I am often approached by writers who ask me if I think they need a writing group. My answer is always a resounding yes. And don't tell me that your spouse reads everything you write, or your mother or father and you consider them your writing group. They are not. They love you too much to be objective. (I'm reserving judgment on brothers and sisters because they can be brutal and that's exactly what you need). Not all writing groups are worth the time, however, and it becomes a bit of an art to find one that works for you. Here are my ideas on the subject:
1. Make it convenient. I always start any new project with an eye to convenience; of meeting hours and commute time. If it's a hassle to get there you are much more likely to drop out.
2. Make it affordable. I've paid for one revision group that was worth every penny. The moderator kept it tight, organized and really pushed us to produce page after page of revision. For the most part, though, my mantra before I was published was: don't pay for anything that isn't absolutely required. Conferences in your town are worth every penny. Once the manuscript is ready to pitch, conferences elsewhere are also worth it. There are those who ride the circuit running paid workshops about writing. Some give good advice, many not. Always check it out before dropping that cash.3. Listen to the advice, even the bad advice. I've found that even as I listened to someone's impression and thought that I disagreed with every word, there was usually something the person said that had a grain of truth. Admittedly, there have been some groups where I've been appalled at the advice, but usually even the bad ones provide one small takeaway that you can learn from. Take that and dump the rest from your psyche.
4. Assume most published authors won't read your manuscript. It's a shame, but once you're published it becomes much more risky to read unsolicited manuscripts. Once you've read and signed the 21 page contract from a "Big Five" house you'll be afraid to do anything other than write your own story. The list of "don'ts" is so long you find yourself a little shell-shocked. (Of course, that may be because I'm a lawyer and take these contracts really, really seriously). There are some conferences that allow for manscript review and have published authors handle it and this can be ideal. You're only allowed to submit a few pages, but it's a much safer environment for the published author and gets you some great input. There's nothing like listening to someone in the trenches to get you pointed in the right direction.
5. Open writing groups can be great. My first was an open writing group held at a Chicago Public Library branch. Some of the best writers that I know are there. Sure, we got the occasional crazy person (this is Chicago, after all) but for the most part the group consisted of the same people and most could write and review really really well. Check out your local library branch and give it a whirl.
6. Don't bring your good stuff. If you are attending for the first time, okay, then bring something that shows your chops. You want to let the others know you're serious and you'll still get good advice on that polished chapter. However, after that bring the chapter that's driving you crazy, the idea that you love but that you're not sure works and the experimental stuff. This is not the place to bring your best work month after month. I was in one group where the writer brought in only polished, perfect short story work. When it was my time to comment I always said, "This is excellent. Start submitting it." I learned over the course of months that this writer had been in various groups for years and wasn't submitting anything for publication. Perhaps there was a huge insecurity there, but it was a shame because those stories were great! Don't be that person. Once the story is polished send it out into the world and bring in your next awful chapter to the group
7. Eat drink and be merry. When the group goes out for drinks, go with them. The best times are now and the best friends are those that graciously offer their help on your dream project.