In August of last year a group of friends and I established a critique group. (We named it A Bitch of Writers) It's one of the greatest things that I've ever done. We meet on a bi-weekly basis (our submissions are due one monday, we meet the next) and we each critique two other people's work.
In under a year critique group has managed to help me start putting description into my first drafts (my first book ever had absolutely no description. I didn't even remember what my characters looked like. I was getting better before joining the group, but now I'm leagues ahead of where I was this time last year.) It's helped me to recognize when my plot starts to go awry, and I've found myself paying more attention to my wording choice as I'm writing.
Just recently, though, our critique group decided to add a new element to what we do. For a while we worried about become a writing group, which wasn't our intention at all. We're already part of a writing group, and while we love writing together, we didn't need to spend time writing in each other's company. We got together for the purpose of improving our writing.
So, we came up with an alternative. It's called Pen Duels. (Yes, we do have to name everything we do. We're writers, what do you expect?) Basically, every month and a half to two months we get together and share a story that we've written using a writing prompt.
These prompts, which I send out the Monday after each Pen Duel meet up, whether we have a date for the next one or not, are just little things that each of us has to find a way to work around. For example, the last Pen Duels featured stories about two existing characters from different books meet up. We had all kinds of things! One actually took place inside a video game!
Of course, it was a bit of a coincidence that we all ended up using the same writing prompt. I send out two (I don't want anyone to feel forced to write something they absolutely hate, so I try to make it a choice. Whichever one speaks to them is the one they work on. It seems to have gone over well so far.)
So far I've found it kind of awesome to see how each person interprets the prompt in their own way. Which is honestly my favourite thing about writing. How two people can have identical ideas, but have the story end up completely different.
Anyway, we've set it up so, rather than sending in a submission and having everyone go over it and prepare critiques, we instead read it out loud and have a bit of a discussion afterward. This, of course, took some developing. Our first one we kind of sat around after the story was over, nodded and said it was good. Since then we've decided to stick to our critiquing format (we critique seven areas: Plot, Characters, Voice & POV, Dialogue, Description, Scene Structure and Overall), while still holding it as a discussion.
Doing it this way means that we're not only putting our writing skills to work, but we're also keeping it all about critiquing, so there's no fear that we turn into a writing group.
A Bitch of Writers and Pen Duels have improved my writing ten fold. While they also take up quite a bit of time, I would never regret joining them (or helping to set them up.) I can't wait to see how my Camp Nano book turns out after months of critique group.
If there's one thing I would recommend to any writer to improve your writing, while studying the craft can help, I would say join a critique group. There is nothing as valuable as getting direct feedback from other writers. If you can't find one, take that leap and set it up! If you make one, others will join. I can only hope that yours is as successful as ours is.