J.R.R. Tolkien’s Top 10 Tips for Writers

The Hobbit Movie - 2012

J.R.R Tolkien’s vast, sweeping stories have captured readers’ imaginations for decades.  What are the secrets of his craft?

The answer to this question is the subject of today’s guest post by Roger Colby, author and English teacher.  Roger imagined what it would have been like to have met Tolkien, sat down with the master and learned from him.   

Over to Roger…

Roger Colby and J J R Tolkien

Roger Colby ‘meets’ J J R Tolkien

I have long been a fan of J.R.R. Tolkien.  Every year, when school dismisses for summer break, I read The Lord of the Rings.  This year I will read it to my children and do all the voices for them.  Tolkien was a brilliant writer, but what if we could sit down with him and ask him any question we wanted?  What if he could give writers advice about their own writing from his years of experience as an incredible storyteller?

This is possible if we read his letters.  I have a musty old book entitled ‘The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien’, edited by Humphrey Carpenter.  I once spent the better part of a month reading it cover to cover and underlining every instance where the master of Middle Earth wrote about his process.

What follows are the best of those notes – Tolkien’s Top Ten Tips For Writers

1.  Vanity Is Useless

Tolkien writes in a letter to Sir Stanley Unwin on 31 July 1947

“…I certainly hope to leave behind me the whole thing [LOTR] revised and in final form, for the world to throw into the waste-paper basket.  All books come there in the end, in this world, anyway” (121).

Lord of The RingsThe Lord of the Rings has a worldwide following, has inspired films, video games, animated features, songs, poetry, fan fiction and countless other things, yet its author felt that in reality it may not be that important to the world.

There are several other instances where he writes to people about how humble he feels about the things he writes and that they are not really life changing at all, but simply imaginings “from my head”.  In Tolkien’s opinion, The Hobbit was published out of sheer “accident”, as he had passed it around to a few close friends, one of them being C.S. Lewis.

Finally (and lucky for us) an Oxford graduate, Susan Dagnall, who worked for the London publishing house of Allen & Unwin, encouraged him to submit it for publication.  He did, and there are pages of letters where he struggles with the process of publication. He was not, in any way, a vain man, especially about his writing.

2.  Keep a Stiff Upper Lip

In another letter to Sir Stanley Unwin dated July 21, 1946, Tolkien lists a mound of personal struggles he was facing: being ill, being overworked and missing his son Christopher who was away in the Royal Navy. He put many of his struggles aside, though, and went to writing.

He had to balance his day job with his desire to write epic stories set in Middle Earth. He found time.  He made time.  It took him 7 years to write The Hobbit. (117)  The thing that he writes about most in this period is his struggle to get the work finished on his novels and to balance teaching and his many duties at Oxford College. Apparently he found a way.

3.  Listen to Critics

Tolkien writes to his editor about the comments C.S. Lewis made about The Lord of the Rings: “When he would say, ‘You can do better than that. Better, Tolkien, please!’ I would try.  I’d sit down and write the section over and over.

GandalfThat happened with the scene I think is the best in the book, the confrontation between Gandalf and his rival wizard, Saruman, in the ravaged city of Isengard.”

He writes that he “cut out some passages of light-hearted hobbit conversation which he [Lewis] found tiresome, thinking that if he did most other readers (if any) would feel the same…to tell the truth he never really like hobbits very much, least of all Merry and Pippin.   But a great number of readers do, and would like more than they have got” (376).

I notice the words in parenthesis “if any”, because there are many passages in the letters where Tolkien seems to be self-deprecating. He listened carefully to critics and understood that they would hone his writing down to something that would be well received by many. We must learn to use the advice of critics to help us become better writers.

Probably the most telling letter of the entire collection would be his letter to Christopher Bretherton dated July 16th, 1964.

The following are the highlights of that text:

4.  Let Your Interests Drive Your Writing

Tolkien wrote: “I began the construction of languages in early boyhood: I am primarily a scientific philologist.  My interests were, and remain, largely scientific.  But I was also interested in traditional tales (especially those concerning dragons); and writing (not reading) verse and metrical devices.  These things began to flow together when I was an undergraduate to the despair of my tutors and near-wrecking of my career” (345).

