions, deepen your understanding of where they are in their writer's journey, or find a way to clarify your advice. The focus needs to lean more toward the relationship than toward short-term results (and that requires a lot of patience). What this gives you as a writer is a better perspective on your relationships with peers and mentors. It provides an opportunity to tune those relationships so your mutual trust can deepen.
The Circle of Writing is most effective when craft, qualities of work, ambition, and values are in synch. These will be the subject of my next post.