The Best Instructional On Being A Writer…Isn’t About Writing

One of the best books I’ve ever read on writing… wasn’t a book on writing.
Sure, I’ve studied most of the required tomes, such as Save the Cat Writes a Novel, Story Genius, and Take Off Your Pants! I learned the requisite information to write a novel: the importance of plot points, character arcs, internal/ external struggles, the misbelief, the ‘what if’.

Yet none of these books were as helpful to my understanding of what it is to BE a writer, as The Return Of The Shadow, by J.R.R. Tolkien.

Through the pages of The Return Of The Shadow, we walk together with Tolkien as he dreamed, edited, and dreamed some more to create The Lord of the Rings. We see his struggles, as he evolves the character names, plot points, and the story, adding layers to the first sketchy drafts of his wondrous adventures. Even a copy of the original hand written opening page to Lord of the Rings, complete with edits from Tolkien, is included.

I always thought authors like Tolkien must have been natural storytellers. I thought it was easy for their ideas to flow onto the page. The stories read so well, it seemed they must have had an innate talent. Seeing Tolkien’s multiple drafts and story edits drives home that writing isn’t easy, even for someone as talented as Tolkien. It’s a challenging process. It requires us to dream and keep massaging the story into being, through doubt and exhaustive editing.

As writers, I think we are all very hard on ourselves. The first draft often seems to flow and sound great…until we re-read our own work. We become hesitant, insecure, and critical of the words, the story, and ourselves.

Tolkien gives us the perfect instructional for these moments.

I’d recommend getting yourself a copy of The Return of The Shadow. On those rough days, when you are worried your own story looks frail and imperfect, open the book.

Let yourself be reminded that in early drafts, Frodo was Bilbo’s son, Bingo (Wait! Bilbo had a son?), Legolas wasn’t yet created, and the Ring of Power had not yet been imagined.

Happy Dreaming!


  1. That’s really a thought-provoking way of looking at the subject. But I have to agree with you: I’ve never really gotten better through reading books on writing. They do serve as inspiration, but the only way I’ve improved over the years was to just constantly do it.

    Thanks for sharing this!

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