In 1980, a 17-year-old student named Jay Williams wrote to Roald Dahl for some writing advice. Dahl, who is one of history’s best-selling fiction authors, with over 250 million copies sold worldwide responded:
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’s better to say “She was a tall girl with a bosom” than “She was a tall girl with a shapely, prominent bosom”, or some rubbish. The first one says it all.
(You can see more HERE.)
I include this today because I appreciate it when people remember to mentor others, to show some kindness to a stranger, to someone from whom they can expect nothing in return.
I include it today because it’s good advice and there is space for all of us to learn.
So one day I’ll write you my own letter–what I would say to any young aspiring author. But for now, until I have the clout to do so, I’ll stick with one of the greats. Thank you, Road Dahl for teaching us your ways.
What’s the best advice you’ve ever received?