Next to the Holy Grail of the actual acceptance letter, the Lesser Holy Grail of submitting fiction is the Personal Rejection in all its forms.
Unfortunately in the industry, the personal rejection is pretty rare. The form is the norm. The Un-Holy Grail.
I, myself, have amassed my own collection of form rejections--two addressed to Ms. Wright (from the same editor), whoever that is.
But what, in the greater cosmic view, do form rejections mean?
First, it helps to understand some truths about what a slush editor does.
He reads. A lot! Thousands of stories per year. Of those thousands only a spare 10% or so will be passed on to senior editors for consideration. Of THOSE only an infinitesimal 10% (or less) will actually be published. And for the 90% of those first thousands, the slush editor has the responsibility of passing on the bad news.
It's also important to understand that, with the exception of a VERY few professional markets, who are funded and/or backed by a larger publishing/media/educational entity, most slush editors are doing it for the love. That's right. Most of us don't even get paid to do it. We do it because we love writing, we love reading, we love great stories, we love the hunt for the next great one.
In other words, we have day jobs and families and other interests. Slushing is secondary, tertiary, quaternary, or lower on our priority lists. And as you most certainly realize, time these days is short. We just don't have enough of it to respond personally to thousands of hopeful authors.
Oh, we wish we did. That's a pure truth. We wish we did because, for the most part, we're writers too. We know how wonderful it is to receive the Lesser Holy Grail--a personal rejection--maybe with some comments as to why the story didn't make it, a bit of encouragement.
Unfortunately some writers simply put too much meaning into the form rejection. "Oh, no! It means the slush editor hates me!!" Ridiculous, you say? Good for you. There are some writers who mistakenly take it THAT personally.
It's just a rejection, people. It COULD mean lots of things.
It could mean your fabulously-written story fell on the wrong editor's desk on the wrong day. For example, if an editor just accepted for publication a story about the pet dog of Marie Antoinette, and YOUR story is about the pet dog of Marie Antoinette, that editor isn't likely to want another story about the dog of Marie Antoinette.
It could mean your fabulously-written story contains thematic elements that are just plain seen too often. For example, at Flash Fiction Online we've seen far to many stories about death and depression lately. We're tired of death and depression. In another 6 months or so we may be YEARNING for stories about death and depression. But right now a story about death and/or depression (certainly a story about both) will get you a near-automatic slot in the rejection pile.
It could mean your awesome story isn't right for the market. Some markets make it obvious what kinds of stories they're looking for; others not so. If you're being smart about sending your story to possible markets (ie. you're not sending historical romance to Analog science fiction), you're doing fine. I admonish you to be particularly careful about excess violence/gore and erotica. I really don't want to see your slasher/porno stories in my slush pile, when it states pretty explicitly in our submission guidelines that we do not accept them. But for most stories and writers there is some uncertainty about what markets want. What do you do? Just send it. The worst they can do is send you a form rejection. That's NOT the end of the world.
It could mean your awesome story is hampered by spelling/grammar errors that spell/grammar check missed. It happens. But those errors do influence an editor's reading of the story. Those errors CAN determine whether a story will be considered for publication. Eyeball your stories before you send them out.
It could mean your story just didn't catch the slush editor's interest. Some stories don't. If you wrote an awesome story about cats, but the slush editor is NO cat fan, that will shade that editor's reading of the story. He can't help it any more than you can. It's just preference. Your story may also suffer from an inadequate hook and/or follow-through. Be sure your story catches and holds a reader's interest from beginning to end. If I, as a slush editor, find myself thinking of something else while I'm reading your story, it could mean that I'm just distracted, but it could also mean that your story isn't holding my interest. Me, personally, if I'm finding myself distracted while reading a story, I'll usually put my slush pile away and start again on that story later, when I'm fresh. If it still isn't keeping me interested it's the story, not me. Sometimes that happens at the very beginning of a story, sometimes in the middle somewhere, sometimes at the end. Any one of these isn't good. For a good book on maintaining a reader's interest throughout a story, try Nancy Kress's Beginnings, Middles, and Ends.
It could mean (I hate to say it, but it's often true) that your story needs work. Does that mean you shouldn't be writing? No. Absolutely not. Does it mean you shouldn't be submitting? No. Does it mean you suck? NO! I'm a teacher, and one thing I've learned right down to my core is that every kid learns at a different rate, and ALL kids need to learn the basics before they can adequately progress through more complex topics. If I have a student who is learning the basics quickly, he can go on to more complex subjects and learn and use the things he's interested in, while his best friend in the seat next to him may struggle a little longer with the basics, but he'll get there. But if I try to press more difficult subjects on the kid who's still struggling with the basics, he doesn't learn or retain or use those more complex topics with NEAR as much skill as the quicker learner.
Same is true of writers. We all take our own time learning the mechanics of writing. If you're just writing and not learning ABOUT writing, you're development will eventually cease, even if your raw talent is phenomenal. If you have little raw talent but you study and work like a dog, you'll eventually progress past the non-studying phenom. If you have neither raw talent nor any will to work, you really, honestly have no business trying to compete with people who do. If you have both you could make a name for yourself in no time. As a slush editor, I'd rather see the work of people with only work ethic than people with only raw talent. They're considerably more teachable, considerably easier to work with, considerably more deserving of a slot, in my opinion. And does it show? Oh, yes, my dears. It does.
How do you gain that work ethic? Stephen King states that it's primarily a matter of gluing your buttocks to the chair and doing it. Just write. But even he realizes that's only part of it. He wrote an entire book on the subject, after all. Stephen King's On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft. Of course it's more than that. It's studying--read every book on writing you can get your hands on. Writer's Digest has a whole series of books on the mechanics of writing. There are books about writing novels and short stories and poetry and flash fiction and novelettes and writing in general and specific writerly topics and...
Whoo! I'm out of breath!
You'll also read novels and short stories with the goal of learning from them in mind. At this point in my career, I'm almost completely unable to read a book without being critical of it. I know I've found a good one when I can read the whole thing without my 'inner editor' nagging me about characterization or description or dialogue or plotting or any of the other dozens of topics specific to writing mechanics.
It's also a good idea to join a writer's critique group--either live or online. A few good online ones I can recommend are Zoetrope's Virtual Studio, Hatrack Writer's Workshop, Critter's Workshop, Notebored. There are dozens of such groups on the web. Be careful. Lurk before joining in. Some places are peopled by trolls, which means they're poorly moderated. You don't want a place that's poorly moderated. We're all high-strung artists. Poorly moderated sites quickly get out of hand and lose any value to writers as supportive, helpful, learning places. Participate and get to know people, and eventually ask some of those online friends if they'd like to put together an email critique group. Otherwise, ask at your local library for any writer's groups that might be registered there. Or just keep looking. If you're active in writing pursuits, you'll find other writers in your area.
In the end, if you work hard and keep learning and submitting, you'll get published eventually. Don't give up. Don't take it personally. It's really, in the scope of your whole wonderful life, just a rejection.