Tolkien’s interest was originally languages.  He loved to create his own languages based on more ancient ones of which he was intimately familiar.  He followed his interests enough to create entire cultures based on these languages and then wrote stories about them which then became legend.  He wrote about what interested him most.

If you are writing something that is not really in your heart, you will write something flat and lifeless.  Let the words of your text pour directly from your personal interests.

5.  Poetry As A Road to Prose

When Tolkien couldn’t express his thoughts in prose he “wrote much of it in verse.”

He writes “The first version of the song of Strider concerning Luthien,… originally appeared in the Leeds University magazine, but the whole tale, as sketched by Aragorn, was written in a poem of great length” (346).

If you cannot write the prose in a convincing manner, try composing your thoughts in the form of verse.  It will cause your brain to think deeply about the phrasing, the structure and the literary devices needed to excel in writing prose.  Possibly this is why much of Tolkien’s writing reads in the form of a cadence.  I have personally practiced this technique and it makes a profound difference in the quality of my prose once it finally makes it to the page.

6.  Happy Accidents

Tolkien writes: “The Hobbit saw the light and made my connection with A. & U. by an accident.”  Further: “From The Hobbit are also derived the matter of the Dwarves, Durin their prime ancestor, and Moria; and Elrond.

The Hobbit

The passage in chapter 3 (LOTR) relating him to the Half-elven of the mythology was a fortunate accident, due to the difficulty of constantly inventing good names for new characters” (346).

Sometimes accidents happen, and sometimes those accidents will lead a writer to a publisher or create an entire novel.  Tolkien created entire worlds and then used what he knew of myth and legend to tell iconic, archetypal stories based in those magical places.  Even though he planned everything out meticulously, he still had happy accidents occur that he kept in the final manuscript because they just worked. Sometimes accidents can be blessings.

7.  Dreams Give Us Inspiration

He writes:  “In sleep I had the dreadful dream of the ineluctable Wave, either coming out of the quiet sea, or coming in towering over the green inlands.  It still occurs occasionally, though now exorcised by writing about it.

It always ends by surrender, and I awake gasping out of the deep water.  I used to draw it or write bad poems about it.  When C.S. Lewis and I tossed up, and he was to write on space-travel and I on time-travel, I began an abortive book of time-travel of which the end was to be the presence of my hero in the drowning of Atlantis” (347).

He goes on to write of the process he used to incorporate this feeling of being drowned in the invasion of Middle Earth by Mordor.  He also worked this into many of his motifs: the drowning of Isengard, the dead marshes, and Sam Gamgee’s near drowning when following Frodo.

I use dreams to inspire me as well. I won’t go into the dream I had that inspired my latest novel (for it is more of a nightmare) but I will say that the dreams we have can give us great stories to tell.

8.  Real People Make Great Characters

Tolkien: “There was a curious local character, an old man who used to go about sweeping gossip and weather-wisdom and such like.

To amuse my boys I named him Gaffer Gamgee, and the name became part of family lore to fix on old chaps of the kind.  At that time I was beginning on The Hobbit.  The choice of Gamgee was primarily directed by alliteration; but I did not invent it.  It was caught out of childhood memory, as a comic word or name.  It was in fact the name when I was small (in Birmingham) for ‘cotton-wool’”(348).

GollumTolkien drew from real life people to populate the amazing world of Middle Earth.  Look around you.  Many of the people you spend time with every day may make fantastic characters in your novel.  It is fun to imagine them as heroes or what they would really do if a situation presented itself like the peril that is in my current offering.

Many of the people who litter the post-apocalyptic landscape of my novel are based on real people.  Truth is indeed stranger than fiction.

9.  You May Be the Next Best Selling Author

Tolkien relates the following story: “I lived for a while in a rather decayed road (aptly called Duchess) in Edgbaston, B’ham; it ran into a more decayed road called Beaufort.  I mention this only because in Beaufort road was a house, occupied in its palmier days, by Mr. Shorthouse, a manufacturer of acids, of (I believe) Quaker connections.

