The Crime Writers’ Association

Notes on Word Count for CWA Writing Competitions

Different competitions have different rules – and different levels of rigour in the way they apply them.

For the Debut Dagger we are super-strict. We ask for entries not to exceed 3,000 words (1,500 words for the synopsis) by even a word. The title and any chapter headings are excluded from the count.

We use Word to check the word count where an entry has been submitted in Word, and if the entry has been submitted as a pdf then while it might be later in the process before we check, we will before it can be longlisted. So please do yourself a favour, and don’t write a word over the limit.

Sometimes we’re asked where a writer should finish, as it’s unlikely to be bang on 3,000 words. Here are some tips.

I’ve been asked if entries are marked down if they’re significantly under the maximum word count. Well, no, they’re not marked down for that in itself, but if the entry is hundreds of words fewer then you’re putting yourself at an immediate disadvantage compared to the many, many entries we receive which make the most of the word count to show off their writing and expose their story. So my advice for a writing competition such as the Debut Dagger or Margery Allingham – unlike when you’re writing for an anthology when a shorter piece of work than the limit can often be acceptable and even advantageous – would always be to make the most of that word count.

Regarding the synopsis; again the word count is there to be taken advantage of. You’ll probably be aware that publishers ask for synopses of far fewer than 1,500 words, usually between 750 and 1,000. The reason the Debut Dagger has such a generous allowance is to allow you to explain your novel in more detail, perhaps including subplots, and help us when it comes to scoring the entry on criteria such as Originality of Plot, Execution of Plot, and Plausibility. So our advice is to again take advantage of this word count. But don’t use it to give us things other than a synopsis, such as a blurb like you’d find on the back of the novel, or comments from other people about your novel. An elevator pitch is fine, but after that, a traditional synopsis telling us what happens, when, how and why right up to the last reveal is what we’re looking for.

In the field in the entry form where it asks for the word count, the total word count is fine. It mustn’t be over 4,500 words for the Debut Dagger, excluding titles or chapter headings.

A last note – for a new chapter, please start a new page (use Control and Return/Enter to create a hard page break). We will always look beyond a page where the writing appears to finish in case there’s another, so don’t worry about that. And you can of course show the total number of pages with the page number to be ultra-clear.

Please ensure the synopsis starts on a new page too after the novel opening.

If you’ve submitted your entry and haven’t followed the advice about new pages above, don’t worry because you haven’t broken any rules, but it’s the convention for writing and so a good habit to get into for all your submissions.

If you’ve submitted an entry where you have exceeded the word limit, you might want to resubmit. Contact me asap and of course before the deadline if you have questions:

Dea Parkin
Competitions Coordinator

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