Planner or Pantser?

The process of Creative Writing…looking at one Christian Writer’s process

NaNoWriMo is probably the place to start.  Imagine a whole month of discipline. Each day requires about 1500 words added to your tale, and you’re invited to splurge these out onto the page or screen without editing, deep soul-searching, or a thesaurus. Bliss! 

But wait – there is a requirement – constancy. Commitment… you must keep going day by day, no shirking, no excuses, no procrastination! Fear not – your buddy is there to share your efforts, to cheer you on, as you will cheer her (or him, though somehow the picture of a Nano is of busy-busy women snatching an hour or two out of the day)…to write that story which has lurked so long unattended.

So, are you a Nano-typical writer,  a ‘pantser’ driven by your muse – thankful that Nano comes in November, the darkest month of the year?  Or…Are you a planner (or plotter)? Carefully holding back on writing Chapter 1 at the top of a page until the research is done, the chapters sorted out, the characters carefully developed and introduced (or not) to one another? Do you already know ‘who done it’? Or where the other half of the ancient papyrus was hidden? Whether and how your main character will reach her goal? Some Nano writers do – the planning and plotting all “ready to roll” as November comes around.
Copyright: the Tolkien Estate

J. R. R. Tolkien looks like the ultimate ‘pantser’. They asked him for a sequel to the best-selling Hobbit, so he sat down and started writing what is still Chapter 1. He largely rewrote it four times before getting any further.

They say it is the first step that costs the effort. I do not find it so. I am sure I could write unlimited ‘first chapters’. I have indeed written many. The Hobbit sequel is still where it was, and I have only the vaguest notions of how to proceed… (Letter, 17/2/1938)

Much later he listed all the things in the story that he knew nothing of at the outset: Bree, Strider, Lothlórien, Fangorn Forest, the Stewards of Gondor, Saruman. He even invented things that puzzled him:

I was as mystified as Frodo at Gandalf’s failure to appear on September 22. (Letter 7/6/1955)

And much of his writing seems to have been a quest to ‘discover’ the answers. He did have one thing: Bilbo’s magic ring. It was so obviously the key to the plot. There’s no hint of this when he first sets his Hobbits hiking across the Shire in Chapter 2, but suddenly he has them pursued by a mysterious swathed rider—who reveals himself as Gandalf! No sooner is this written than Tolkien changes it — he’s a Black Rider, and soon it’s clear that he’s linked with the magic ring, and the narrative machinery begins to hum. Most remarkable of all, the ensuing scenes where the hobbits hide and are rescued by Gildor and his Elves, who then hint at the menace of the Riders, remain almost unchanged through all the subsequent re-imagining and rewriting of The Lord of the Rings. As Christopher Tolkien puts it:

It is deeply characteristic that these scenes emerged at once in the clear and memorable form that was never changed, but that their bearing and significance would afterwards be enormously enlarged. The ‘event’…was fixed, but its meaning capable of indefinite extension; and that is seen, over and over again, as a prime mark of my father’s writing. (The Return of the Shadow, p. 71)

It’s as if the truly creative writer possesses a third faculty that unites pantser and planner — perhaps what was once thought of as the Muse — working unknown to, and sometimes against, his or her conscious ideas.

Clare and Edmund Weiner


  1. Thank you for these insights into Tolkien's working methods, as I always thought the whole epic was so carefully planned out in advance. I think I'm a bit more of a planner, but always open as I go along to changes to my "working plan so far".

  2. I definitely have a plan, but along the way, things happen that I wasn't expecting, so I have to integrate them into the plan! Maybe it's that I'm a planner but my Muse is a pantser :)

  3. I'm more with Tolkien on this. For me, writing is exploration, and I wouldn't want it any other way. The excitement of discovery is the best part of it!

  4. I love Tolkien's work and that was really enlightening for me. Thank you.


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