I've been a member a few writer's groups during my ten years of writing. Writer's groups have advantages and disadvantages, and using them to help your writing and publishing career requires self-discipline, a bit of luck, and some partial, but not complete loyalty. I'll explain.
What can writer's groups do for you? You are more likely to get honest critique from a writer's group that has decided to meet for the purpose of improving themselves. The peer pressure within a group can help writers be productive, especially if they like to have schedules and expectations put on them. (In my groups, we always give a gentle nudge when a person hasn't brought in any writing for a couple of weeks.) And, you can benefit from the things that other members of the group learn through outside sources.
How can writer's groups be bad?
As with all groups, there is going to be a group mentality in some of the decisions that are made. Writing is difficult and with enough persuasion some people can be convinced to give it up or to not push themselves as much as they should. Failed attempts at publishing or revisions can often be frustrating, and the problem can get worse if these failed attempts cause other members to give up before they even try. If the majority of the group has lower standards, or if they have particular aesthetic preferences, the masses might be able to persuade a writer to go in the wrong direction, or to sound more like the rest of the group, or to give up completely.
So, what are some essential things to make sure your group is successful?
1. Make sure members of the group are dedicated to meeting regularly and bringing work with them every time they meet. Start a schedule and stick to it. If you are going to stop for the holidays, announce that ahead of time and also schedule when meetings will start again.
2. Make sure members participate. Allow everyone to voice their opinion and to share their own desires for their writing. If a person has nothing to read, they should still attend the meeting and review other people's work.
3. Allow members to be parts of other groups and classes so that they can improve themselves and bring new skills to the group. This is where the partial loyalty comes in. Throughout the evolution of any group, critiques will change as members learn new things. What wasn't ever a problem before, can suddenly be the most important issue in literature for one person. Hear the new critique and understand that focus changes as we improve.
4. Critique in such a way that you celebrate the positive aspects of everyone's work while being direct about the negative aspects. You will respect each other more, trust each other's opinions, and improve faster.
5. Respect each others goals and priorities. Not everyone wants a Nobel prize. Members of my groups have had dreams of writing stories for Lifetime or NPR. Some people just want to write light stories that make other people happy. Books are around for many reasons, and all of those reasons are valid.
If you manage to get a motivated group together that is honest and direct and willing to push themselves, a writer's group can be a great way to improve your skills.