What is a Writer's Group?
A writer's group is typically made up of 3-6 people who are all writers that are willing to share their work and insight with the rest of the group. A writer's group is part support group, part friendly gathering but most of all, it is a study of the craft of writing.
It's made up of 3-6 people because too many more than that and it can get a bit overwhelming. Although it's not mandatory, it helps also to find writers that are writing in the same format. Meaning, that if you're writing a comedy screenplay and you join a writers group made up of romance novelists, you might not get as much out of it as you can. That said, you might also come across some very insightful people who can help you bring your story to life.
Writer's groups usually meet about once a week for a few hours in the evening. Remember to find members who are all currently working on a project of some sort. This does not need to be a paid writing project -- just something that they are definitively working on and moving forward with on a weekly basis. I only mention this because there are a number of writers out there who join writer's groups to keep from writing.
In the initial meeting, you will go around the circle and discuss the type of project you're either currently writing, or thinking of starting. The next weekly meeting you will come with copies of the writing you've managed to accomplish during the week.
Each writer in the group will also supply copies of their own works. You will then take turns reading and then discussing each person's writing segment.
Remember, the goal here is to provide as much constructive criticism as you can. By the way, it's the quality of the criticism that counts -- not the quantity. So, only suggest the changes that you think might genuinely improve their project. Don't keep throwing out ideas and concepts for the sake of hearing your own voice.
Receiving "Notes" on Your Material
Getting "notes" or constructive critisim on your own material can be a bit intimidating. If not downright painful. The trick here is to listen to the notes while they are being given. Don't justify why you did something, or try to explain "what you meant." If the reader (your fellow writers) don't get it than an audience won't either.
Jot down the notes as they come. You'll want to have these to refer to later on. After all, you might find that there are notes you might initially disagree with, but as you work on your piece a bit more the notes start to make more sense or turn out to be quite valuable suggestions.
Giving Notes on Other People's Material
As stated above, remember that it's crucial that you don't speak just for the sake of hearing your own voice. You want to provide your fellow writers with valuable notes that they can use to make their projects that much better. Self edit and analyze what you're about to say before you say it.
Avoid generalities as well. Statements like -- "I really liked it." or "It doesn't work." don't help the writer unless you tell them exactly why you liked something or why something doesn't work. Show them specifically and possibly even make suggestions for how they might go about changing something.
It's Never Personal
Getting and receiving notes can be an emotionally draining process. Especially when you have a group of people seemingly ganging up on you and telling you how bad your writing is.
You have to learn to get a bit of thick skin and a writer's group is often a safe environment to do that. After all, you're sitting with your peers and they are doing all they can to turn you into a better writer. Listen to what they are saying. Know that their goal is not to batter you and put you down, but to help you reach your goals of selling, publishing or simply finishing the piece of writing that you're working on.
Keep a Time Limit
Time limits are essential when it comes to writer's group meetings. They can (and often do) last for hours. Give everyone a reasonable amount of time to read each piece and then give each person in the group five to ten minutes to voice their concerns. You can end up spending the entire evening discussing one writer's piece and never get to the rest of the group if you're not careful. So plan accordingly and assign someone to be the timekeeper.
Starbucks vs. Home
In the six writer's groups I've personally been a part of, I have yet to find a single one that works better at the local Starbucks than those that meet at someone's home after work.
When you meet at a Starbucks, or similar venue, you often have too many distractions from the coffee, to the other people gathered around you, to any number of potential interuptions.
If possible, try alternating week to week to have the meetings at one of the writer's homes. Be sure that if you're hosting that you provide plenty of drinks (water, sodas, etc. -- no alcohol if possible otherwise nothing will get done.) and a few light snacks. You want to be sure that people have eaten dinner before arriving because you are there to work -- not to socialize.
Also remember to get started as soon as everyone arrives. Try to keep aimless banter to a minimum. Keep focused on the task at hand and your writer's groups will be that much more productive.
Removing The Weakest Link
Inevitably, in most writer's groups there ends up being one or two people that just don't end up pulling their weight. They either give poor notes week in and week out, or they simply never have any new material for the group to critique, or worse, they are constantly tardy or no-shows. These people are dead wood and you must cut them loose. You can establish the rules from the onset that if you slack off or your performance starts to wane that the rest of the group can simply vote you out. Be sure you stick by these rules and that they are clearly understood by everyone in the group.