Tolkien and Lewis: Pantser Vs. Plotter

versus gloves


by Andrea Lundgren


If you do an online search for “pantsers” and “plotters,” you’ll find that a great deal has been said about writing techniques and the pros and cons of being a pantser–one who writes by the seat of one’s pants–and being a plotter who charts everything ahead of time.

And personally, being a pantser, I’ve felt like we’ve gotten the dismissive end of the comparison. The smile and nod of “Oh, that may work for you as a hobby, but if you ever want to get any real work, you’d better become a plotter.”

So it was with great delight that I came across the following information in Bandersnatch: C. S. Lewis, J. R. R. Tolkien, and the Creative Collaboration of the Inklings. Having devoted decades to studying the Inklings, Diana Pavloc Glyer found that Lewis and Tolkien, while good friends, had very different approaches to writing.

“C. S. Lewis writes that Tolkien is ‘one of those people who is never satisfied with a MS. The mere suggestion of publication provokes the reply “Yes, I’ll look through it and give it a few finishing touches”–wh. means that he really begins the whole thing over again.’”

And, again quoting Lewis: “No one ever influenced Tolkien—you might as well try to influence a bandersnatch. We listened to his work, but could affect it only by encouragement. He has only two reactions to criticism; either he begins the whole work over again from the beginning or else takes no notice at all.”

Tolkien wrote, “I could write unlimited ‘first chapters.’ I have indeed written many.”

Diana Pavlac Glyer adds, “Lewis’s writing process was quite different from Tolkien’s. While Tolkien wrote things out in order to discover what he wanted to say, Lewis tended to mull things over before committing anything to paper. While Tolkien produced draft after draft, Lewis completed his work rapidly once he had settled on a clear idea and the right form to express it. And while Tolkien reconsidered every word on every page, when Lewis finished a story, he was restless to move on.”

And I found this immensely encouraging. If the man who wrote The Lord of the Rings and all the depth of world could be a pantser, creating a vast and complicated world and yet modifying things as he went, then there’s hope for all the rest of us.





Guest post contributed by Andrea Lundgren. Andrea enjoys books and all things writing–from how we write to why we write–and her blog explores things from a writer’s point of view.

31 thoughts on “Tolkien and Lewis: Pantser Vs. Plotter

  1. Very interesting. I never knew. I started off as more of a plotter, but became a panster over time. I found that when I planned everything, it actually hindered my writing. I would come across a great idea, but not be willing to go with it because it would mess up the plan.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Plans are made to be messed with, though. 🙂 I think being a pantster takes a certain amount of trust in the creative process and in your ability to write as you go, because it can take you places that you weren’t intending to go. So it’s probably something most writers grow into.


  2. Really interesting! I think on the whole I prefer Tolkien’s writing – there’s something richer and more stirring about the Hobbit than any of the Narnia books. I’ve recently read The Lion the Witch & the Wardrobe to my daughter, and frankly thought it could have done with a firmer editor – Lewis is far too repetitive in his choice of adjectives, and as for that last chapter where they’re all talking fake Shakespearean – what was he thinking?! So maybe there’s something to be said for being a pantster – although personally I can’t write a line unless I’ve got my plot mapped out in advance!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I don’t think any writer is purely one or the other. Every idea squirreled away by a pantser as “That could make an interesting story someday” is a bit of plotting, and because no outline is a complete story — the map is not the territory — every plotter has to make SOMETHING up on the fly.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Agreed. Waitbutwhy has a few blog postings (and at least one podcast appearance) talking about procrastination allows for creativity because we mull the thought so much (editing) that by the time we actually sit down to write or execute the task, we’re already on draft six or seven.

      Liked by 3 people

    2. Agreed.

      By the very nature of story creation, everyone is a pantser. Unless you whip a story from thin air.

      In the same way, anything who ever edits their work is a plotter. They already have the end in mind, and editing becomes a game of adding depth and clarity to a draft.

      Liked by 2 people

  4. In the spirit of boxing, could we argue which is better? Both amazing (and drastically better than anything I’ve ever written), but is there an argument for one being slightly more advanced than another? Is Tolkien’s world Broadway and Lewis’ off Broadway?


    1. If we are trying to say which is better, I think it’s going to come down to taste. I think we could definitely say which is richer, though. For me, Lewis’ stories come off as bright, enjoyable bubbles of creativity while Tolkien has more weight, but I think this has more to do with how long they developed the story versus their approaches to it. It frequently seems to me that stories that are put out there quicker can easily become ones that were not quite done yet–that were still in rough draft mode, and needed space and time to become more, but the author felt they were good enough, so away they went.

