The Crime Writers’ Association

Debut Dagger Writing Tips

Here are tips from recent newsletters compiled for you by Dea Parkin, the CWA’s Competitions Coordinator (and professional editor).

If you’re at the stage where your entry is finished and you’re into the all-important revision and editing process, how can you polish your work to make it really competitive?

Ensure Your Exciting Scenes are Fully Dramatised

Avoid simply reporting what should be live action: if it was on TV it would be a major scene, and so it should be in a novel, with plenty of your word count dedicated to it. It might sound obvious, but I often see people getting this wrong in the editing work I do and telling the big moments in abbreviated form rather than showing them take place in scintillating technicolour.

And the Converse: Don’t Spend a Lot of Words on Getting us from A to B

Ideally, start right in the action, but where you do have to let us know a change of scene or who someone is, make it interesting if you can, and if you can’t, keep it brief.

Avoid Clichés

Don’t start a scene with someone waking up in bed. Don’t have a character reveal their appearance by checking themselves out in a mirror. In 3,000 words, physical appearance shouldn’t be your main concern, but something like ‘her dark hair swung across his eyes’ or ‘he wasn’t quite tall enough to reach the cupboard, even in his cowboy boots’ will provide quite enough information.

Consider Removing Filters

Check to see how many times you’ve written phrases such as ‘he felt’, ‘she knew’ and ‘it seemed that’ or ‘she realised’. Wherever you can, delete them so you’re right in the head of your viewpoint character: That delay was suspicious. Sandra might have taken things into her own hands. Nothing wrong with that without using ‘He felt’ or ‘It appeared that’.

On Thoughts

You don’t always have to add a ‘he thought’ speech tag; see above. But if you put thoughts into the present, active tense, That delay’s suspicious you might want to italicise the words. Never put thoughts in inverted commas as you would speech. 

Are you in desperate need of losing a few words to keep the entry under 3,000 words and yet still get across your main scene? Here are some hints.

a) The word ‘that’ after phrases such as ‘I’m sure’, ‘they told me’, ‘she knew’, ‘he insisted’ is often redundant. Take it out and read aloud what’s left. You’ll know if it’s OK.

b) A major bugbear of mine, the word ‘then’. So often it’s used unnecessarily. If one thing happens, the subsequent action has to follow it; we don’t need ‘then’ to explain the chronology. Use Find in Word to check all instances and where the sense is unaffected, remove them. It saves your word count and it makes the writing stronger.

c) Same goes for the word ‘now’. When you’re describing action, we are by default in the present, so the word is often superfluous. It slows the writing down. Lose it wherever you can.

d) Look through for instances of ‘actually’, ‘really’, ‘slightly’, ‘very’ and ‘just’. Try deleting them. Chances are the writing will be stronger, and your word count reduced.

d) Hyphenated words only count as one (at least by Word, and that’s what we use to check). Please don’t hyphenate words that shouldn’t be hyphenated, that’s just irritating (check in a good dictionary), but one rule could be handy if you’re not aware of it: where you use compound words to form an adjective before a noun, they should be hyphenated to avoid ambiguity. So: ‘white-van man’, ‘ice-cream carton’, ‘old-school thinking’, ‘well-known writer’, ‘mixed-race society’. You need to know the rule’s exceptions, too: don’t hyphenate if there is no ambiguity (subjective…), or if the first verb is an adverb, as in ‘smartly dressed assistant’, ‘newly married couple’. (To save words in that instance, use ‘newlyweds’!) Generally hyphens aren’t used for compounds that come after a noun, so bear that in mind.

e) A mistake that I see more and more when editing. Unless you deliberately want the emphasis, don’t repeat the subject of a sentence later in the same sentence; ‘He was the best person for the job and he hurried to the interview room’. Remove the second ‘he’. And watch out when a verb form is repeated that can also be deleted such as ‘was’ or ‘had’: you only need it once in a sentence where the subject is exactly the same. The best grammar is to use the least words you can – just what you need to hear! 

f) One last one! These constructions, ‘began to’, ‘started to’, ‘tried to’. Go through them, and you’ll find around a third or maybe more will be unnecessary. Did she try to catch his eye or did she catch it? Did it begin to look dodgy or did it look dodgy? Was the child starting to cry or was he crying?

Follow these suggestions and not only will you reduce your word count, you’ll improve your writing.

One final word of advice: run a spellcheck through your entry. Not because you can’t spell, but to pick up any instances of ‘the the’, or where you’ve run two words together, or where a character’s difficult name has two letters transposed in one instance (find the one you know is correct and hit Ignore all;  if the spellcheck picks it up again you’ll know it’s spelt a different way). 

These are all hints and tips that are my stock-in-trade as a copy-editor at Fiction Feedback and if writers including competition entrants can benefit from them: good. 

After that it’s deep-breath time, and get your submission in. If you prefer to hold onto it until the last day just in case, then do yourself a big favour and buy your submission voucher asap from the shop. That way cuts down on possible last-minute disasters, which no one wants.

Questions or panics? If you can’t find the info you need in the rules and other stuff on the website, or you have a problem with your submission, email Dea on

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