Judging the Golden Heart – 101

Ah – Judges.

Those faceless souls we entrust our babies to. The nameless that give nary a thought to how much blood, sweat, and tears that our pride and joy has put us through. Or so at times we believe. With punishing red pens and thunderous keystrokes, they slice, dice and butcher us to the bones. Ouch.

We sink to our knees, throw our hands to the skies, beseech the Gods, calling out to Calliope, Muse of heroic poetry, and scream “Why-oh-why?” Another manuscript has unmercifully been throw on the blazing pyre, sacrificed like (gasp) last week’s TV Guide. In short, your beloved has bit contest dust.

You pick through the ashes, lovingly cradle your sweet and whisper “That’s right. Mama’s here. Mama’s got you. Everything will be okay.”

Most RWA chapter sponsored contests focus on many facets of entries – plots, character arcs, GMC, narrative, grammar, hooks, pacing – the list goes on, as it should. Judges evaluate what they read based on the guidelines set by each chapter. Authors should expect their contest results to be colored by experience and subjectivity. Sure, judges wield a certain amount of power. They are the gatekeepers to the final rounds, after all. But they are not sirens luring unsuspecting writers to their doom. Instead they can be the Graces which offer wisdom and guidance in your journey.

After allowing the brutal wounds to heal, you scrutinize over those sadistic judge’s comments and ghastly suggestions. Slowly you become objective. You listen, learn.  Maybe those judges were on to something. You pour more of your lifeblood into your masterpiece and you are rewarded for your efforts. But alas, more work is yet required. And you oblige, polishing until the shine reaches through the billowy white clouds to the heavens above.

At last, you capture the favor of the Goddess. She smiles fortune upon you and grants you a contest final. Praise be to Calliope! And yet, not sated, you want more.

Now that you have pleased the deity of pen, you set your sights on the most coveted prize for an unpublished author. Not the Golden Fleece. Not the golden egg-laying goose. Better. The Golden Heart®.

The purpose of the Golden Heart® as stated by RWA is to promote excellence in the romance genre by recognizing outstanding romance manuscripts. This is like the Emmys for the unpublished writer.

Here is the beauty of the Golden Heart®. The prestigious award is not centered on the craft (because you have already perfected this, right?) or on unspoken rules, or even on personal preferences. As a victim, myself, of severe, misguided subjectivity (they just don’t understand me), I especially appreciate this about the contest. The Golden Heart® is focused, above all else, on storytelling. Weave a spellbinding tale full of emotion, intrigue, and cast a burning curiosity, enticing your audience into wanting more. This is key to becoming a Golden Heart® finalist.

Five experienced judges score entries based on how well the story entertains them and enchants their imagination. But who are these magistrates that decide your fate? They are your peers in the RWA community, many of whom have achieved PRO status, all of whom have been or are still voyaging down the same path of recognition and validation as you. Judges rate entries with a numerical score ranging from 1 to 9, with 9 being the highest. Fractional scores in tenths are highly encouraged. This acts as a tuning fork of sorts in the ranking grid. The six scores are then added with the totals falling in one of three tiers; the top quarter, second quarter and lower half. Those in the top ten percent in each category, not to exceed eight, (nine in the case of a tie) are bestowed with a Golden Heart® Final. Achieving this is monumental as there are as many as 1,200 entrants. Whew!

Kneel and become honored by the Goddess for you have successfully completed the Herculean tasks put before you. You’ve crossed the wild grammatical oceans, cleared the POV pitfalls, defeated one-dimensional enemies, and slew the beasts of plot boredom. The judges, merciless and gracious alike, rejoice in your radiant, magnificent prose.

Just remember, the first step of the Golden Heart® odyssey is wooing those faceless, nameless arbitrating creatures with a captivating, mind-blowing story.

Come on, you can do it!

Today, one lucky commenter will receive a chapter critique of any genre up to 25 pages.

45 responses to “Judging the Golden Heart – 101”

  1. Ronempress says:

    Thanks, Jennifer! As you say, it’s been so hard to get to where I am, what are a few more cuts and abrasions before I reach this particular journey’s end? I just want to make sure my first chapter is as polished as I can make it. Right now, I’m afraid I’ve screwed it up a bit. Sigh. Off to try and fix it. Again. 🙂

    • You are not alone, Ronempress. I think we all feel the same way one time or another. Up a bit, is not bad. Your polishing efforts will shine through though.

