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Judging Guidelines: Unpublished Manuscripts

If you would like to volunteer as a judge, please contact:


The judge’s guidelines cover two aspects of judging:

  1. What to look for when evaluating the quality of this year’s submissions
  2. How the judging process works


Evaluating the submissions

What is a crime book?

The Awards are for excellence in crime writing, not just mystery writing. Mysteries are certainly a major subgenre within crime fiction, but they are by no means the only one.

Broadly speaking, you can look at a crime as any kind of offence or potential offence against the person or the wider community. Crime is at the core of a crime book, whether the premise of the book is to solve the crime, prevent the crime, perpetrate the crime, try the criminal in court, understand the criminal, etc. As long as there is (1) some kind of crime that is a major element  in the book and (2) someone who has something to do with this crime – e.g., wants to solve it (whodunit), wants to prevent it (thriller), is the criminal (psychological suspense, caper), etc. – you have a crime novel. Conversely, if you can remove the crime from the story and the book can still stand on its own, the book is not a crime story.

The crime does not have to be murder. There are plenty of crimes that are not, such as, theft, fraud, and terrorism. In the nonfiction category, economic crimes, fraud, conspiracy (real or alleged), and the like are just as likely to be addressed as murder and other violent crimes.

Moreover, the setting can be anywhere and any time in history; you can even have a crime novel set in a fantasy or science fiction world.

Please consider each book/story on its own merits. There is no reason why an excellent cozy or humorous mystery shouldn’t win the best novel award. An award-winning book does not have to contain a message nor does it have to change the reader’s life. It does, however, have to be well-written and well-executed, and an exemplar of a book in its subgenre, whether it’s a police procedural, a thriller, a traditional mystery, a caper or a cozy.

NOTE: Don’t compare a piece of work written by an author this year to work they have written in the past. Only compare the work to other works submitted in the category.

Points to consider
  • Does the book fulfill the “promise” it makes to the reader? This promise may range from illuminating the dark side of human nature to providing a rollicking entertaining read, but the readers should feel satisfied when they shut the book.
  • Does the author balance show and tell (action versus exposition)? Does the author involve the reader in the characters’ lives and actions?
  • Is the puzzle or central problem presented in the book interesting and challenging?
  • Is there an internal logic/consistency, and believability to all the elements (plot, characters, dialogue, facts, etc.) of the book? Do all the elements hold together and make the book greater than the sum of its parts?
  • Does the book have a spark that elevates it above other similar books? Is the book memorable (in a good way)?
  • How much work do you think the manuscript will need before being publishable?

Judging Process

All submissions will be in digital PDF format and be accessible through a Dropbox account. The Awards Manager will e-mail the judges with the details.

There are two rounds of judging for the Unpublished category, first to determine the longlist, then shortlist and winner. Each judge for this category is asked to fill out a scorecard for each submission, for every round. A copy is to be given to the Awards Manager who will total all the scores.

First Round

Judges will read the first 5,000 words of the manuscript and the 500-word synopsis. Judges will score each entry using the scorecard provided. Completed scorecards will be sent to the Awards Manager and based on the submission scores, a list of 10 entrants will be selected for the longlist.

All scorecards must be given to the Awards Manager, no later than Jan 10, who will contact entrants to submit full manuscripts to go on to the second round of judging.

Second Round

After reading the submitted longlisted manuscripts, judges will fill out and return a scorecard for each entry. Based on the submission scores, a list of 5 entrants will be selected for the shortlist and the winner will also be determined.

All Scorecards must be filled out and returned to the Awards Manager on or before April 1.

Important Points

  1. In the event of a tie, a jury discussion will decide the tiebreaker for the entries involved in the tie only
  2. Judges are not to post reviews on books submitted in the category they are
  1. No author or character should be dismissed because of gender, culture, religion, or origin


Unpublished entries will be judged on the following:

  1. PLOT: do the opening pages pull you into the story?
  2. PLOT: does the premise have something that makes it fresh?
  3. PLOT: does the plot have the potential to sustain an entire book?
  4. PACE: is the pace working for the story?
  5. SETTING: does the setting give a sense of time and place and does it fit the tone of the story?
  6. DIALOGUE: is the dialogue purposeful, plausible, free from info- dumping, and is it clear who's speaking?
  7. STYLE/VOICE: does the writing have a certain something that keeps you reading?
  8. CHARACTERS: are the characters compelling and are their actions and reactions believable?
  9. POINT OF VIEW: is the POV clear at all times?
  10. PUBLISHABILITY: how ready is the manuscript to be published?


