So I sent off the first query letter for Knightspelle. I will be sending more out shortly. I'm excited and nervous and all those things. It's always a risk sending stuff out, and I'm trying to view the fact that I'm sending stuff out as a success in itself. (See David B. Coe's 4/11 post on success at Magical Words for a lot of thoughtful ideas about it.) There was a lot of talk about the "scrawled on rejection." That is, the rejection that is still a "no," but on which an editor or agent wrote something encouraging. It means that it moved beyond the standard form letter. The general idea is that agents, editors, etc. are busy, busy people. So, if they take the time to say something positive, especially if it is something like "this was close but not quite right for us. Query again!" it really does mean that a writer *is* close.
And I believe that's true. Mostly because I mean it when I write "you've improved! keep up the good work!" on student papers. I try very hard not to write something like that when it isn't true. There's a fine line between encouraging someone and, well, lying. I do this mostly because I believe in positive reinforcement as much as I believe in critique. Without critique, obviously a writer (or anyone, really, doing anything) won't get much better. But without positive comments, I think it is tough to improve, too.
A writer I edit told me mid-edit the other day that he appreciates that I point out the things that are working. It helps him keep his spirits up when I tell him things aren't working. It also is a feel good moment to know his writing worked. Finally, it's also useful to know what he does well. The moment struck me because years ago I said almost the exact same thing to my dissertation director. I told him I wanted him to be my director because he'd said positive things about my work. It wasn't that he'd said nothing negative--certainly not--but that he had taken the time to say things like "good argument here" or whatever.
So, as I'm thinking about querying folks, a I'm just reminded of how important it is to be positive, both about my stuff and other writers' stuff as well.