My readers have always been encouraging and occasionally give great feedback, but I've learned an important lesson--it's hard for people who don't write to critique fiction. If they read a lot, that helps, but even then comments boil down to vague impressions that leave a writer screaming for details. "That scene didn't work for me," or "I didn't like that character," or the dreaded "It was okay," one-sentence summation of the books. I want to hear their thoughts, but sometimes when it's so broad it's hard to know what to fix.
Nowadays, I still love to have friends and family read my writing, but I tailor my expectations about the comments I expect back. Some people will be better than others, but I rarely look for sentence-level criticisms (or even page for that matter) from most people.
Enter the exception. My friend Nate has his MFA in poetry, and has been accepted for a creative writing PhD program in South Dakota. We've had good discussions about writing before, with intentions to swap work eventually. And boy did it pay off! Nate's got a method to how he critiques, which means that he read through it twice, and made lots of specific comments throughout. He's teaching composition classes at local colleges at the moment too, so he spotted some grammar and construction issues that I would have been hard pressed to pull out, but that once he showed me a few examples are blindingly clear. It was like having a bright light turned on my writing, and it's going to help me a ton.
Equally as important, though, Nate has that most important ingredient in a good critique--he knows how to tell you what's good, and leads off with it. He had several well thought through items he liked about the book (some of which are areas I've been working on in past drafts), he picked up on subtle elements that I've buried in there that no one else has mentioned before, and overall really lifted my spirits. Since the trip, it's been hard getting back into the flow of writing, but after sitting down with him, I feel recharged and ready to dive in.
He passed along a short story of his, the first thing I've had the chance to read from him. I think this is going to be fun!