Golden Heart–The Final Edit Before You Mail

It’s done! Fifty-five pages of Golden Heart genius. You’ve corrected the last typo, tweaked the margins so your entry ends on exactly the right word, and beaten your synopsis down to the right page length. You’re so sick of the entry, you want to just print out your six copies, pop them in the mail right this second, and then do a happy dance around the house. But WAIT….

Why? you ask. Why torture yourself any longer? Because even though you’ve edited and polished your entry, there may be some final touches that might make a difference between finaling or not. Remember, the Golden Heart is a tough competition, and even a fraction of a point could keep your manuscript from that final round. Your goal is not to give the judges any nitpicky excuse to mark you down or distract them from your fantastic story.

Here are a few tips that I’ve gleaned from years of entering and judging  in the Golden Heart and other contests:

1. Assuming you’ve left enough time not to incur a huge Fed-Ex or other mailing debt, try to set the manuscript aside for a few days, or even a week. This will give you some distance, and make it easier to take a fresh look.

2. Evaluate your opening and ending. Have you started and finished with a strong hook? Is there any way to tweak them to make them stronger? Ideally you want to snag your judge’s attention, and at the end, leave her on the edge of her seat, wishing she could read more. Remember, it’s better to end the entry sooner than the maximum allowed pages if you can make it a stronger hook.

3. Double-check to make sure there are no spelling, punctuation, and grammar problems in the opening and closing paragraphs. You don’t want any of these errors in the entire entry, but particularly on the opening and closing pages. You want to make a great first and last impression.

4. Zoom out on the computer screen or page through your hardcopy, and evaluate the white space on each page. Readers are drawn to more white space. Are there huge chunks of black ink that could be broken up into smaller paragraphs?

5.  Check your header. It’s easy to overlook this area.  Any spelling errors? Did you follow the correct format? Check to make sure the page numbers line up correctly and are in the right place through the entire entry. Sometimes numbers will slip to the next line when they hit the double digits if they are too close to the right margin.

6.  Hopefully you’ve already caught all the errors by now, but if there’s time, take a quick check of the grammar and punctuation again, especially in all the areas you’ve just edited. If you can get someone else to take a look too, even better. Have you used too many repetitive words? Do you have too many ‘ly words/adverbs and can you replace them with stronger verbs? Look for passive verbs and see if any can be made active. This can easily be done with the Find/Replace function in word processors. Check to make sure you have periods and commas in the correct places.

7. Before you print, consider the paper you are using. Is it bright and clean-looking? Is it an acceptable quality weight (like 20 lb.) and not too thin? You may want to consider even using a slightly better grade like 22 lb, which feels nicer and more high-quality in the hands. Also, this is not the time to skimp on the quality of printing. Some judges will be reading a lot of entries, and like editors, appreciate a manuscript that has dark letters and is easy to read.  

8. After you’ve printed out all the copies of your entry, it’s time to check every page of EACH entry. One time I was judging a Golden Heart entry, and a couple pages were missing in the middle of the manuscript. I called the RWA office and was told to go ahead and judge it as it was. This may have been just a printing error or pages got into the wrong stack, but if the contestant had checked her entries before she mailed, this mistake might’ve been avoided.

9. Also while you’re checking each page, watch for laser or ink splotches or random dots. Did one of the pages wrinkle when going through the printer? You may want to reprint those pages to get as neat and clean a copy as you can.

10. Make sure your entries are clipped securely. I use black binder clips, but there are other options. Check the contest rules to see if there’s a preference.

11. When mailing your entry to RWA, make sure your pages are protected. Rubber-band them together. If they are being sent in a mailing box, they have less chance of getting banged up. If you send in a soft envelope, then consider putting a more solid layer to safeguard your entries by wrapping manila file folders around them or using thin cardboard or cardstock in the package.

12. Before dropping it in the mail, double-check that RWA’s address is correct on the package. Verify other information like your credit card number if you’re dropping it in a Fed-Ex or other delivery company drop box.

13. If you’re perfectionist who has trouble letting go of your work or worries excessively, I find saying a little prayer helps. For someone religious, it may provide more peace of mind if you ask that the entries arrive safely and will go to the judges who will appreciate it. Think positive and dream big. Enjoy this moment in your career.