      Great post, Jen.

    • Diana Layne says:


      try reading it out loud, it might help you pinpoint the things that are not working for you. I just started reading my first chapter this morning and one sentence was so long I ran out of breath. Not good. At least not for my style. 🙂

      good luck.

    • jbrayweber says:

      Ah – Ronempress, therre will always be someone who will wield that pen/sword to your work. The key is to know when to accept their comments and suggestions and when to let it go.

      I get very frustrated at times becuase I think I’m there. Others think I’m there. But then still others will say nope.

      We have to keep hanging in there and believe in ourselves.

  2. Diana Layne says:


    whew, it is so subjective, isn’t it? Some are gonna love us, some are gonna hate us–hard to pick up and go on after the “haters” lol, but it is a necessary skill to learn.

    Beautiful post!

    • jbrayweber says:

      The first time I got a really ugly judge, I laughed at her comments. And then, after thinking about all the things she had “suggested”, I got down right mad. It took me a few weeks to get over all the things she had said. Had I been of weaker disposition, I may have stopped writing. In retrospect, encountering a “Hater” early on made me a stronger person able to handle criticism much easier.

  3. Elise Hayes says:

    You’re so right about taking some time between getting a set of judge’s scores and then sitting down to read their comments. Most of the time, I’m just not ready to read right away the comments of someone who gave my entry a low numeric score. In fact, it usually takes me about 6 months before I’m ready to look at those comments and actually listen to them.

    And the thing is, once I’ve given those comments that waiting period, they’ve almost always resonated for me. The judges who gave me low scores (for the most part) really knew what they were talking about–and devoted an enormous amount of time and energy to giving me pointers about how to strengthen my storytelling. These judges are, as you point out, our peers–and they’re trying to help their fellow peers with their own hard-won wisdom.

    So definitely build in some “shelf time” for judges’ comments. Don’t throw them away, just put them aside for a good long while. Even if that’s 6 months or a year, they’re probably going to be worth coming back to!

    • jbrayweber says:

      Hi Elise!
      I really like the idea of shelf time. Even with good scores, we still need to process what the judges have pointed out. Like you said, so often what they have said has some sort of value to you as the author.

      • Elise Hayes says:

        I actually figured out my “shelf time” rule by accident. I had entered a contest and gotten strong scores from two of the judges. The third, however (listed as a published author), gave me mediocre scores that had (in my perspective at the time) kept me from finaling. I read over her comments then and there, sniffed, and said, “huh, none of this is useful.”

        But one of the advantages to being a bit of a pack-rat and not terribly organized with my paperwork is that I just put the whole packet onto a shelf to deal with (i.e., throw away) later. It was a year later before I found it again and opened the packet wondering what the heck it was. I was in a really different writing space by then–I’d started working with a critique partner and had started figuring out some craft issues I needed to work on. And when I re-read those judge’s comments, purely out of a strange sense of curiosity, before finally getting around to throwing them away, they really resonated with me.

        Now I build in “shelf time” for all of my contest entries.

        • Liz Talley says:

          I really like that idea. When you are so close to your work, it’s hard to read what others think is wrong with it.

          The idea of waiting at the very least a month or two is a good idea.

          • Elisa Beatty says:

            Absolutely! I know I read criticism VERY QUICKLY the first time, holding my breath, with my eyes almost squinted shut. That first glance, whether the critique is positive or negative, is like getting swamped by a wave.

            You need to let that wave wash over you, and give yourself time to feel flooded with all of the angry/angsty/mournful/resentful stuff that can come with it. Then you need to allow time for all that excess emotion to ebb away.

            It’s only after that that you can take another deep breath, and realize that you may be clutching a couple of pearls in your hands, or at least some pretty seashells. (Or maybe it’s all just stinky seaweed…but you can drop that…and go find the hand sanitizer.)

  4. Judges sometimes just don’t understand me either. It’s a beautiful thing when two or three judges fall in line together and can agree they love your writing.

  5. Great post! And so true. For all of the great first round judges out there, you still get a couple that really know how to use the red pen and nail you to the wall. Although I must admit whether the judge is friendly or abrasive, I’ve always found something useful in each crit’d entry. The trick is listening to your gut to see if there is some truth in their comment, instead of listening to your head which doesn’t want to accept anything a blunt, scathing judge has to say.

