Find an existing group to join:
Check out notices on bulletin boards at your local public library and local bookstores (especially independent ones and B&N).
Call or email the reference desk at your local public library.
Surf the web. A lot. Repeatedly. Use lots of different terms. Not all groups have websites, but many do, and many don’t currently, but will a couple of months from now. The perfect writing group(s) may not be located in your own town/city, so try searching with the names of neighboring town/cities or by county.
Go to local writing events to meet other local writers, talk to them, and make friends. Go to readings. Go to conferences and workshops. Take classes. Ask any writers you meet anywhere about groups.
In November try Nanowrimo local write-ins as a way to meet other writers. Then make friends and start a group together.
Join national writing associations such as the Historical Novel Society, Sisters in Crime, MWA, Romance Writers of America, Horror Writers Association, SCBWI…. Most national organizations have online discussion groups and sometimes local chapters where you can meet other writers and find like-minded people.
Online critiquing is everywhere, but some organizations and sites are better than others, so be wary. Absolute Write and Zoetrope are well regarded. Online isn’t always optimal, but sometimes it’s your only choice. It’s always a great place to start getting some experience dealing with feedback and learning about critiquing.
Chances are you won’t find the perfect group your first attempt. Give it time though. Just because the first few meetings are awkward and unsatisfactory doesn’t mean it ultimately won’t meet your needs. But do, also, shop around. And always look for potential new writing buddies at groups you do try. A group might not be right for you, but you might meet a couple of people who are interested in being critique partners or forming a group.
A note on terminology: a writing group or writers’ circle may or may not be the same thing as a critique group or workshop. Names can reflect different activities, approaches, and goals. Critique groups (also sometimes, confusingly, called workshops) generally focus on critiquing and only critiquing. Writing groups may (or may not) be more social & support-oriented, or engage in other activities such as invited speakers, programs, etc.
Starting your own group:
If you can’t find a group, or the right group, consider starting your own. It’s not that hard. Running a group does take time and effort (effort well spent in my opinion), but you may not have to run it, if that’s not something you want to do, or you don’t have the personality or leadership skills for it. Someone else may volunteer to run it, or help run it, if you take the initiative to get it started.
To recruit members, try all the steps outlined above for finding a group—hang notices on bulletin boards, advertise online on Craigslist, meetup.com, and elsewhere, make a website, try to meet writers at local events, etc. You might want to create an alternate email account at gmail, yahoo, or hotmail for the purpose of recruiting.
For critique groups, I would highly recommend limiting the group to whatever it is that you write, be it nonfiction, screenwriting, poetry, fiction, or whatever. Yes, writing is writing, but personally I think critiquing is more effective if members have common goals and interests and have similar reading tastes. But don’t get too narrowly focused. You’re unlikely to find enough historical mystery writers in your area, for instance, for a group.
For critique groups, think about level. Aim for your own level. If you’re a new writer on your first novel, focus on recruiting other unpublished fiction writers. You’re unlikely to be successful if you try to recruit at a more advanced level, for instance, limiting your membership to published writers when you yourself are unpublished. A mix of published and unpublished is often optimal.
But you ask–unpublished writers don’t know any more than I do! How can they possibly help me? They can and will. Read this about critiquing (also known as the workshop method). You’ll learn together and unpublished people are more likely to have the time, energy, patience, and desire to be generous with their help and support. (However, do be wary of some common failings in inexperienced critiquers: insecurity, blind application of writing rules, arrogance, competitiveness. These qualities can be destructive and surprisingly often go hand in hand.)
Think about what you personally need and want. If you’re still sensitive to criticism, but you struggle with procrastination, staying motivated, or finishing manuscripts, maybe you don’t need a critique group yet. Maybe you should think about starting a group that meets every 2nd and 4th Tuesday evening at a local bookstore for a two hour peer pressure-driven write-in followed by socializing over beers or coffee. (Here’s how one organization does write-ins.)
If you’re going to start a critique group and restrict membership, consider how you’re going to accept members. The best approach is to have people select themselves–they want to join your group because they agree with its attitudes and goals as laid out on your website. Having to reject people is unpleasant and will make you feel like not a very nice person.
Think about location. Meeting in public is always better and makes it easier to recruit. Public libraries, coffee shops, bookstores are options. You might consider starting out in public before you move to someone’s house.
Think about how big you want to be. A small intimate group is nice, (3-4 people), especially starting out, but people are busy and won’t always be able to attend. If you’re too small, you may cancel more than you meet.
If you’re an adult, think about whether you’ll accept kid writers, and if so, under what circumstances.
Think about how often you want to meet. Once a month may not be enough. Weekly may be too often.
Think about structure. I highly recommend an honest, open discussion at your first meeting to establish some rules and guidelines and then keep refining those rules as needed. The more social and casual you are the less rules you need because it’ll just be writers getting together for fun. The more critiquing you do, because of its intensity and potential for damage, the more structure you’ll want, because in my opinion–an ounce of prevention will save you months of interpersonal conflict and the very real possibility of destroying the group. For critiquing, the golden rule applies– be helpful, kind, and supportive. Critiquing should never be about showing off or being competitive.
There are tons of articles and quite a few books about finding, starting, and running writing groups which will echo what I’ve just said, say it differently, and go into more detail:
Updated August 9, 2015
Photo: Ithaca, NY courtesy of the talented Paul Joran