In the comments section of my last post, I discovered an excellent question I'd like to answer here. (Thanks, ShannonAnn!) It concerns how you choose someone to critique your work.
Yes, it can be very scary to turn your work over to someone else for judgment -- and this is true whether you're a beginning writer or an old pro. And a big part of the scariness is the fact that once you hand over your manuscript to this other person, you have no control over the kind of feedback you're going to get back.
Or do you?
I've found that the best way to reduce the scariness AND get more valuable feedback is to give the critiquer specific instructions regarding the kind of information you're seeking. For example, you might say, "I've written a romance but I don't know if the relationship between the two main characters is working. Could you please read it and tell me what you think of the way these two people interact? Also, are both characters equally realistic? Are you having any trouble visualizing them or their actions? I'd really like to know your reaction to either or both of them."
Another example: "I've written a fantasy novel but I'm not sure if the world I've created is detailed enough and/or realistic enough. Could you let me know what you think of my descriptive passages? I'm especially worried that they might be slowing down the pace of my story. Do they drag?"
I've always gotten really valuable feedback from this approach, probably because it gets the critiquer thinking in terms of what works and what doesn't, as opposed to whether the manuscript is "good" or "bad." I'm not interested in subjective judgments like that, only in how the reader is responding to various aspects of the story. And if I want to know lots of different things about the manuscript, then I use several critiquers and give each one different instructions regarding what to look for.
As to how to get balanced comments -- that is, comments that aren't all negative or all positive -- all you have to do is tack this instruction on to the end of your request: "And if you'd like to make some general comments about the manuscript too, please be sure to tell me about its strengths as well as its weaknesses."
Don't be afraid to ask for exactly what you want! I've never yet had a critiquer (friends, family, whoever) react badly to being told what to look for; in fact, most find it easier to make comments when you set things up this way.
As to how you choose your critiquers, I've found that the best ones are people who read lots of books in your genre. My favorite critiquer from years past was a friend of mine who was addicted to romance novels at a time when I was struggling to write a romance novel. She loved reading my work, and because she herself had no desire to be a writer, she didn't try to turn my story into her story; she simply let me know how it affected her as a reader and what she expected to see in a romance novel. (Reading groups are good places to find people like this.)
Sometimes, though, the only person on hand to read your work is a family member, and if this is the case with you, then it's even more critical that you give that person specific instructions. It's also important that both of you understand it's the manuscript that's being evaluated, not the author. Don't take any of those criticisms personally! It's the manuscript's strengths and weaknesses you'll both be talking about, nothing else -- and if you can't keep that straight, then hand your manuscript to a complete stranger instead.
So there you go, ShannonAnn and others! I hope this information has been helpful -- but if you still have questions, just let me know. (And I apologize for not responding to the question more quickly!)
Until next time, happy writing!