Writer's Groups: What Makes Them Work?

 You know you can't be a writer unless you have your work reviewed by other people. You know this. No writer can make their work shine as brightly as it can without the assistance of others. For those attached to large publishing houses, you are lucky enough to have a skilled editor going through your work for you, pointing out what could be better, or simply what needs to go in the trash. For the rest of us, we have to hire an editor, which is expensive—and frankly, not a good use of money with a first, or even second, draft.

The solution? Writer's groups. Preferably more than one, assuming you have the time and the gas money. I was lucky enough to find a wonderful group early in my writer's journey. The group was wonderful for a few specific reasons. At first, I overlooked these strengths and assumed all writer's groups were like this one. But then I joined a different writer's group in Las Vegas, and got quite an education. So if you want to join a group, or are thinking of starting one, I recommend seeking out a group following these best practices:
The Group is Closed, meaning not just anyone can drop in. In order to join our group, you have to send an email asking to come. Assuming we have a spot open, you are invited to a meeting as a guest so you can see how we do things. If it's a good fit, both for you and for us, we invite you to join. Open groups, like the one I briefly went to in Las Vegas, can be counterproductive if a combative person comes or if an unprepared person comes. It is a waste of people's time and makes the group a chore instead of a joy. Not one second of group time should be devoted to telling adults how to behave. In a closed group, that is never an issue.
Read at Home, Critique in the Group. We emailed our submissions by Friday. That way, when the Monday group starts, each member has been able to read each submission, mark it up for grammar, mechanics, and compose their thoughts for the critique. What worked and what didn't? How is this progressing the story? Or how does it stand as its own piece?
Most other groups I have attended either have the author read their piece aloud or set aside time for everyone to read the submission. But both of those methods, IMHO, are terrible. Fiction, unlike poetry, is designed to be read, not listened to. Not all authors are good narrators, and it can detract from the overall quality of the writing. Reading it silently at the group meeting is also problematic. Not everyone reads at the same speed. What if you want to read it more than once? And our meeting, like most others, is at a café. Kinda noisy sometimes. So devoting our time to critique instead of reading works very well and elicits great commentary.
Constructive Criticism Only. "This type of writing just isn't my thing." "I hate present-tense writing." These are not helpful criticisms to the author. We judge each piece based on the audience it is written for and how effective it is in communicating the story and the characters. And if the subject matter or genre is uncomfortable for you...
No Judgment. If you don't feel comfortable reading or critiquing erotica, you don't have to. If reading violent scenes is upsetting, you don't have to. We usually put a disclaimer on submissions that may not be to everyone's tastes, and anyone who wishes not to critique has that choice. We are here to support each other after all.
It can be hard to hear your work isn't awesome, especially if you're new to writing and all your friends have been telling you that it's great. But it takes a long time and a great deal of work to master any craft. Writing is no different. And hearing from other writers who are from a different generation and/or write a different genre will only make you better.
I took several classes from author Maxwell Alexander Drake. If you haven't read his fantasy novels, you have probably heard of the game he was head writer for, EverQuest Next. He liked to say that you will never make everyone happy, but a good indicator is the 80% rule. If 8 out of 10 people like your stuff, you can rest easy knowing that it is objectively good. Anything less than that, and you need to get in more practice.