I'm talking about real writing groups. Not what Wymore does in his attic with two porcelain dolls, three stuffed animals, and a heavily sedated puma.
Writing groups can be problematic. They can break a new writer. They can instill one with a false sense of confidence. There are periods where I quit writing after almost every group. Luckily I have a 45-minute drive home, and I've usually come to my senses before I hit my driveway.
Tim Powers says to not join a writing group. He says that if you do, make sure everyone in it is farther along in their careers than you are. Other people's advice is more generous.
Tim's theoretical group is great, but not all of us can be that lucky. So what do we do with the group we have? How does one use a writing group most efficiently?
One thing is true about any writing group. They will give you the type of feedback you ask for. If they don't, quit that group immediately.
The level of feedback you do ask depends, like always, on you. For most people, I would go with Orson Scott Card's wise reader feedback, which essential consists of reactions, feelings, and understanding without prescription. A wise reader says, "I'm bored," or "I don't understand," or "I don't believe it." The wise reader reports their state of mind and leaves it to the author to figure out how to fix it.
The problem with readers giving suggestions is that very rarely are the suggestions right. Readers, even brilliant ones, rarely know why they feel what the feel. And when they guess, they are almost always wrong. They certainly don't know enough about why you wrote what you wrote give coherent advice. For instance, many readers tell you to cut when something is boring, but most likely, you need to add instead. The problem isn't that you're going on too long. The problem is that you don't have enough content for the reader to care about what you do have.
Unless you are a professional writer, I would not deviate from that type of feedback.
When you're much more confident in your ability to understand feedback, say when you're a professional writer (and maybe not for some time after), you might be able to handle people's suggestions. To do this you need the skill to ignore their advice, but to use it to better figure out the core of the problem. For instance, if the reader tells you that a character isn't likeable and that you need to pull back on their more negative traits, you might realize that the real problem is that you haven't gotten deeply enough into the characters head for the reader to empathize and forgive their bad behavior. The solution might not be to pull back on the character's flaws, but to strengthen their inner life.
Here is a good illustration of how a group should work for almost everyone: this week one of the members of my group said that the last scene of a chapter felt too "white room" for her. She went on to add that she couldn't figure out why, because all the actions and descriptive tags were there.
She had to leave right after that (we were running long) and I turned to the other two members. One of them said the scene didn't feel white room to them. I pointed out that it probably didn't feel white room to him and me because she had the problem wrong. She was looking at the action, but the problem was really the emotional reactions of the characters. Him and I were looking for slightly less emotional content and so we both thought it was fine. The last member of the group said she didn't have the problem either, but that she thought I was right and that the problem was that the rest of the group had more time invested with the character and so they brought their own emotional content to the scene. We all agreed that the first critiquer was right, however. Just because people who knew the character better didn't have the problem didn't mean I had the luxury of being lazy.
I have a great group. I wouldn't quit them for the world. You might have to go through a half dozen groups until you find one as perfect for you as mine it for me.
I know I did.