I saw a couple of my friends online discussing "nice" rejections today, so I thought it would be a good idea to revisit the topic, especially since I received one of those relatively recently.
Nice rejections count, people. In a number of ways.
First, they mean that someone took the time to look at your story and really think about it. In the pell-mell world of vast electronic mountains of stories, that's a really important thing. Everything you write that gets some time under an editor's eye should be considered progress, because among other things it enhances the possibility that the editor will remember you should you appear on his or her desk in the future. This year I received a personal email from an editor to whom I had never sold a story, asking me to consider submitting to his new magazines. Now, that may have been because of my published work in Analog, but it may also have had something to do with the fact that I'd also been sending him stories for years at another venue. Every submission you make is a part of your identity in the mind of an editor.
Second, nice rejections mean you're getting close. If the editor really couldn't stand your story, she wouldn't give it a single moment's thought, much less the time it takes to give you comments (however short those comments might be). There was a period of at least a year when almost every rejection I got was "nice," but I had never sold anything. Boy, was that frustrating! But the fact was, I was getting close, even if close lasted a lot longer than I wanted it to.
Third, nice rejections are gold. There's a reason these people are editors. They have (generally) excellent story sense, and so you should listen to what they have to say. I have done rewrites on just about every story that I've gotten a nice rejection for. An editor doesn't have time to tell you what to do in a nice rejection - only to tell you what didn't work for them, and possibly a little something about what they liked. It's your job as the writer to take that information and make something of it. For me it goes something like this: "Gee, he felt confused at the beginning because, as he says here, he lacked a mental image for it at this point. I'd better make sure that I'm giving someone a mental image right about there...and maybe I can start that image right back here at the beginning, so everybody feels more grounded." By the time I'm finished, even though I'll never have a chance to send that same story to that same editor, I still feel as though the story is stronger. And if the story is stronger, the chances that it will land at some other venue go way up.
So writers, be grateful for those nice rejections. Don't feel like you haven't gotten anywhere. It was a lengthy nice rejection that propelled me into the revision that got me my first sale. Those rejections count, and if you treat them right, they can make a difference for your future as a writer.