The CWA Debut Dagger Competition

Style Guide

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

There are a few official rules to do with presentation. Entries have to be double-spaced, and formatted for A4. Pages must be numbered with the title of your story included on each page. Personal information must only appear on the Entry Form. Do not include a cover sheet. Ignoring these rules may disqualify the entry.

Beyond these, however, there are all sorts of presentational elements which won't disqualify you if you get them wrong, but will make it much easier for us to read and enjoy if you get them right.

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. They just break up the flow of the text.
  • Do use blank lines to show breaks between scenes, or in the line of the narrative.
  • Use a new paragraph each time a different character starts to speak.

You can see good and bad examples of these by opening this pdf.


  • Check your spelling meticulously. Mis-spellings break the reader's concentration; they also make your work look sloppy and amateurish. If you can't trust the author to spell properly, how can you trust the story they're telling?
  • Beware malapropisms – a word can be spelled correctly and still be terribly wrong. Some examples from recent years include a particularly 'viscous murder', a 'burlesque policeman', and – in a supermarket – an 'isle of chips'. This is particularly easy to get caught out by if you rely solely on the 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 British usage is to use the 'single quote', while standard American usage is to use the “double quote”. Either is fine, as long as you're consistent.
  • 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.

Debut Dagger Mailing List

Sign up for our free mailing list to receive...

  • A bi-weekly series of articles covering the different stages of putting together an entry
  • Regular reminders of the approaching deadline
  • Full competition results

We will NOT send you any other promotional mailings, nor will we pass your e-mail address on to anyone else.

Important: we will send you an email including a link for you to click to activate your free subscription. Please look out for that email (just occasionally it goes into a spam box) and respond to it.