    As for judging the GH, I absolutely love when a story sweeps me away and I get lost in what is happening instead of whether the commas are all in the right place or they are using all five senses. LOL. Sometimes you can’t help but notice the basic errors, but sometimes you get lucky. Last year, I got a couple really good entries. I was bummed none I judged made it to the finals. Maybe this year I’ll get to judge a finalist. That would be so cool.

    • Elise Hayes says:

      Jennifer–I think you’re right that the real key is to listen to your gut. The story ultimately belongs to the writer–so we have to be the ones who make the final decisions about which bits of advice to pay attention to and which to discard (although I still think it’s a good idea to give a set of judge’s comments six months of “shelf time” before you decide there’s nothing in them for you 🙂

  6. jbrayweber says:

    Hi Jennifer!

    As a judge, it’s exciting to see one that you judged make it to the finals. You can’t help but root for them. I, too, read some great Golden Heart entries last year but didn’t see them make it. Just goes to show you that there is tough competition out there. Wouldn’t it be fun to read them all?

  7. I also love that there is no score sheet in the GH. In chapter contests the focus is on craft and the questions tend to force judges to score according to the so-called unofficial rules of romance writing. We all know that some of the most successful novels have been the ones that broke all of those rules.

    • Liz Talley says:

      This is true. Sometimes in a chapter contest, I love the writing, the story, the characters, but when it comes to the scoresheet, I have to mark down.

      That’s a bummer.

  8. jbrayweber says:

    You’re right, Laurie. It’s so frustrating to be zinged for issues that seem to have no bearing on what’s being published.
    It really is all about great story-telling.

  9. Such an apt post! My first contest, I was very thin-skinned. Definitely had to wait before I could process their spot-on comments. Now I’ve toughened up and learned that’s one of the best things about contests–they toughen you up for editor/agent rejections. 🙂

  10. Liz Talley says:

    I have gotten fairly tough over the years regarding contest comments. But sometimes they do get to you.

    Just last week I received my scores back on a contest I entered before I sold. Ouch! They really hurt – and they were on the ms I sold. These comments were from the final round judges and the editor must have hated it.

    But, hey, I found an editor who did like it.

    Just goes to show that editors and agents are like readers. Some will love it; others will think a better use for your ms is lining the hamster cage.

    Great post, Jenn!

    • jbrayweber says:

      I soooo know what you mean, Liz. I just got back scoresheets from two different contests. True to nature, 2 of the 3 judges from each contest liked what they read. And then one….
      I finaled in one contest and not the other. Subjectivity.
      What makes it hard is when one judge loves a sentence, piece of dialogue, plot point, etc. and another thinks you need to rewrite the whole thing.
      Subjectivity. LOL!

    • Elise Hayes says:

      Take the low scores as a compliment, Liz–your writing got a big reaction from the reader.

      When your work starts getting either rave reviews or super-low scores, I figure you’ve just got a strong “voice” as a writer. Some people will love your work, while other people will hate it–but they’ll all remember it! 🙂

  11. Gwynlyn MacKenzie says:

    Putting yourself (because, in truth, isn’t that what we’re doing?) out there for nameless, faceless judges to decimate takes courage but is necessary for growth. A couple of judges is nothing when compared to the gazillion readers who will sit in judgement of you when your published. So contests are rather like dipping your toe in the ocean to test the water.

    Most contests, unlike readers, offer the comments and criticisms necessary to to wash away the grit and sand the manuscripts accumulate through their time on the beach soaking up the accumulated rays of inspiration. Some get cooked, others burned, but contests are the aloe that gets to the good stuff underneath.

    While useful, we have to be careful lest the work drown within the contest ocean. Too much of even a good thing is bad.

    • Gwynlyn MacKenzie says:

      Make that “when you’re published.” I have to learn to read these things over before hitting submit. *sigh*

    • jbrayweber says:

      I love your beach/sun analogy, Gwynlyn. You have a real gift for words, my dear. I always enjoy reading (and listening) to what you have to say.
      I agree with you about a manuscript drowning in the contest ocean. No matter how seaworthy our manuscript is, there is always a gale or two that can capsize it. We must know what works for us and what doesn’t.
      Thanks so much for your wisdom!

  12. Shea Berkley says:

    Great post, Jenn! Contests can be painful, yet they are far more useful. Sure you’re going to have some judges who just won’t understand your story, but if you enter enough contests, you should see a pattern emerge. If enough people tick you on the same weaknesses then you know you’ve got a problem.

