Another long one for #130!
Now sometimes, especially if you actually ARE a writing instructor, people who want your opinion will want to know specifics on how you think they should fix it. Those conversations can be constructive–if they’re invited. But I strongly believe that writers will learn better skills AND WRITE BETTER BOOKS if the choices they make about plot and character are cultivated from their own ideas for solutions. Exceptions exist, but in general if you’re a critique partner, beta reader, or supportive friend, it’s best to just say how you feel about what you’re reading and let the author choose how and whether to address it.
When I got feedback in high school from a friend who hit me with “When I write, I do this,” my first thought was “…And??” Was she suggesting I didn’t know an extremely basic, elementary-level writing technique? Was she trying to make herself sound cool, or make me think she was some kind of master I should look up to, as if I’d never written anything before and needed to be talked to like I was in third grade? I benefited not at all from this interaction that I had THOUGHT was between peers (just kids who liked to write, neither of us published), and came away from the interaction thinking both that she was being condescending and that she must have really low skills herself if she believed this was revelatory advice. What about my work made her think I need to hear this?
And that was the problem. I didn’t know where I might have lost her (or if, in fact, she really did just want to make herself seem intellectually elevated and enlightened). I was entirely taken out by the personal reaction to it, like who does she think she is that she can tell me what my writing lacks, even though she gave no examples? And though obviously some of the problem was that I was very young and inexperienced with receiving critical feedback (and so was prone to taking it personally), I also couldn’t articulate why receiving that commentary felt insulting and utterly unhelpful. If I had understood at that time that maybe I could guide her to say something more helpful about her experience reading the story, maybe we could have gotten somewhere.
So if you are someone who gives feedback, give your authors the freedom to fix their own problems and also provide this opportunity for them to disconnect from the potential for personal insult. Say how you felt about the work, and let them decide how and whether to address what you said.
. . . And like I said, authors who are determined to defend their work and write off any commentary even if it’s constructive in this way aren’t really asking for your advice because they genuinely want to improve their work, so no need to worry yourself about those.