Awards Criteria

Below is an article from the Winter 2017 edition of Dispatches, which provides more detail about our review process. 

MWSA Awards Criteria

Joyce Faulkner

The Military Writers Society of America Awards Program is a stringent one. You don’t win just because you are published by a large, well-known house. You might not win even if you are the only author with a book in a given category. You definitely won’t win by knowing someone. You win through excellence as defined by Military Writers Society of America based on industry standards. In December 2015 and January 2016, an Awards Committee consisting of multi-award winning authors Betsy Beard (chair), Carolyn Schriber, Bob Doerr, Sandi Linhart, and Joyce Faulkner reevaluated the whole process and made changes to streamline it and make it more transparent and fair. Here is how the program works:

  • There is no longer a “Lead Reviewer” position. In its place, there is a two person team with the title “MWSA Awards Directors” who work together and can be contacted through
  • The committee firmly restated the ethic that books receive a medal based on how well they meet the standard. They do not compete against each other. If an author makes the score, he/she receives the medal.
  • Book submissions will be accepted starting on January 15 of each year and end on June 15.
  • Books will be assigned to reviewers in order of submission dates.
    • There will be three judges for every book. All three will score each submission using the standards for that genre/category.
    • One of the reviewers will also write a marketing review.
    • If the scores diverge, the three reviewers will meet with a moderator to discuss the book’s qualities as they relate to MWSA standards.
  • In order to minimize natural human biases we all have, we use a spreadsheet with specific questions to calculate a value that represents how well a given book meets a specific criteria.
    • Each criterion is weighted differently based on relative importance. MWSA believes that the technical score is the most reliable indicator of competence. Therefore it is weighted heavier than other criteria, for example.
    • Authors do not see the scores.
  • A score is determined by four criteria: Content, Visual, Style, and Technical.
    • The total of these scores is the overall assessment from each judge.
    • The average of the scores given by the three judges determine if a book will receive an award.
    • However, a book also must reach a certain level in the technical in order to receive a medal. Example, even if a book’s averaged total is in the GOLD range, if the averaged technical score is in the SILVER, the book will receive a SILVER.

So what are these criteria and how do you maximize your chances of winning an award when you are writing your book?


The questions used by judges for content focus on plot, characterization, message or theme, believability, intent of book, storytelling, and construction.

For example, the first question on Content tests how well a given book appeals to the declared audience. This declared audience is defined by industry standards based on genre. Is it more or less likely that a picture book about dinosaurs will appeal to audiences interested in spy thrillers? Probably not. This is why when you fill out your submission form you must make sure to give us the correct genre. Often, as in this example, we find books that are in the wrong category and thus the score sheet is asking the judge to evaluate the wrong qualities. However, if the genre is correct, this is an important concept—are you writing what your audience wants to read?

The second question for Content also depends on the genre or sub-category. For example, if your book is a biography or memoir, the options explore historical significance. If it’s Literary Fiction, the questions focus on traditional literary techniques like metaphor or theme. 39 Winter 2017 A book that is poorly researched, disorganized, inadequately developed, or inappropriate for its genre will score lower than one that is easy to follow, understandable, creative, and tells a significant story.


These criteria evaluate readability, book structure, language, percentage of dialogue to narration, percentage of description to action, percentage active to passive voice.

These techniques are the basic tools an author uses to make the language he/she uses acceptable and understandable for today’s audiences. What was common even twenty years ago—like ten pages describing a swamp—drives readers who were brought up on the forty-minute CSI format mad with impatience. They want the story—not a word-painting without a point. Our current standard is the “show, don’t tell” approach to storytelling.

However, these questions do vary depending on the genre. Poetry can be and usually is much more focused on imagery as are children’s books. Thrillers and historical fiction use action or pacing to move the story forward.

A book that is inappropriate for the declared audience, or has a high percentage of passive voice sentences, or has pages and pages of narration, will score lower. One that lets characters tell their own stories through dialogue or behavior, or has a higher percentage of active sentences, will score higher.


Visual questions evaluate cover art, cover design, book block layout, font size and serif, and use of illustration. Your novel’s appearance and how easy it is to read and understand will determine how likely your audience will read it from beginning to end. These qualities can enhance the message of your book or ensure that it’s never noticed on a shelf amongst better designed books.

In short, how your book looks is part of the ultimate artistic statement that you are making. If presentation is poorly conceived or executed, your story may never have an audience. Book blocks with multiple fonts or narrow margins are marked down. Images that are too faded or “dirty” to see well or newspaper clippings that are smeared and unreadable are too. Covers that are busy, or use colors that clash, or are hard to read, tend to score lower than those that are well-designed, artistic, color coordinated, wider-margined, etc. Woe betide a cover with misspellings or grammatical mistakes.


The technical section of the score sheet focuses on spelling, grammar, sentence structure, word choice, excessive use of adverbs, verb tense usage, and organization. In other words, does the author use proper English?

If a book uses too many adverbs or perhaps the same word too many times in the same paragraph, it will be scored lower. If it doesn’t observe the standards like Chicago Manual of Style or AP—or mixes them, it will be marked down. An author is only allowed so many grammatical or spelling mistakes before the score is affected. The more unique spelling errors, the lower the score. These are the issues that a professional editor can help you avoid. They make the difference between a well-crafted, impactful memoir and an amateurish difficult-to-read one.

We use spreadsheets for these criteria so that all judges are looking at the same issues. This is important for our authors because it reduces the chance that the same error won’t be counted heavier or lighter depending on who is assigned your book to evaluate. Having three judges and a mechanism for discussion if there is disagreement helps to minimize this possibility as well.

Spreadsheets also insure a more objective accounting of issues. The judge is asked to keep track of the number of mistakes in the book. The multiple choice question offers him five options: 1) Has no noticeable misspellings and/or grammatical errors; 2) Has less than five misspellings and/or grammatical errors; 3) Has many misspellings and grammatical errors but they are the same ones repeated consistently throughout the book; 4) Has more than 10 unique misspellings and/or grammatical errors; 5) Has numerous misspellings and grammatical errors. These mistakes are either there or they aren’t.

In future issues of Dispatches, we will focus on the standards more and have guest writers discuss things like using Chicago Manual of Style or AP or other standards as your go-to references. We’ll cover the various types of editing and how to find a good editor. We’ll also spend time talking about cover design and the principles of good book-block layout and the use of color and how to use design to enhance your work.