Today, I'd like to talk about the positive rejection letter.
To those outside the field, that might seem like an oxymoron: any rejection letter is bad news, surely. Or is it?
There are tiers to rejection letters, and every time a writer gets a higher-tiered response from a market, it represents progress ... or at least, that's how I look at it. The converse isn't necessarily true, of course, unless it's a repeated pattern: a form rejection from a market that previously wrote words of critique / praise can often simply mean that particular story wasn't a good fit (or you were "off" when you wrote it, or there's an undetected problem in that specific work, or ...).
Roughly, I think the tiers are:
1. Form rejection - a stock reply with no alteration.
(Or 1. From a slush editor; 1.5. From a senior editor.)
2. Form rejection, but with an encouraging comment / personalized request to submit again.
3. "Negative" rejection, but with a detailed analysis of why the piece didn't work for them. Editors are crazy overloaded; with a few exceptions of markets that make the distinction that they respond to everyone, getting this kind of reply means they saw enough good in the story to want to see it improved, even if not explicitly expressed.
4. Positive rejection - ah, here we go. This is a rejection that is mostly good words and praise, but contains one (or more) reasons why the story simply doesn't work for that editor.
(4.5. That reason is "just our personal taste.")
5. Rewrite request. "We like this story, but ..." with another reason it doesn't work, but an invitation to rework and resubmit, with no acceptance guaranteed.
The next step is the minor rewrite request, where the market says they'll accept the work with a couple small tweaks, but I don't think I'd classify that as a rejection letter any more.
Add to that the levels of various markets. I don't want to name names or point to examples, but I think most of the writers I keep in touch with would agree they'd be over the moon to get a 3 or higher from some place like Strange Horizons or Beneath Ceaseless Skies, whereas that would just be discouraging from many other markets. I have a personal soft spot for Andromeda Spaceways Inflight Magazine, and they rank higher on my list than they might on most.
A targeted rejection letter gives you two benefits: first, some idea what might need to be tweaked in the story (unless the rejection is a 4.5); and second, a more personal feel for what the market prefers, aside from reading published submissions. Honestly, I'm not great about classifying my own work (is this dark? Is it literary?), but I can usually tell you when two of my stories are in a similar vein, so I find this very valuable.
So ... that's my (considerably more than) two cents on why rejection letters can be a positive development.
But I still hate 'em.