If you’re a writer or creative, Roald Dahl on writing can teach you how to become productive and successful. Discover these 13 lessons.
Roald Dahl was one of the greatest writers of all time.
During his career, Dahl wrote over 17 stories for children alongside two novels and a series of short-story collections.
He accepted numerous awards for his work, including the World Fantasy Lifetime Achievement Award.
Many of his books were later turned into popular films, including The Witches, Matilda, Gremlins, and The BFG.
Dahl is also a writing hero, along with Ernest Hemingway and Ian Fleming.
I first came across Dahl’s writings when I was seven through books like The BFG, Charlie, and the Chocolate Factory, and James and the Giant Peach.
He was the first author who showed me what’s possible with the written word, and he inspired me to write.
Even today, any aspiring creatives with a lively imagination can learn from Roald Dahl on writing.
- 1. Not a Fighter Pilot? You Can Still Mine Your Past
- 2. Face Your Fears About Writing
- 3. Write Children’s Books on the Side
- 4. Writing Demands Strong Self-Discipline
- 5. Take a Break
- 6. Keep a Journal
- 7. Try Writing Short Stories
- 8. Use Sensual Experiences
- 9. Market Your Writing
- 10. Read Children’s Books
- 11. Go To Your Writing Hut
- 12. Share Your Work Widely
- 13. Practice a Degree of Humility
- Roald Dahl On Writing: The Final Word
1. Not a Fighter Pilot? You Can Still Mine Your Past
As a young man, Dahl worked for Shell in Kenya and Tanzania and spent his free time hunting. During the second world war, Dahl became a decorated fighter pilot and intelligence officer with the Royal Air Force.
He shot down at least two enemy Ju-88 planes, took part in the Battle Of Athens, and was one of the last pilots to withdraw from Greece during the German invasion.
When he became a writer, Dahl wasn’t afraid to draw on his old life for his new creative one. He wrote several short stories about his time as a fighter pilot and drew extensively on his previous careers in his novels and short stories.
Even if you’re not a fighter pilot, you probably have experiences that are novel to readers. Use them!
“A person is a fool to become a writer. His only compensation is absolute freedom” – Roald Dahl
2. Face Your Fears About Writing
Dahl wrote dozens of short stories, books, and screenplays during his life, including the BFG, Matilda and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. Even he worried about coming up with new ideas.
If you’re involved in creative work, accept these fears as part of the process, and then move past them. Just keep turning up and doing the hard work.
“A writer of fiction lives in fear. Each new day demands new ideas, and he can never be sure whether he is going to come up with them or not” – Roald Dahl
3. Write Children’s Books on the Side
Dahl’s observation below is useful for creatives who are stuck in a disagreeable job.
If you feel like a creative stuck in a boring job, you can still thrive. Save your original thinking for the blank page or your first book. Write short stories and children’s books on the side.
If that’s not your preferred genre, work on another project. But, keep at it!
“I began to realize how simple life could be if one had a regular routine to follow with a fixed salary, and very little original thinking to do” – Roald Dahl
- Dahl, Roald (Author)
- English (Publication Language)
- 240 Pages - 08/16/2007 (Publication Date) - Penguin Young Readers Group (Publisher)
4. Writing Demands Strong Self-Discipline
If you want to succeed as a writer, you will have to become comfortable working in your own company and keeping your own hours. Unlike other professions, nobody will demand you turn up every day and put the work in.
Sure it’s liberating to write without a boss. However, you must become even more disciplined and responsible for your craft.
“The writer has to force himself to work. He has to make his own hours, and if he doesn’t go to his desk at all there is nobody there to scold him” – Roald Dahl
- Come celebrate and join James Trotter and his friends - Grasshopper, Earthworm, Miss Spider - on an adventure inside a giant magical peach.
- A classic that has endured through the years
- Ages 8-12
- Dahl, Roald (Author)
- English (Publication Language)
5. Take a Break
Working hard is one thing, but it’s important to take a break and have fun. A writer’s career can last a lifetime, so what’s the rush?
Intelligent, creative, and productive people know that making time for an indulgence, a side-passion, or even a little nonsense refuels our batteries and makes it easier to get back to work.
“A little nonsense now and then is relished by the wisest men” – Roald Dahl
6. Keep a Journal
If you want to become a writer, keeping a journal is a useful practice that can inform future works.
Dahl wrote two autobiographies: Boy: Tales of Childhood and Going Solo. Both books have echoes of a journal about them.
Journaling is ideal for developing ideas for future writing projects, documenting the writing process, and marking your accomplishments and setbacks.
“Though my father was Norwegian, he always wrote his diaries in perfect English” – Roald Dahl
7. Try Writing Short Stories
Creative work is exciting, most of the time. It can take you to another place and provide a refuge from the day-to-day grown-up world.