14. CELEBRATE! Having a finished manuscript and entering the Golden Heart is an awesome accomplishment. Take some time to reflect on what you’ve achieved, and plan for what’s next in your writing future.

Some of you may be thinking. “Is she nuts? Is this all really necessary?”

Maybe or maybe not.  You just don’t know what can happen in a contest. But if you do go the extra mile, at least you can say you gave it your best shot. A job well done is a reward in itself.

Does anyone else have any experiences, disasters, triumphs, or advice for last minute preparation of their contest entries?

Those leaving a comment by midnight will have a chance in a drawing to win a $15 Barnes & Noble Gift Card.

62 responses to “Golden Heart–The Final Edit Before You Mail”

  1. Ronempress says:

    All I know is, EVERY time I wait until the last minute, tweaking, and refining before having my “What the hell! You only live once and I want this out of my hair NOW!” moment, I discover in short time that I’ve made a collosal mistake. My discovery always occurs when it’s too late to make changes, of course.
    Make SURE you leave a few days before entering. Then go back through your entry and read everything into a microphone – something that will insure you’re talking and not reading. You’re much more likely to find errors that way.

    • Jeannie Lin says:

      I hate that d’oh! feeling. So while I pick over the manuscript before sending, I make a rule that I don’t look over it for a couple weeks after sending. Otherwise, I’d have a bruise on my forehead from smacking it over and over.

  2. Gwynlyn MacKenzie says:

    Excellent post, Kelly, and 100% on the money. Nothing quite like finally getting “baby” out the door only to realize you forgot to pack the clean diapers (Yes, usually by this point, you’re pretty sure you’re sending the biggest POS ever written!)

    However, thinking back to the glowing reports I’d get at parent/teacher conference, and the constant certainty they’d mixed up my imp with someone else’s angel, you can rest assured the judges will see your “child” differently than you do. And if you’ve bathed and powdered, coiffed and dressed to the best of your ability, then chances are the little dickens do you proud.

  3. Jeannie Lin says:

    This is a great sanity check Kelly! I so wish I had something like this in front of me when I was preparing to mail my entry. I remember sitting in my car outside the post office and thumbing through every page like you said.

    I don’t know if you said it, but I wanted to add, HEADER AND NUMBER YOUR SYNOPSIS PAGES!!!! I number mine independently from the partial. Meaning there’s a titled header and pages 1-5 on the synopsis. and another header and pages 1-50 on the partial. I’ve known of two very talented writers who were disqualified because of not numbering the synopsis.

  4. Good advice, Kelly. And I like to wave a horse shoe over my entry just before it goes to the post office–that’s my final step!

  5. Katrina C says:

    Thanks for the advice, Kelly! I’m sending in my manuscript from London, and we’re having postal strikes right now, so I think the massive bill from FedEx is inevitable.

    Or I could get my mom, who lives in California, to print off all my stuff and mail it for me. But that runs the risk of her reading it!

  6. Liz Talley says:

    Coming from the girl would was DQed because she didn’t number her synopsis (Darn five pages!) PLEASE let it sit and don’t rush it out.

    And bring plenty of extra paper clips, rubber bands, etc to put in your car. I learned first hand the postal workers don’t like giving your their binder clips!

    • Diana Layne says:

      “I learned first hand the postal workers don’t like giving your their binder clips!”

      ROFL at this image. I can just imagine…

    • Jeannie Lin says:

      Not you too!

      Your suggestion made me smile. I had colored paper for dividers (some Wet Noodler had suggested putting a colored sheet of paper in between the synopsis and partial), binder clips, paper clips — a stationary store in my passenger seat while I was assembling. I was doing the last minute thing so I had to rush from the printer to the post office.

      • Ami Weaver says:

        This is how I do it, too. In the front seat of the car, colored paper, binder clips, obsessively checking and rechecking the address. It’s become some kind of weird tradition for me!

        • Jeannie Lin says:

          This is fabulous! I wonder how many GH entries are assembled this way?

