In 1980, 17-year-old student Jay Williams wrote to Roald Dahl for some writing advice. His response was short, sharp and to the point...
Roald Dahl wrote memorably about his own path to becoming a writer in The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar And Six More. From less-than-mediocre school reports ("This boy is an indolent and illiterate member of the class," Summer Term 1932) to the meeting with author C.S. Forester that set him to write his first short story, it was a journey that taught Roald Dahl a lot about writing.
So when student Jay Williams wrote to him in 1980, Roald Dahl shared some very memorable - if blunt - advice:
The letter reads:
You are asking too much of me. You must realise that I get an awful lot of these letters and you can't expect me to write your thesis for you. It should be fairly obvious to you what the role of the short story is in modern literature. It's a big one. Study particularly the American short story writers like O'Henry and Runyon and Hawthorne and Poe, and lots and lots of English ones.
If you want any dope on me there have been an awful lot of profiles in English magazines over the past year starting with the February 1979 issue of Vogue.
I have read your story. I don't think it's bad, but you must stop using too many adjectives. Study Hemingway, particularly his early work and learn how to write short sentences and how to eschew all those beastly adjectives. Surely it is better to say "She was a tall girl with a bosom" than "She was a tall girl with a shapely, prominent bosom", or some such rubbish. The first one says it all.
Jay rediscovered this letter in January 2015, 35 years after Roald Dahl sent it. For him, the advice still resonates and, after 20 years as a news reporter, it's something that has become central to his own way of working.
"It's about stripping away the fat," Jay says. "After I got over the fact that I wasn't going to be invited to meet Roald Dahl and have lunch with his publisher, I have to say, it was the best advice I've ever had."