Third, the acquisition editor's rejection letters actually provide a great deal of useful information, if one knows how to interpret them.
A form letter rejection means one is not yet within the ballpark, either because one is submitting to the wrong publisher, or because the work is not yet up to standard. Sorry, but again, don't shoot the messenger.
Occasionally, when an author's work shows promise, an acquisition editor will write a few words of encouragement, or point out one or two flaws that are keeping the author in the slush pile. This is an act of generosity, because every second spent writing a comment represents extra, unpaid labour for an overworked, highly stressed editor who could save him/herself a lot of effort simply by sticking to the boilerplate. Consequently, the more detailed the comments, the greater the implicit compliment -- that the editor believes the author shows enough promise to be worth the investment—even if the comments themselves appear quite negative.
If an acquisitions editor scribbles, "Not for us, but try us again" in the margin of the rejection slip, that's very a positive sign. One is within hailing distance of being accepted, but the editor already had too many time travel stories that month, or the story just didn't quite work for them, but they still saw something they liked. Put that magazine or publisher at the top of the list for next time: put some time and energy into researching the current issue / recent releases from that publisher to write something specifically targeted to that market. But one should only send one's very best work as a follow up to such a nibble -- do not make the beginner mistake of immediately shipping off everything in one's bottom drawer, especially if any of those manuscripts has already garnered a few rejections elsewhere.
Longer comments are worthy of close examination. At first glance, the hastily scribbled comments of an acquisition editor may appear confusing, off target, or just plain stupid. Yes, the editor wrote, "didn't like the snake on page 25" when one doesn't happen to have any snakes on page 25, or elsewhere. It doesn't mean, as one often hears asserted, that the editor didn't even read the manuscript, or that they got the pages interleaved with someone else's draft. Far more likely, the editor was referring to the character of the brother-in-law and is trying to tell the author that she thought the characterization too obviously evil, or some such. Scribbling a quick (in their mind, helpful) comment on a rejected manuscript, acquisition editors often express themselves poorly. They literally cannot afford to take the time to make precise, thoughtful comments, unless an offer is on the table to buy the book. But careful examination of the confusing, oracle-like pronouncements of these acquisition editors can be useful in identifying problematic areas of the manuscript.
Of course, acquisition editors don't always say 'no'. They make their careers by discovering talented authors and advocating for their nominees within the company. When those authors produce for the company, the editor moves up in the organization. So they are highly motivated to help (marketable) new authors get published. Once they have a manuscript they feel they can work with, they either change to development editor mode, or (if the work is flawless) pass it on to a copy editor.
This column originally appeared in Writer-in-Residence: Common Sense Guidance for Writers by Writers, curated by Krista D. Ball. http://writer-in-residence.blogspot.com/2011/03/editor-is-not-your-enemy.html