Roald Dahl may be best known for writing children’s stories, but when it came to adults he didn’t mince his words.
When aspiring writer Jay Williams sent the author a letter in 1980 asking for feedback on a short story he had written for an A-Level project, he never expected to get a response – let alone such a blunt one.
To his surprise, Dahl took the time to write a write to him, warning the 17-year-old to stop using so many “beastly adjectives”, and advising him to study “American short story writers”.
In the signed letter, the author wrote: “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. Yours sincerely, Roald Dahl.”
Williams, who has worked in journalism for 30 years, was taken aback when he first received the letter but says the advice has stood him in good stead.
“With the callowness and arrogance of youth, I was expecting him to say ‘wow this is amazing’…but it obviously sank in because that thing of keeping it tight really rang true as a young journalist and it has been a worthwhile lesson that I obviously learnt early on,” he said.
In pictures: Roald Dahl's most enduring characters
In pictures: Roald Dahl's most enduring characters
1/12 Willy Wonka from 'Charlie and the Chocolate Factory'
Willy Wonka (pictured being played by Gene Wilder in 1967) is a bizarre and slightly unsettling man but who can say no to that delicious chocolate?
2/12 The Oompa Loompas from 'Charlie and the Chocolate Factory'
Despite the characters' questionable evolution from being African pygmies in early editions of the novel, the Oompa Loompas were so fantastical they captured the imagination of generations. The first film's version of the characters are still a popular fancy dress theme.
3/12 Veruca Salt from 'Charlie and the Chocolate Factory'
The girl who "wants it now" is so incredibly vile she ended up in the rubbish after being judged a bad nut by Willy Wonka's squirrels. An American alternative rock band even took her name.
4/12 The Twits from 'The Twits'
Mr and Mrs Twit are horrible, hideous and hateful, coating trees with glue to catch birds to at. But the Roly-Poly Bird and Muggle-Wumps teach them a lesson in the end.
Quentin Blake/House of Illustration
5/12 James from 'James and the Giant Peach'
James is beaten and starved by his cruel aunts after his parents are eaten by an escaped rhino but eventually gets to go on an adventure with the friends he has always waited for on his magic peach, ending up on the top of the Empire State Building.
6/12 Matilda from 'Matilda'
Every little girl who read 'Matilda' wondered what it would be like to be the main character. Apart from th abusive family, the telekinesis must be endless fun.
7/12 Miss Trunchbull from 'Matilda'
Miss Trunchbull, played by Pam Ferris in the 1996 film, is the aunt and headmistress of every child's worst nightmares. Just think of poor Bruce Bogtrotter and that cake.
8/12 The Big Friendly Giant from 'The BFG'
A 24-foot-tall BFG works giving out good dreams to children and saves them all from people-eating giants. Shame about the snozzcumbers.
9/12 The Grand High Witch from 'The Witches'
The Grand High Witch, seen here in the film, must be one of Dahl's most terrifying creations. Turning children into slugs and squishing them, she wanted to destroy them all, she had no hair or toes and claws for hands.
10/12 Mr Fox from 'Fantastic Mr Fox'
Mr Fox outsmarts those silly farmers, feeding his family by killing their chickens and avoiding starvation.
11/12 George from 'George's Marvellous Medicine'
Some people would say that swapping your gran's medicine with poison isn't ok but that isn't the point here.
12/12 Grandma from 'George's Marvellous Medicine'
Grandma was quite a character until she vanished: 'She was selfish grumpy old woman. She had pale brown teeth and a small pucker-up mouth like a dog's bottom.'
Williams, who now works for PR company 72Point, rediscovered the letter recently in a box of old correspondence from his Mum, and posted a picture of it on Twitter.
The letter received an overwhelming response, gaining over 1,000 retweets and favourites in a few days thanks to a retweet from the Roald Dahl Literary Estate's Twitter account.
Rachel White, collections manager and archivist at the Roald Dahl Museum & Story Centre, said the letter is written in Dahl’s “trademark acerbic tone”.
“It’s a very typical letter from him – he was to the point and could be very sharp," she said.
"He did receive a lot of letters from people asking for advice, and as he got older his replies were slightly more crabby. It contrasts quite a lot to his letters to children, which were lovely and kind. They would start ‘hello gorgeous Ida and all the children in her class’.”
The letter will be included in a forthcoming book about Dahl’s letters, to be published next year.
For more writing tips from Roald Dahl in his own words, visit the official website www.roalddahl.com.
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