    I do love the Golden Heart because, by its nature, it points the reader toward storytelling. Not perfection necessarily, but storytelling, which encompasses grammar and sentence structure and all that stuff that makes up the craft of writing. Yet, it’s cool when I begin to read and I’m sucked in and don’t look up until page 50 and then grumble because I want more. I don’t notice the mistakes, and the flaws because the story is so amazing. I love that part. That’s what a finaling manuscript should do, make you forget about the construction of the story so that all you’re doing is reading a great story.

    • jbrayweber says:

      Yup, Shea. It’s all about the sparkling story. The mistakes fall to the wayside when the story shines. As a previous GH judge, I can honestly say that its satisfying to read a great story penned by my peers in this crazy world of romance writing.

  13. Jeannie Lin says:

    Being judged is scary! I always scroll down through the scoresheet real fast to try to gauge how bad it is. Then I’ll come back later — much, much later to actually read comments. But it’s good for me, I know it is.

    I always look forward to judging the Golden Heart as well as other contests. I love finding something that really excites me. I think all these contests are part of the reason romance publishing is thriving. It’s such a supportive community.

    • jbrayweber says:

      I think you just nailed it, Jeannie. Romance writers ARE supportive of one another. Where else can you find such encouragment, support and enthusiasm from the very people you essentially compete with. It’s a beautiful thing!

  14. Tina Joyce says:

    I agree completely with the idea of putting some time between your “first read” of judges’ comments and a second read. There are times when it stings far too much to read them indepth, but when I go back at a later date, I might see those same comments in a whole new light.

    Thanks for the fun post. I especially loved the image of a mother picking up her injured “baby” and cradling it in her loving arms.

  15. What a wonderful post! I must say, part of the reason I like the Golden Heart is the lack of judges comments – it’s kind of nice just to get a straight “I liked it.” or “I didn’t.” once in a while!

    • jbrayweber says:

      Hi Mary.
      I, too, find the “I like it” or “I didn’t” refreshing. Especially when I can see it on a scale. It’s a great gauge in finding out how well you entertained your readers.

  16. Darynda Jones says:

    I could not agree more with this, Jenn! The GH is beyond what the chapter contests do. I feel it is so much more about presentation and story. Presentation meaning how well it’s written. Does it grab the reader from the get-go? Does the intrigue, humor, or tenderness keep you glued to the page? Does the story keep you turning the pages?

    Very nice, Jenn!

  17. Stephanie says:

    I’ve gotten great advice from judges. I didn’t want to hear most of it at the time, though! It’s really hard to look at your manuscript with a new set of eyes and realize that it isn’t strong enough to sell yet. I’ve been pretty lucky–the contest comments I’ve received have told me to take more risks, and it’s made my manuscript better. I hope that what I’ve got now will make the judges want more!

    • jbrayweber says:

      Risk is scary but does allow personal growth. I’m of the mindset to always jump in with both feet. Many times, the payoff, whether initially good or bad, is worth it.

      Good luck, Stephanie!

  18. CJ Chase says:

    Here’s a quick anecdote for anyone who’s feeling stung by a contest judge. Some years back I got a very low score from a judge. Very low. However, Tough Judge, who is a pub’d author, signed her name, so I bought one of her books. I tried to read it. And I stopped around Chapter 2. A couple of months later, I found that book and really tried to read it. Stopped at Chapter 4. And then, I tried yet one more time. Nope. I just could not get into that book. I didn’t like the characters. I didn’t like the plot. I didn’t like the writing.

    It was an eye-opening contest experience. I was no longer surprised she gave me such dismal scores. We just like different things — too different to probably ever come to a meeting of minds. There are thousands of books published every year. Some I love, and some I don’t even finish.

    So, sometimes when you get Tough Judge, consider that you will never please all the readers in the world.

    • jbrayweber says:

      Wonderful point, CJ.
      Try as we might, we will never, EVER please everyone all the time. And we shouldn’t worry about those that don’t like what we write.
      I refuse to change my heroine’s murderous action in one of my opening scenes just because it doesn’t fit with the way someone else would writer her.

  19. Great post, Jenn! Very timely for me. I’m in the middle of judging a contest now. I’ve been fortunate enough to receive constructive criticism in the past and I’m doing my best to pay it forward. No slicing, dicing or butchering here! Well, maybe a little, but I’ve been ever so gentle.

  20. jbrayweber says:

    A teasspoon of sugar to help the medicine go down, right Vanessa?


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