He, a mere amateur (like myself) with no status in the literary world, suddenly produced a long book, which was queer, exciting, and debatable – or seemed so then, few now find it possible to read.  It slowly took on, and eventually became a best-seller, and the subject of public discussion from the Prime Minister downwards.  This was John Inglesant.  Mr. Shorthouse became very queer, and very UnBrummagem not to say UnEnglish.  He seemed to fancy himself as a reincarnation of some renaissance Italian, and dressed the part” (348).

Tolkien adds, again, the words in parenthesis like myself which connote that he is highly critical of his own writing.  He was surprised by the success of his first book and also of the others.  He felt, literally, that his best-selling nature was a complete accident.

This gives all writers hope, but know that he did not achieve his status without following many of the tips listed in this post.

10.  Books You Write May Seem Trite

Tolkien writes: “I now find The Lord of the Rings ‘good in parts”(349).  This is to say that upon reading his books years after writing them his writing experience informs him that he is a much better writer than when he published The Hobbit.

You may feel that way about books you have written.  I have several I would like to go back and revisit now that I know more about the process.  This is perfectly fine.  In fact I revised my own book The Transgression Box and uploaded the new copy to Kindle and Nook, and this was after it had been out as a print edition for a year.

Guest article by Roger Colby.  
Author & English Teacher 

Roger Colby





About  J.R.R Tolkien. 

John Ronald Reuel Tolkien, (3 January 1892 – 2 September 1973)  was an English writer, poet, philologist, and university professor, best known as the author of the classic high fantasy works The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings, and The Silmarillion.

All quotations are taken from the following text: Carpenter, Humphrey, ed. The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien. 1st ed. Massachusetts: George Allen & Unwin, 1981. Print.

Which of these tips resonate with you?  Which books by J. R. R Tolkien have you read?  Do leave a comment.

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    • Eddy says:
      July 18, 2012 at 8:44pm

      Many thanks for this great post Jonathan. Tolkien is my favorite writer and finding these tips from him is like finding a jewel I didn’t know existed.

  • Jen says:
    July 3, 2012 at 11:40am

    Hi Roger and Jonathan

    Favorited this. Great resource I shall come back to. Another post I loved is the 22 Rules Of Story from Pixar.


    • Jonathan Gunson says:
      July 3, 2012 at 11:46am

      Hi Jen. Roger’s 10 tips by Tolkien were the result of a lot of research – a labor of love.

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  • Henry Hyde says:
    July 3, 2012 at 12:38pm

    A nice post. As Roger says, there’s much inspiration to be derived from Tolkien. He was a remarkable man. I also read and re-read The Lord of the Rings, and all his work (including the various unfinished tales) as a young man and have had an abiding love of fantasy fiction ever since. I can remember ‘graduating’ to The Silmarillion and I even attempted to learn Anglo-Saxon (it’s hard!).

    Of course, it’s now difficult to think of The Lord of the Rings without conjuring up scenes from Peter Jackson’s movie adaptation, and I’m sure that the same will soon be true for The Hobbit too. That’s not necessarily a bad thing: the movies gave many of the characters an immediacy and three-dimensionality that they don’t have in the books.

    A small factual correction: Christopher Tolkien was commissioned in the Royal Air Force, not the Royal Navy; and Tolkien taught at Oxford University (which is divided into colleges — Tolkien taught at Pembroke College, Oxford). Tolkien’s Wikipedia entry at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/J._R._R._Tolkien is pretty comprehensive.

    • Jonathan Gunson says:
      July 3, 2012 at 8:53pm

      Same issue with the genre fiction books – Harry Potter. Characters are now inextricably linked with those in the movies.

    • November 2, 2012 at 2:08pm

      Christopher Tolkien was commissioned in the RAF, but transferred to the Fleet Air Arm (naval aviation).

  • Jenny says:
    July 3, 2012 at 1:56pm

    Fabulous post. It’s amazing what we learn from poets’ and authors’ personal letters.

  • July 3, 2012 at 5:03pm

    Thanks Jonathan for another great post. I heard that JRR Tolkien and C.S. Lewis were writing buddies, but was surprised to see how deep it went. Tolkien: A very down to earth guy, and funnier than I expected.