It’s also difficult and demanding work that can leave you emotionally and physically drained at the end of the process.
Short-stories are a good option for a new writer as you can write them relatively quickly and move onto something new.
“Two hours of writing fiction leaves this writer completely drained. For those two hours he has been in a different place with totally different people” – Roald Dahl
- Dahl, Roald (Author)
- English (Publication Language)
- 112 Pages - 08/16/2007 (Publication Date) - Penguin Young Readers Group (Publisher)
8. Use Sensual Experiences
One day, Dahl found himself stuck in traffic. Suddenly, he thought of a breakthrough for a story he was working on. Having no notepad or pen, he grew afraid he’d forget his idea before getting home.
So, Dahl got out of the car, and with his finger, he wrote the word “chocolate” into the dirt on his vehicle. This was enough for Dahl to remember his idea, and later it became Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.
He later said about his ideas:
“You work it out and play around with it. You doodle… you make notes… it grows, it grows…” – Roald Dahl
9. Market Your Writing
Roald Dahl understood that the best way to market and then sell books is to write a second, third, and fourth. He also increased his appeal by crossing genres.
Even though he first became famous as the author of children’s books like The BFG and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, he refused to be pigeon-holed into one genre or towards catering to a particular audience.
He wrote poetry, published screenplays, and became a successful adult short-story writer.
Lesson: Ship and ship often, and when you do, don’t be afraid to promote your work and accept the recognition.
10. Read Children’s Books
Many of Dahl’s books are for his children and grandchildren. He considered the people closest to him when he wrote, and he created a world for them on the pages of the Gremlins, The Witches, Matilda, and The BFG.
Reading children’s books is a great way of learning what makes for compelling writing. After all, children have a short attention span.
I recently re-read the BFG, and I was amazed that I still found the book engaging and funny. I was also captivated by the timeless illustrations of Quentin Blake.
If you’re a writer, you should consider who your ideal reader is, what they want, what they like, and what they dislike.
“Had I not had children of my own, I would have never written books for children, nor would I have been capable of doing so.” – Roald Dahl
11. Go To Your Writing Hut
Dahl was a disciplined professional who turned up every day and worked. He wrote for two hours each morning and evening in a 6ft x 7ft shed at the back of his orchard in Buckinghamshire, in the United Kingdom.
In his shed or “little nest,” Dahl kept a comfortable chair, a lamp, a system for storing his files, a wooden desk, and various writing utensils.
Each day after he wrote, Dahl ate a bar of chocolate and crunched the wrappers up into a ball (a ritual that makes its way into (Charlie and Chocolate Factory). He also covered the walls with pictures of his family, ideas for stories, and other personal mementos.
If space is an issue, try the local coffee shop, library, or getting up when it’s quiet where you live.
“I go down to my little hut, where it’s tight and dark and warm, and within minutes I can go back to being six or seven or eight again” – Roald Dahl
Dahl recognized that the world had become vastly smaller during his lifetime, and he lived life in a time pre-internet and pre-mobile phones.
Although this sense of fabulous may be lost, if you get into the habit of sharing your work, the idea of other people reading it doesn’t have to feel exotic. Today, you can create something, publish and share it with the world.
Don’t let perfectionism hold you back!
“Nowadays you can go anywhere in the world in a few hours, and nothing is fabulous any more.” – Roald Dahl
13. Practice a Degree of Humility
Many famous writers enjoy getting into fights with other writers or talking about how important or grand their work is.
Dahl wasn’t afraid to put his profession in perspective and, even though his two autobiographies are anything but boring, he could hardly be accused of being self-aggrandizing.
Roald Dahl’s take shows that writers and creative professionals should tell honest, captivating stories rather than explain how important their work is.
“An autobiography is a book a person writes about his own life, and it is usually full of all sorts of boring ideas” – Roald Dahl
Roald Dahl On Writing: The Final Word
There’s one problem with heroes.
Their achievements are so lofty and so unachievable that it can hurt to wander through Dream Country for too long.
After all, how can anyone compare with a fighter pilot and the author of some of the greatest children’s books of all time?
When this happens to you, put down your hero’s work.
Say goodbye to Willy Wonka, if only for a little while, lest you become a perfectionist.
Start writing fiction or non-fiction of your own. Make mistakes, and keep at it until you finish. Cultivate a habit of shipping, promoting, and starting again. Learn what’s going on inside your reader’s mind.
For me, as a grown-up, that meant moving past Dahl’s books and trying to write children’s fiction. I tried working as a short-story writer for a while and even published a novella for my first book.
Then, I turned to non-fiction, but I still count Dahl as an inspiration.
A writing career is funny like that.
Still, to borrow a line from one of Dahl’s most popular books Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, go find your “golden ticket.”