      But it is possible that a plotter approach could lead to impatience with the artwork and urge one to move on too quickly, whereas a pantster might never feel done tinkering and never publish anything without encouragement. I think there are probably strengths and weaknesses to both sides.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Richer, I like that. Both are great in their own perspective, but I would define Tolkien as richer- fuller even, but what I like about this article is the contrast of two different styles of writing and production. Tolkien might be richer, but how much in his refinement was the original thought , perhaps even intention, shaved off?

        What is that saying? Guard your first draft with your heart…or something like that.

        I like thinking this idea out – thanks for the pointing out the rabbit hole. I might need some time to discover how deep it goes.

        Liked by 1 person

      2. Interesting, what Andrea Lundgren wrote. But back to btmiller09 question. Is Tolkien’s world broadway? or is Lewis’s worlds? off broadway? I do not have any college degrees but I love to read Tolkien. Blogs are completely new to me and please forgive my grammar and spelling. I do try. I love to write in my journals. Anyway, thinking of Tolkien as an entertainer to write for others enjoyment, was never in the front of my mind. A Broadway showing? Its interesting that I have always thought of him like me. Tolkien being the better writer. I write for myself because I actually just love writing and yet, I have thought how nice would it be to know others opinion, on what I have written. Off broadway? Well my limited knowledge of broadway and off broadway plays, simply tells me one is more expensive than the other. Never learned if the quality of one is better than the other, so keeping this in mind?

        I figured coming from a poor family, seeing tolkien off broadway would have been my choice. In addition, knowing the story, I feel Tolkien is off broadway because his style is so rare. This was the reason I was so attracted to him. His style in itself spoke of a tale, at first like a fairy tale but the more I read, the more I believed it was not a fairy story. I can go on and on so let me say thank you for reading my thoughts. Merry Christmas!


  5. I actually don’t have a high opinion of Tolkien, so I wouldn’t want to follow his approach to writing based purely on the knowledge that he wrote like that. But I wouldn’t go as far as to say that good novels are always made by planning in advance, although the one I’m writing will be pre-plotted carefully.

    On a slightly unrelated note, this reminds me of a debate in classical music: Mozart vs Beethoven. Mozart almost always got it right on the first try, whereas Beethoven could spend weeks and months agonising over a single work. In the end, they were both incredible composers.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Christopher Tolkien put out several volumes on the history of the Lord of the Rings. They’re a collection of all the rough drafts, outlines, and revisions of the LOTR books. It is exhausting to read these books, but encouraging as well. Tolkien did not give up, even though it took him several versions of each part of the story to get it right.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Interesting to read how many writers feel they have a foot in both camps! Me too. I always have an overall plan before I start but too many ideas pop up along the way to ever stick to a rigid outline.


  8. I am definitely a pantser. I have a very basic storyline in my head and I just start writing. This can be whatever part of the plot I am inspired by at that moment and these ‘scenes’ can change so I rarely write the book in order. I add scenes as I am inspired and then comes the editing, which is the most difficult for me – continuity issues can be a problem but I don’t think I could write any other way. I tried to write ‘in order’ for years and always got stuck and gave up, but writing as I do now has helped me to write three novels (so far)! The last was even more chaotic as I had two separate characters both needing flashbacks. Editing this so it made sense and flowed properly was a nightmare! But it works for me.


  9. One thing I think some authors discount is the power of the subconscious, which operates in the background–like antivirus software–while we’re writing and helps us develop our stories. Although we might think we’re “pansters,” maybe it’s an illusion. Perhaps the mystery of creativity should remain a mystery!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I think it always will be a bit of a mystery, because the moment we start analyzing creativity, we step outside the creative process itself. It’s like the difference between being in love and advising someone else on the subject. 🙂


  10. It seems appropriate to point out that the admitted pantser completed fewer than a dozen books during his lifetime while the careful planner completed around 40, although about 25 of those are non-fiction. If the goal is a finished book, I think plotting gets you there faster.


  11. It’s so encouraging to hear Tolkien was a pantser. I may be somewhere in between. I’ve just gotten hold of Bandersnatch and am enjoying it very much.


  12. I think that being a combination of two is the best approach. Also, even Tolkien was not a “complete” pantser. You see, the world he built up was so detailed that the world itself became a story, and provided a sort of “guiding hand” to Tolkien’s writing process.


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