Tolkien and Lewis: Pantster vs. Plotter

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

And personally, being a pantster, 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.

dusty-vintage-keyboard by Ladyheart

“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 pantster, creating a vast and complicated world and yet modifying things as he went, then there’s hope for all the rest of us. 🙂

Copyright 2016 Andrea Lundgren

Photo by Ladyheart, Creative Commons

6 thoughts on “Tolkien and Lewis: Pantster vs. Plotter

  1. I agree with your final paragraph, but in my view, Tolkien’s endless fiddling with *everything* he wrote (academic papers included) does not make him the “pantser.” He revised, in fact, because he didn’t want to be that way. Lewis, on the other hand, who thought things through beforehand, yet wrote very swiftly when he did write, qualifies as the pantser. As a blogger, I am much like Lewis in method. As a would-be novelist, I am trying to be much more like Tolkien.

    Thanks for an interesting post!


    1. Interesting. I’d say that Lewis’ thinking ahead, planning outlines and scenes in his head rather than discovering his course through writing was what made him a plotter, and not a pantster. And pantsters can certainly fiddle with things. We revise because every time we touch the story, it changes and our understanding of what we are writing changes, because we aren’t married to an outline. But that is just my take on it. 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

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