          • Liz Talley says:

            Me…last time I had my friend with me. She was frantically looking through my glove box, cupholders, under seats to find clips. She kepts saying, “Now what are you doing this for?’ LOL

  7. Diana Layne says:

    Pray, pray, pray, yes, yes, yes!

    Good tips, Kelly, thanks!

  8. Elisa Beatty says:

    AAAGH!!! All the technical details make me so nervous! I’ll be running right up against the deadline this year, since I’m racing to finish the ms, and I’m so afraid I’ll screw up some details.

    Add to that my five-year-old’s almost perfect instinct for recognizing when I’m under pressure, and responding to that by insisting on sitting in my lap….. Nothing like trying to type with a wiggly guy (and probably a stuffed triceratops) between me and the computer. (Bad mom…yes, I know.)

  9. Elise Hayes says:

    Yup, taking that extra week (if you can) without looking at the first 55 pages and then giving them a fresh read is hugely helpful.

    This week I’ve actually stopped the forward motion on my current wip (I still have about 50 pages left to go to have a finished first draft) and am working hard on the first 50 pages NOW. I’ll polish them up as best I can, and then let them sit for a week or two before doing the final read-through.

    Thanks for the post, Kelly!

  10. My printer likes to feed extra blank pages every so often, so always I have to check for any stowaways.

  11. Ami Weaver says:

    I can’t tell you how many entries I’ve gotten over the years with no hook! They just print out the first however many pages, add the synopsis for 55 and mail it off. I’ve even had one that ended in the middle of a sentence! The proofing is so important, too. I don’t mark down as a general rule for a couple of small mistakes, but any more than that yank me out of the story. If I’m reading from typo to typo, I’m not focusing on the story.

    Anyway, all great tips!

    • Shea Berkley says:

      Here is where I differ from many. I don’t care if an entry ends on a hook. We’re not getting a complete story, so just so long as I’m impressed with what I’ve read, I don’t expect to have an amazing hook at the end of a partial manuscript. But … it’s always nice to end it on a hook. And I definitely would end an entry shorter if I had a natural hook. I’m not one to mess with my story for contests. I want the real deal, not something fabricated just for a contest.

      Ending an entry mid sentence is just plain odd. I’ve judged some like that, though. Still, if it was amazing before that strange ending, I wouldn’t be put off from giving it a great score. Sometimes we can get too caught up in rules and regulations that aren’t really there. We just need to judge the story we’ve been given and not apply our own prejudices to the entry.

      • Ami Weaver says:

        Yes, you’re right. The GH is supposed to be judged on story, period. Which I do. A well-written, engaging story is going to hold my attention, period–I’m not going to even see typos and things. It’s also supposed to be your very best work. The story (not just the ms) should be polished to a high shine. (That synopsis however is a different story! I don’t ever mark down for a synopsis. God knows mine suck.)

        I think my convoluted point is the same as yours, Shea. A great story is a great story even if there’s something a little goofy with the ending or whatever, and deserves to be scored accordingly. I don’t nitpick other people’s entries. That’s East German Judge-ish. 🙂 I do, though, struggle to stay engaged when the story’s maybe a little weak and the little things become easier to see.

        Does that make sense?

        • Liz Talley says:

          Well, I’m convinced I finaled because I added a hook as my last sentence. Something like “secrets were better left buried” or something like that.

          I think it’s natural to want to read more when the author leaving you hanging. So then your natural though process is, “What happens?” Then it’s, “I want to read the rest.” Then it’s “Man, this is a good book!”

          I’ll give it a 9!!!!

          • I seemed to start doing better in contests when leaving a hook at the end of the entry, even when it meant leaving off pages. I know when I judge, those entries that grab my attention and leave me hanging (in a good way) tend to make me think those are great books, and I score it better. So, I agree, if at all possible, it’s best to end with a hook.

        • Shea Berkley says:

          Totally get it, Ami.

          And I’m not advocating not to use a hook. I’m just a little surprised at how many people will mark a person down when there isn’t one at the end of an entry. That’s why so many of us say it’s best to end an entry short if you have a natural hook earlier. No one is going to mark a writer down for ending on page 45 instead of 50 (but please just because there are ten pages left doesn’t mean a ten page synopsis should be done. I prefer a synopsis five pages and under like most people.)