    Thanks again, JT

    • Jonathan Gunson says:
      July 3, 2012 at 8:50pm

      C.S. Lewis is my preference – Tolkien’s work is spectacular, sweeping, rich, tangled. I could go on. CSL more accessible is some ways. Irrespective, Tolkien’s tips are beyond value and timeless.

  • July 3, 2012 at 5:50pm

    Awesome post – I follow Roger’s blog, and it’s a wealth of interesting, useful and informative posts. Love it! ~ Julie :)

    • Jonathan Gunson says:
      July 3, 2012 at 8:46pm

      Julie. We BOTH follow Roger’s blog. :)

  • July 3, 2012 at 8:09pm

    Interesting and informative. I’ve been a Tolkien fan for a long time. This site now in my “Favorites” list.

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  • Mary Kay says:
    July 4, 2012 at 7:39pm

    Thanks, Jonathan and Roger. I lover learning more about the connection between Tolkien and Lewis. A great reminder of how a community of writers can influence and encourage each other.

    I’ve had the blessing of critics in various writing groups, the encouragement to persevere, and many happy “accidents.” I appreciated his clear call to consider real people for characters. I’ve often used a mannerism or action as inspiration, but have tried to make up my characters. I’m glad for the freedom to do more of this.

    • Jonathan Gunson says:
      July 4, 2012 at 9:39pm

      Mary – re “Community of writers” Good point. Writers often see others in their market niche as competition. But there’s infinitely more value in treating fellow scribes as peers who share / help / encourage.

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  • Erna Buist says:
    July 6, 2012 at 8:15am

    Thanks for this great post, Jonathan! This will be filed :)

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  • July 8, 2012 at 7:35pm

    Thank you, a good collection of tips. I recently blogged about Tolkein’s buddy Lewis’ writing tips so your post was particularly helpful.

    Two summers ago I went to Oxford for my daughter’s graduation and had an opportunity to visit the Eagle and Child (where Lewis, Tolkein, et al. had their writers’ peer critique group), and took a snap of the letter to the publican that is posted on the wall. Sadly, I can’t talk Facebook into giving me a direct link to the picture.

    • Jonathan Gunson says:
      July 8, 2012 at 10:21pm

      Steve. Re Oxford – my father majored in Arts at Queens College in the 1930s, and in 2012 my son is completing a degree at St Edmund Hall. But interestingly, all the students still appear to live in a 1930’s time warp.

  • JoAnna says:
    July 8, 2012 at 9:04pm

    There are so many blog posts out there on how to be a better writer, many of them crammed with SEO and published with minimal proofreading. This is advice from a man that didn’t care or know about the digital world of today. This is honest, genuine advice I can listen to, and I really appreciate you sharing it.

  • Jonathan Gunson says:
    July 8, 2012 at 10:24pm

    JoAnna – I’ll be continuing to make posts along these lines. It’s the plan for this blog.

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  • July 14, 2012 at 9:42pm

    Roger and Jonathon,

    I flagged this post several days ago to come back and read and I’m glad I did. Many of the techniques and ideas resonate with me – particularly letting interests drive your writing and using poetry to improve your prose. Writing poetry also helps me with writer’s block. I find that it exercises my creative muscles in a way that primes them for another long dive back into the depths of my WIP. Poetry helps to refresh and renew my mind.

    I’m putting together a presentation for a writer’s conference I’m speaking at in October and will integrate a couple of these points from Roger. Great stuff, my friends!

    • Jonathan Gunson says:
      July 15, 2012 at 11:19pm

      Poetry is pure ‘word theater’. If you are lucky enough to have a bent for poetry, it naturally transfers into lovelier fiction prose.

  • Stephen S. Power says:
    July 16, 2012 at 8:01pm

    I would add: #11. Sometime you have to trust your instincts. Every adaptation skips Tom Bombadil and Tolkein himself couldn’t articulate why he was in there. He only knew that he was important and had to be kept. I think he was right. Bombadil, to me, represent the antithesis of Mordor and it’s important for the hobbits to see what the world was once like in its ideal state before seeing it in increasing stages of corruption along their journey.

