I was lucky enough to be part of a writers group that has just gone from strength to strength. From starting off as a bunch of writers who had never shared their writing with strangers, much less agents, to being a talented group of writers, some of whom have become agented and won nation-wide competitions!
Even if you rarely read your work to your group, listening to the critiquing of other people's work can benefit your own writing enormously. So, someone in your group always gets positive comments on their dialogue - listen carefully to see how you can improve yours. Ask them how they write it, compare it to your own. Maybe someone else often has great concepts but struggles to portray them in words. Take note on what other members are suggesting for ways in which to fix that.
Concentrate on what your fellow writers home in on so that you can know what readers (listeners?) pick up on. Give a book to five people and they will all have different takes on it, even if they're all readers of the same genre, but there will be something that they all loved. Something that they all agree worked really well - character development, dialogue, plot twists, use of language. The same will be true of your own writing and a writing group will help you to discover what it is you do really well (yay - ego boost!) and the other things that you need to get right.
Depending on the group, you may also find yourself a writing buddy and these are invaluable. These are the people you can email your manuscript to and ask them to read the whole thing. Cover to cover. And they will be honest with you. But in a constructive way. And you will do the same thing for them. They might write in the same genre as you (helpful) or be really good at grammar (great for submission time) or just be really solid at critiquing, picking up holes in your plot or mistakes in your character development.
Your fellow writers will also clue you in to competitions and other groups that you can join such as SCBWI (Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators) in the UK or RWA (Romance Writers of Australia) in Australia. AND they will encourage you to enter said competitions, help you to get your piece ready and celebrate with you when you're long-listed, short-listed and win (or commiserate if you don't and then motivate you to keep entering competitions so that one day you will be celebrating).
Plus, seeing your fellow writers morph from 'amateur' status to being a 'real' writer with an agent or writing credentials like being long listed for competitions really gives you the shove up the bottom that you need. There's nothing like your comrades-in-ink getting on with it and REALLY pursuing their publishing dreams to persuade you to sign up too. Who wants to be left behind, not even on the slush pile but murmuring about the fourth book you've written, when everyone else is surging ahead, climbing the ranks, earning their writing stripes (I think I've exhausted that metaphor now)? Not me. I'm off to polish up that synopsis and make my query letter sparkling.
And after that, I'm going to find a critique group to join. Maybe one that doesn't have quite so many shining stars in it...
Huge congratulations to the following AW writers
with recent and thoroughly deserved successes:
Nicki Thornton - long listed for the Times/Chicken House 2013 Children's Fiction Competition
Marissa De Luna - Newly agented writer!