1—Keep it small: You want to be able to read work from every member and give reasonable feedback to each person. This will become complicated with too many members. Reading the work of others will inform and improve your own writing. Remember to read as a writer. You want to notice the craft as well as the story. You might find a key technique to unlocking a scene you have struggled with. You may find a point of view you haven’t attempted that would fit perfectly for a story or chapter you are stumbling over.
2—Have a variety of topics: In my group, each member has some formal training in fiction writing but none of us has published in a prominent way. We all strive toward publication in the near future. It does not matter if every member is writing the same genre or to the same audience. In fact, it’s often helpful to read something dissimilar to what you’re working on. If you all worked on a story about talking animals for 2nd to 5th graders, the group can become competitive and therefore useless.
3—Keep clear guidelines: We strive to send out at least 1000 words for each session. This number gives a focus and everyone is clear on expectations. This is a small enough amount to easily complete over a two-week period yet large enough to make good forward progress. We also have a simple policy of no excuses and no disclaimers. Everyone has a busy life these days. We work multiple jobs, have families, and other obligations that get in the way of our goals. Make sure the group guidelines are fair to all the members. You should want every member to succeed!
4—Focus on the writing: Everyone works at their own level. We don’t care if you’re producing a novel, short story, creative nonfiction, graphic novel or children’s book as long as you’re writing and submitting something for the group to read. I often hear horror stories about people leaving groups because the critiques turned into bashing sessions. This is unnecessary. Critiques should apply to the craft and your gut reactions to the story. This keeps personal feelings out of the mix. What passages did you find effective? What confused you or caused you to stumble? What stuck with you after reading? Some aspects of craft to keep in mind are movement, sense of place, dialogue, sensory and character descriptions, voice, tone, point of view and vantage point.
5—Have fun: The odds are you will quit a writers group that bores or shames you. You’re likely taking things far too seriously if you’re not having fun. A writer’s group should be a safe place to experiment with story ideas and craft. You should never feel that your work is under par or under valued. Keep the tone light but constructive. Meet somewhere lively like a coffee shop or restaurant where you can talk, giggle, and not disturb other people. If you’re having fun, you are likely to stick with it and with each week, closer to achieving your writing goals.