How to Write a Children’s Book: Advice from Roald Dahl

Roald Dahl, the author of some of the most well-loved children’s books ever written, was very set in his ways when it came to his writing process. He worked in the same fashion for several decades and developed a routine and process from which he seldom deviated.

Dahl’s writing method was refined over the years until it was perfectly matched to his personality and tendencies. You might not want to copy Dahl’s approach, but there are lots of lessons that we can learn by looking at in more detail.

Your Writing Environment is Important

Roald Dahl wrote most of his best books in a shed in his garden. This may sound unbelievable, but Dahl worked hard to design a writing environment that would allow him to be as creative and productive as possible. He didn’t want a luxury office with a mahogany desk overlooking the beautiful Buckinghamshire countryside. Such things would just act as distractions from the task of writing. Instead, Roald Dahl’s writing shed didn’t have any windows. In fact, it didn’t even contain a desk!

Everything in the writing shed was there for a purpose. Dahl sat upon an old armchair previously owned by his mother. The seat had been adapted to ease his aching back (caused by an injury sustained in World War 2) and to accommodate his writing board, which he balanced, supported by a roll of corrugated cardboard, on his knees. He rested his legs on a battered suitcase, and covered them with an old sleeping bag when they got cold,. None of these items were chosen for their aesthetic appeal and Dahl’s writing shed was described as both rundown and untidy. Yet it allowed Dahl to write without noise and distraction. It might not be anyone else’s idea of the perfect place to write, but it was Roald Dahl’s. And that’s the point. In order to produce your best work, you should find the environment that appeals to you.

Find the Perfect Tools (and Use Them)

Roald Dahl wrote all of his children’s books in HB pencil (Dixon Ticonderoga to be precise) on yellow legal pads. He described his electric pencil sharpener as ‘vital’ to his writing process, and he always started each writing session with six sharpened pencils in a jar next to his writing chair.

Dahl worked out early on in his writing career which tools worked best for him. Once he had discovered this he didn’t keep trying other things, he stuck to it. Dahl realised that constantly tinkering with his writing process was merely a form of procrastination. A writer should be writing, not fiddling around with different types of stationery.

Find a Routine and Stick to It

Roald Dahl was a man with many interests. He grew orchids, collected art and wines, played snooker and raced greyhounds. Dahl’s time was precious and he knew that, unless he adopted a writing routine, his other hobbies would prevent him from getting down to work.

Dahl wrote everyday from 10am until noon, and then from 4pm to 6pm. And he always stuck to these times regardless of how well his writing was going. Dahl’s schedule was strict, but realistic. He knew he could only maintain his concentration and creativity for a couple of hours in a row, so he didn’t set himself the goal of writing for longer than that. But he always showed up at his writing shed on time. He made a commitment with himself, and he kept it – day after day, year after year.

Be Methodical. Be Workmanlike

Dahl acknowledged that writing a book is hard work. He allowed himself six months to write a short story and about a year to write one his children’s books.  He firmly believed that ‘good writing is essentially rewriting’. Dahl set himself high standards. He often started his writing session by revising his work from the previous day, and he completely rewrote Matilda because he was not satisfied with his first attempt.

In one interview he described the life of a writer as ‘absolute hell’ because he has to ‘force himself to work’. Dahl made himself work every day for four hours. He went to his writing shed everyday because he knew that the ideas would come in the end. All Dahl’s stories started with ‘the germ of an idea’ and he noticed that ‘all the best stuff comes at the desk’. Dahl didn’t wait for inspiration to strike before he started work; he got down to work knowing that this effort would force him to take his story further towards its conclusion.

Dahl described the process like this:

When you’re writing it’s rather like going on a very long walk, across valley and mountains and things, and you get the first view of what you see and you write it down. Then you walk a bit further, maybe up to the top of a hill, and you see something else, then you write that and you go on like that, day after day, getting different views of the same landscape really. The highest mountain on the walk is obviously the end of the book because it’s got the best view of all, when everything comes together and you can look back and see how everything you’ve done all ties up. But it’s a very, very long, slow process.

Although the specifics of Roald Dahl’s writing process will only appeal to a small number of children’s book writers (How many of you would give up your office for a shed?), his general approach can be boiled down to these key lessons:

  1. Try to find one place where you feel comfortable writing. The environment should be designed to make as easy as possible for you to write. It doesn’t have to look good; it just has to create an atmosphere that gets your creative juices flowing.
  2. Experiment with different stationery and technology until you find one that works for you, and then use it. The method of getting words on the page doesn’t matter. The words are the only things that are important.
  3. Beat procrastination and laziness by committing to a realistic routine. Don’t skip a writing session. Don’t break an agreement with yourself.
  4. If authors only wrote when they felt inspired, library shelves would be a lot emptier. Writing is hard work, but if you turn up regularly enough, ideas, inspiration and creativity will come your way.
  5. Don’t expect to write a masterpiece straight away. A first draft might need to be revised several times before you’re happy with your story.
3 Responses to How to Write a Children’s Book: Advice from Roald Dahl
  1. Kaal Kaczmarek
    March 22, 2012 | 3:28 pm

    Fantastic article from one of my heroes -the inspiration to my book Cousin Felicity and the Eels of Misty Point.
    Thank you so much for this thoughtful article.

  2. Ernest
    July 1, 2012 | 9:29 pm

    I like his advice on procrastination: “Don’t be lazy and skip a writing session–don’t break an agreement with yourself.”

  3. Toni
    October 17, 2012 | 1:20 am

    Roald Dahl is a genius! Not only have my kids read most of his books whilst growing up, but I too have read a lot of them. I think my most favourite (and there are many) would be ‘The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar’. Another is an adults story about a roast leg of lamb.

    Years ago on ABC Kids I saw a short documentary – it showed Roald writing in his shed, his chair and yellow paper and pencils. I was amazed to think that all his magic was created in such an extraordinarily ordinary environment – if that makes any sense! Ive been trying to write for ages – I think I have a little talent but cannot seem to make the switch from journalling to writing fiction. Mention above about the writer tinkering with writing implements and stationery sounds an awful lot like me…

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