Constructive criticism needs to be exactly that, something a writer can build off of.
First time writers often share their writing with family members or friends looking for these building blocks of helpful critique. Sadly, their feedback usually includes polite platitudes, impressed that their child/buddy/spouse actually wrote something creative. Or, worse, their attempts to stay neutral or give an honest feedback results in vague words about it being ‘okay’, ‘just fine,’ when what you need is helpful directions on how to improve.
Even avid readers can’t always explain why they like certain authors or the technique involved in getting readers to turn the page. If you give them your initial draft, they often can’t explain why they struggled to finish it other than ‘it was slow.’
However, family and friends are great for encouragement. If all you need is a pat on the back or a ‘good job,’ pass your pages around at the next reunion or Sunday dinner.
To reach a higher level, to improve, and learn from critique, you need someone who knows the writing process and reads enough in your genre to give you helpful feedback.Critique partners or beta readers are a good starting point. These individuals are either writers themselves or have enough experience to discuss characterization, plot, and motivation. As symbiotic relationships these give writers a great chance to learn from other writer’s mistakes. If you have to slow down and analyze another writer’s work -- I’m not talking about breaking down the Great Gatsby -- it helps you see your own progress and struggles in a new perspective. As you are forging this ongoing relationship, it takes awhile to get comfortable enough to be honest and make strong arguments why something needs to be cut or further developed.
Developmental Editors and Copy Editing are an important final step. New eyes uninfluenced by your ten minute explanation of what your story is supposed to be is vital. If it isn’t on the page, if I can’t gleam it by reading your words, then the reader won’t either. You aren’t there to tell them like you are with critique partners. They will point out opportunities and should give you concrete ideas and steps on improving individual scenes and the project as a whole. The best editors will make you feel empowered with new knowledge.
You’ve paid for their experience and wisdom. They won’t hold back on telling you exactly what the story needs. Perhaps you receive this level of edit from your publisher’s assigned editor. In this indie world, more and more people are self-publishing and should hire an experienced editor for this process.