          My point is more for the new judge who’ll read all these amazing tips and then think if an entry doesn’t end on a hook, well then, there goes a point. I’d be horrified if someone thought we were advocating that kind of judging. Sadly, there are those kinds of judges out there, and so ending on a hook is smart.

  12. Shea Berkley says:

    I’m like Laurie. My printer loves to spit out blank pages, so I go one page at a time through my entries. One year, my printer printed up a few half pages. If I hadn’t gone through them, it would have been a disaster. Great post, Kelly.

  13. Great post. So very helpful. Some of it seems so simple that you shouldn’t have to remind people, but after judging the the GH, I can attest that all contestants should read this post. *G*

    My printer has two things to watch for, slipping in a blank sheet of paper in the middle and sometimes the feeder will hang up just a little and the top half of the page will smear. Not good. I always, always do a page by page check and there are a lot of pages to check, but well worth the time.

    Now, back to polishing my GH entry!

  14. Wow. Thanks for all the great comments.

    Victoria–reading into a microphone is an excellent idea. Hearing the sentences outloud is a great way to check. Sometimes I have my daughter read passages outloud to me when we’re driving and we catch problems that way too.

    Jeannie–Great reminder about the header and numbers in the synopsis. It’s an easy area to overlook especially if you print them out from different files. I got to the point where I’d make a separate GH file and copy the pages and synopsis into one document and then do a Section Break and have a separate header and page numbers for the synopsis. Not sure if that makes it easier or not, but that way I could see total page count with the synopsis included. Of course then you have to be careful to make SURE that synopsis header is still correct when printed out.

    Gwynlyn–I agree with Jeannie and Liz–I love your analogy. Thanks!!

    Bev–Never thought about a horseshoe. 🙂 I might even have one around here. Luck can play such a huge role in contests. Like getting the right judges. It can be so frustrating when you get all 8s or 9s on the GH and one judge gives you a 5 (or lower).

    Katrina–Bummer about the postal strikes. Hope your entry arrives safely without costing a fortune. And I had to grin about the comment about your mom. 🙂

    Liz, Jeannie, and Ami– Yeah, I spent time in the car double, triple checking everything. Carrying extra supplies is a great idea, especially if you’re trying to beat the pick-up time–which I’ve done numerous time. Gets the adrenaline going. 🙂 I never asked for binder clips from the postal workers but one year when I was coordinating the Daphne published contest, the postal lady finally gave me a big roll of their Priority Mail tape. Guess they got tired of reinforcing packages themselves. (I already had them secure, but my small town postal people are sweet and worry.)

    Diana–praying works for me–gets me to drop that package out of my sweaty hand into the box. 🙂 When you hear the thud as it hits the bottom, it seems so final.

  15. Addison Fox says:

    Great post, Kelly!

    What was that old adage….nothing like mailing a letter to inspire a fresh thought. I think there is a parallel truism….nothing like putting the contest entry in the mail when you realize there is something you overlooked 15 times!

    This is a great checklist and a great way to avoid mailer’s remorse. 🙂


  16. Elisa–You can do it! The technical details are a pain, but the main thing is to turn in an awesome entry. And you’re doing it with a child who wants to be on your lap! I admire your drive. Don’t worry about the tech. details now. You can do a quick check when you get the manuscript done. Meanwhile– Goooo Elisa!!!

    Elise–great idea to stop and polish the entry so you have time to let it sit. I wish I’d thought about that those years where I was racing against the deadline to finish the book.

  17. Laurie, Tamara, Shea, and Jennifer– My printer will do that too–insert a blank page or print part of page on one sheet and finish on the next if it got jammed. There was one time though, where it wasn’t the printer’s fault. I can’t remember if it was a contest entry and/or a submission, but when I was doing a last minute check of my manuscript to make sure the chapters all started the same line, the ending of one chapter moved up and left a blank numbered page in the manuscript. This was after I’d checked each page on the computer, and I didn’t discover the blank page until the manuscript had been sent. Makes you want to thunk your head on the desk.

