Many literary magazines routinely send out form rejections with the following types of statements:
Thanks very much, bla bla… Unfortunately, the story is not right for us at this time. We wish you better luck in placing it elsewhere.
Thanks very much bla bla… Unfortunately, we have decided to pass on the story… Writing is very subjective and just because we rejected it does not mean that some other magazine will not accept it. We wish you good luck in trying it with other publications.
I often hear from these slush readers that the vast majority of stories sent to them are ‘terrible’. If that is true, then it seems dishonest and irresponsible that they would be sending form rejections with such obvious falsehoods.
When someone uses words like "at this time," it strongly implies that the same story could have been published by them in different circumstances. It also implies that the story can be sent to them again at a different time. Yet, we know that these magazines have a policy of not allowing rejected stories to ever be sent to them again even if they are improved, which makes the words "at this time" ridiculous. Also, adding “good luck” to the words "placing it elsewhere" is also clearly misleading and dishonest with respect to poor-quality stories.
If the purpose is to be ‘kind’ to the rejected author, it seems to me that there are obvious alternative ways of writing (genuinely) kind and helpful rejection forms without lying to the novice authors or misleading them. One such way is the following:
Thanks very much for trying your story with us. While you had interesting ideas, we personally felt that more work is needed in improving the story. Please do not be disheartened; writing is a skill that takes time to master and the competition is fierce. If you keep at it, you will no doubt be successful. Also, for future submissions, we suggest testing your stories with beta readers and writing groups before sending them out. We wish you best of luck in your writing career.
I wrote that on the fly in just under a minute. As you can see, it is both very comforting and honest. Another example, which is neutral and doesn’t involve making any comments on the nature of the submission, would be:
Thanks very much for trying the story with us. Unfortunately, it doesn't suit our magazine. Feel free to try other stories with us in the future. We wish you best of luck.
Of course, there are many different variations of them. But the bottom line is that they are polite, kind and do not involve lying.
From my experience and observations, the vast majority of people appreciate honest feedback as long as it is done kindly. There is nobody who would write an obviously poor quality story and then throw a tantrum when kindly told that it isn’t perfect.
At the end of the day, if these editors lack the imagination to compose rejection forms that do not involve being dishonest and misleading, then why don't they just simply say "story declined", or something to that effect, and move on?