    • Jonathan Gunson says:
      July 16, 2012 at 10:58pm

      Insightful viewpoint Stephen. Writer intuition always ‘knows’, and is invariably right on target. We ignore it at our peril, even when we cannot logically explain it or prove its worth.

  • Toni Carter says:
    July 29, 2012 at 5:17am

    Wow what a fantastic article. I really enjoyed this and have taken away a lot of tips. Thanks :)

  • Maegan says:
    August 4, 2012 at 8:21am

    Great article! I’ve been working on my first book going on four years now and I waste a lot of time and energy feeling frustrated by my slow writing. But if Tolkien himself took seven years to finish The Hobbit, maybe I’m not doing so bad after all!

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  • Suzanne Lucero says:
    November 13, 2012 at 8:50pm

    I’m always amazed at the sheer volume of writing Tolkien did, in spite of a lack of computers. Enough, in fact, to have a best-seller published some 40 years after his death : The Children of Hurin.

    If you’d like to see a few LOTR-inspired poems, check out Lily Mackay (there are some other poems posted on a second page). Enjoy.

    • Jonathan Gunson says:
      November 13, 2012 at 10:30pm

      Enjoyed this from your site Suzanne: “The pen moves; A word is put down. The beginning of something grand.”

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  • Jonathan Gunson says:
    January 3, 2013 at 11:32pm

    Today is J.R.R Tolkien’s birthday.

    Born: January 3, 1892, Bloemfontein, Free State
    Died: September 2, 1973, Bournemouth

    John Ronald Reuel Tolkien, CBE was an English writer, poet, philologist, and university professor, best known as the author of the classic high fantasy works The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings, and The Silmarillion. (From Wikipedia.)

    Children: Christopher Tolkien, Priscilla Tolkien, John Tolkien, Michael Tolkien
    Awards: Prometheus Hall of Fame Award, Locus Award for Best Fantasy Novel, Mythopoeic Fantasy Award, Gandalf Award for Book-Length Fantasy, Gandalf Grand Master Award, International Fantasy Award for Fiction

    ~ Jonathan

    P.S. Do Leave a comment – I’m interested in anything re Tolkien.

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  • February 16, 2013 at 7:48pm

    I loved this post. I am a fan of Tolkien as well and realize there are several things to learn from his methodology.
    1. He was a lover of language (Prof. of Anglo-saxon at Oxford College). Few writers will be successful without learning to love words, roots and origins of language.
    2. He was ambitious. He realized that myth acted as a document of culture, the roots of which lay in language. He set about writing a set of legends to form a complete mythology for England. (Tolkien: A Biography)
    3. He was dedicated. Although a full-time academic, he still managed to write his fiction at night and in snatched moments.
    4. He persevered for a lifetime. He devoted some sixty years to the creation of Middle-earth whilst writing The Hobbit; The Lord of the Rings, The Silmarillion and Unfinished Tales.
    5. He tried to recover his lost childhood through his stories. Of course, this last point is a theory that biographers can only explore. It does seem a coincidence that three of the world’s greatest fantasy writers lost their mothers when they were young. CS Lewis lost his mother when he was ten. Tolkien lost his mother when he was twelve. JK Rowling lost her mother when she was twenty-five, although her mother had been ill for ten years prior to her death. Could writing fantasy be a way to escape to happier memories? Or some sort of emotional catharsis?

    • Jonathan Gunson says:
      February 16, 2013 at 9:58pm

      “He tried to recover his lost childhood through his stories” I’m certain that this is true.

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  • June 2, 2014 at 7:37am

    Came to this post after following a link on Twitter. Thank you for extracting and sharing. Useful and humbling to read the thoughts of Tolkein. The Hobbit was the first book, read to me when I was 7, that I truly enjoyed. It was the point at which ‘learning to read’ morphed into ‘reading for fun’ and from then on I gave up dreams of being an astronaut and decided I wanted to start inventing dreams.

    • Jonathan Gunson says:
      June 2, 2014 at 10:04am

      Great decision Ruth! Advice I pass on to the young – whenever they’ll let me: I believe the imagination is our greatest gift. Don’t let it slip through your fingers.
      ~ Jonathan