  18. Ami and Shea–Good points. I agree. a GREAT story is what counts. And I don’t mark down for an entry that ends in the middle of the sentence. Like Ami, I do find it odd though. Would they send a submission to an editor that way if she said send only a certain number of pages? I hope not.

    I also try not to nitpick when judging, but if there are so many mistakes I can’t focus on the story, then there is a problem. But an occassionaly typo, I can ignore (I still make an embarassing amount–even after numerous checks and having someone else copyedit).

    In other contests, usually there is a section on the scoresheet to score for professional appearance, but on the Golden Heart, we just have to give an overall number. I usually reserve a point for professional appearance/grammar/punctuation and only if they really mess up–like just plain sloppiness– do I take off a point or fraction of the point. And if the story is really terrific, I’m with Ami, I don’t tend to notice the little mistakes because the story has captured me.

    Of course other judges may be as easy-going and it only benefits us to make those manuscripts as polished as possible.

  19. Great post, Kelly. Lots of excellent last-minute tips!

    My printer doesn’t do the blank pages as much as it decides to suddenly spit out a mostly-blank page with some curly cues and odd symbols printed for a few lines. I’m wondering if it’s trying to critique my entry and I just don’t speak the language. 🙂

  20. Donnell says:

    Hmmm, why should we take this advice from a 3x Golden Heart finalist… Wait, LOL, Nuff said. Kelly, every word you said is reason enough to step back and not rush to slip those six entries into that envelope.

    I can’t tell you how many times after I’ve mailed off an entry, I want to get on my pony and race after the mailman. Looks really funny when you do that by the way.

    Congratulations on your phenomenal success and great post!

  21. Katrina W says:

    Great checklist! I never thought about going through each page but I sure will now. I already caught #5 where the last digit went onto the next line of the header but I’m sure I’m not the only one that’s happened to, so it was a fantastic thing to include. I so appreciate the time you spent in sending this out to us!

  22. Hey, Kelly! I was disqualified from the first contest I ever entered because I accidentally left my name in the header. I decided to change the category I was submitting to, so did a rush job on the final printing and didn’t notice the header mistake.
    Great tips!

  23. Tina Joyce says:

    Love the checklist, Kelly. I especially love #14: Celebrate! It’s such a great feeling to send that baby off knowing you’ve done everything possible on your end.

  24. Keli Gwyn says:

    Great tips, Kelly,. Number six is my downfall. I’ll rush to input a few changes at the end and introduce typos I then miss.

  25. Darynda Jones says:

    I have incurred the FedEx debt way too many times. It’s ridiculous that I procrastinate like I do. I am seeking help. And taking medication.

    Great post, Kelly!!!!

    • HI Darynda, Thanks! If you find something that helps that procrastination, let me know. 🙂 I consider Fed-Ex an expensive friend, that I shouldn’t be taking out as much as I do. I need a cheaper date.

  26. I’m going to print out this list so I can take full advantage. Thanks for the tips!

  27. Fantastic, Kelly Ann! I’m a little way off doing that little happy dance. Your checklist will come in handy.

    Contest disasters? I’ve had a few. Last year, I had an awful time with the postal service. Just four days before the GH deadline, I realised my entries hadn’t arrived in Texas, even though I’d sent them two weeks before. It takes five to seven days for mail to reach the US from Australia. But I was lucky–my dad lives in California. I emailed him my manuscripts, he printed them out and FedExed them to RWA. They got there in the nick of time, thanks to Dad. I can’t tell you how amazing it felt to final in the GH after that ordeal!

  28. Awesome post, Kelly. Another one to print off and keep handy.


  29. Miranda Liasson says:

    Thanks, Kelly, for the great advice. The stress is really creeping up in these final weeks and I wanted to thank you for the perfectionist/prayer part. That really resonated with me! And was a great reminder to keep life in perspective. Thanks so much.

  30. Kelly Ann Riley says:

    Kelly Ann Riley…that was an inspirational story. I too am Kelly Ann Riley. The STRONG FEMALE WARRIORS of this world must stick together. I feel like I know you and you have made my day a little brighter.


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