Agents often reply to submissions with printed forms rather than personal notes, not only because it is easier, but because certain writers, like certain desperate drunks in a singles bar, will take any personal words to be a form of encouragement and then send a revision or another manuscript, and waste valuable time the agent could spend playing Minesweeper or Googling themselves.
It’s true: writers do tend to study personal notes from agents (and even more so those from editors) like a haruspex searching entrails for a sign. (I myself practice Gyromancy—divination by spinning in circles—rather than the entrails bit; it’s cleaner, and safer as well, once you learn to avoid crashing into the coffee table.) And if it’s a well-reasoned letter, it’s hard not to take the observations to heart.
One ought to be wary of doing so, however, unless the same criticisms and recommendations crop up again and again. I’ve been pretty lucky (if that’s the word for it) in getting personal feedback in rejections. As an example of why one might not want to start drastic revisions based on the personal feedback from a single rejection, I’d like to share excerpts from some of the rejections (in most cases, from a look at the first three chapters) of my unpublished novel Tomorrowville (yes, there's the origin for the name of this blog):
This has got a good narrative pace, smooth, fluid prose, and outstanding dialogue. The plot is original and unusual. I’m afraid, though, that I felt I needed more characterization—more about your protagonist’s inner conflicts…
I think you have an excellent ear for dialogue and I love your characters. Unfortunately, I found the plot just a touch familiar…
Your plotting and prose are excellent and your characters are well-rounded, but your dialogue has serious problems...
I’m afraid I don’t represent science fiction.
As you are probably aware, 90% of what I sell is science fiction, so political satire is outside my list.
Not my cup of tea; it’s a bit too much of a techno-thriller for me.
I have no idea how to move comedy in today’s market.
I see this as a hip summer movie rather than a novel.
Try revising on the basis of that input. Hence my reliance on Gyromancy, though I’m thinking about taking up Margaritomancy.*
*(No, that’s not divination by drinking Mexican cocktails. It’s divination through casting pearls. Swine optional.)