Click here for pdf of complete guidelines with forms.

Crime Writers of Canada offers sincere thanks to the individual and corporate award sponsors...

  Sponsor ecw web  
  Sponsor Mystery Weekly web  
  Sponsor RakutenKobo web 
   Sponsor Shaftesbury web  
  Sponsor Simpson Wellenreiter  
  Sponsor writersfirst web  
  Sponsor EngelFamily textlogo  
  Sponsor Jane Doe  

Crime Writers of Canada would also like to thank everyone in the Canadian publishing community for making
our Awards such a success through the years.

In case this is the first writing competition you've entered (or even if you're an old hand at the game), information and RULES follow on how to format and present your submission and how to write a synopsis.

The CWC Award of Excellence

for Best Unpublished Crime Manuscript
Sponsored by ECW Press


This page addresses various issues to do with formatting and presentation.

There are a few official rules to do with presentation.

  • We now only accept digital files. PDFs are prefered, but doc files are also acceptable.
  • The title of the entry – but NOT your name – must be on each page of your submission. Make sure you remove your name from the file properties too.
  • Pages must be numbered.
  • Use 12-point Times New Roman.
  • Use single line spacing.
  • Margins should be 1 inch
  • Paper size should be 8.5 X 11 inch paper or A4.


Beyond these rules, however, there are all sorts of presentation elements which won't disqualify you if you get them wrong, but will which make it much easier for the judges to read and enjoy your work if they are used.

Formatting and Layout

The best way to format text for fiction, used in just about every novel ever published, is as follows:

  • Start new paragraphs with an indented first line.
  • Don't use blank lines between consecutive paragraphs.
  • Do use a blank line or three asterisks to show a break between scenes or a break in the flow of the narrative.
  • Start new chapters on a new page.
  • Use a new paragraph each time a different character starts to speak.


  • Check your spelling meticulously.
  • Beware malapropisms and homonyms; words can be spelled correctly and still be terribly wrong. Some examples include a particularly 'viscous murder,' a 'burlesque policeman,' and – in a supermarket – an 'isle of chips.' Do not rely solely on your computer's spell-checker.


Punctuation can be a bit of a minefield, and many of the rules are unclear. Three things in particular to beware of are:

  • Apostrophes: It's a shame that many people can't put an apostrophe in its proper place. 'It's' is a contraction of 'it is'; 'its' shows that something belongs to 'it' (whatever 'it' may be). Apostrophes should never be used for plurals – no 'bag's of orange's.
  • Quotation marks: Always use quotation marks around speech. Standard North American usage is to use the “double quote.”
  • Exclamation marks! Try not to use exclamation marks. If a sentence is witty, funny, or dramatic, the reader will notice anyway. If it's not, you won't make things better by drawing attention to it.

The Synopsis

For many entrants, writing the required synopsis may be more daunting and difficult than writing the initial 10,000 words of their novel. You are not alone. Experienced and published writers balk in exactly the same way that you do when faced with writing one.

  1. The synopsis should be of the entire book.

  2. Use the same narrative style that you use in the book; if the book is 'chatty' don't change to formal in the synopsis.

  3. Be clear. Show plot movements in order, introduce new characters as they appear, if they are major characters show us the 'why' of their actions as well as the 'what'.

  4. Never offer meaningless sentences such as: “Something dreadful was about to happen.” or “What happened next would devastate him.”

  5. Show how sub-plots interlink with the main plot and its characters.

  6. Do not include physical descriptions unless it is absolutely essential.

  7. A synopsis is always written in present tense, never past.

These pages incorporate material written by Michael Jecks, Kay Mitchell, and Edwin Thomas, members of the CWA who have coordinated the Debut Dagger Awards.

We thank Margaret Murphy and the Crime Writers Association of Great Britain for their generosity in allowing us to adapt material from their Debut Dagger Award Website in describing the Best Unpublished First Crime Novel.

And thank you to Louise Penny and Michael Whiteside for the original adaptation of the CWA Style Guide.


Crime Writers of Canada offers sincere thanks to our sponsors.
FOR MEDIA AND SPONSORSHIP INFORMATION: Please contact Executive Director, Alison Bruce


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