Writing courses

What it really takes to be a writer, according to Roald Dahl

Posted by for Books

Ever dreamed about writing your own books? The late Roald Dahl, who has sold over 250 million books worldwide, once shared his insights on what it really takes to become a great author. 

Ever dreamed of becoming a great writer? We’re pretty willing to bet that almost anyone reading this page has, at some point, felt a story bubbling up inside of them… but that, for whatever reason, they decided not to sit down and put pen to paper.

Of course, it’s not exactly unusual that so many of us have been scared off. After all, writing is hard work. Indeed, looking back on his years as a writer in Boy: Tales of Childhood, Roald Dahl contended that “two hours of writing fiction leaves this particular writer absolutely drained”. 

The celebrated author continued: “For those two hours he has been miles away, he has been somewhere else, in a different place with totally different people, and the effort of swimming back into normal surroundings is very great. It is almost a shock.

“A person is a fool to become a writer. His only [reward] is absolute freedom. He has no master except his own soul, and that, I am sure, is why he does it.”

For those who are still keen to share their stories, though, read on. Because Dahl’s book, The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar and Six More, includes a short extract in which Dahl explains how he came to be a writer. It also includes advice from Dahl on the qualities he thought necessary to anyone writing fiction.

They were:

  1. You should have a lively imagination.
  2. You should be able to write well. By that I mean you should be able to make a scene come alive in the reader’s mind. Not everybody has this ability. It is a gift, and you either have it or you don’t.
  3. You must have stamina. In other words, you must be able to stick to what you are doing and never give up, for hour after hour, day after day, week after week and month after month.
  4. You must be a perfectionist. That means you must never be satisfied with what you have written until you have rewritten it again and again, making it as good as you possibly can.
  5. You must have strong self-discipline. you are working alone. No one is employing you. No one is around to give you the sack if you don’t turn up for work, or to tick you off if you start slacking.
  6. It helps a lot if you have a keen sense of humour. This is not essential when writing for grown-ups, but for children it’s vital.
  7. You must have a degree of humility. The writer who thinks that his work is marvellous is heading for trouble.

Dahl also recommends keeping a day job, emphasising that most great writing through the centuries has been the work of amateurs and hobbyists. And it’s a mantra he himself lived by. After all, he wasn’t just a British novelist, short story writer, poet, and screenwriter… he was a fighter pilot, too.

Sign up for our essential edit of what to buy, see, read and do, and also receive a free guide to the 101 Female Authors Everyone Should Have On Their Bookshelf.

By entering my email I agree to Stylist’s Privacy Policy
Still tempted? Well, we recommend that you start honing your craft. To do so, we suggest enrolling on this incredible online writing course, which is now taught by one of our other favourite authors, Margaret Atwood.

We’ll see you in class.

Image: Getty

Share this article

Recommended by Stylist Team