What Held Tolkien Back: Perfectionism or Paper?

I recently came across an interesting diagram that shows various statistics about thirty famous books, including how long it took to write them. Of the thirty books included, the one that took the longest was The Lord of the Rings*. Why did it take J.R.R. Tolkien sixteen years to complete his masterpiece? Some say perfectionism slowed him down, but I think paper could have been his real nemesis.

Reading through The History of Middle-Earth: Volumes 6 – 9, I learned that Tolkien was short on paper. Writing between 1937 and 1949, he was in England during periods of rationing and want. While the story of Tolkien jotting the first line of The Hobbit onto a blue book while grading is a charming one, his use of old memos, papers, and tests for many of his drafts left me thinking that paper was not all that easy to come by.

The clincher was learning that Tolkien often wrote his draft in pencil, then went back over it in pen, changing whatever he needed to change and erasing the old draft to make way for the new. I can’t imagine having to reuse my writing materials in this way.

I have at least fifty notebooks lying around and can easily get another one if the others get full or I start a new project. Taking the time and effort to erase my last draft as I was writing my new one over it would be tedious or worse. So would using a typewriter instead of a word processor.

A few of my notebooks…

Tolkien had plenty of good reasons to take so long on his book. The thousand pages he wrote were full of details that had to be cross-checked throughout the process. Keeping track of times and events once the Fellowship was split up and having adventures in smaller groups all over Middle-Earth cost him lots of time. Working full-time as a professor couldn’t have helped any, either.

Being so detail-oriented, Tolkien probably was a perfectionist. He had built a world full of layers that he wove into a rich tapestry of a story. But I’m betting perfectionism was far from his biggest challenge. Surely having to write over his own drafts to conserve paper slowed him down.

*While The Lord of the Rings was broken into three books for publishing, Tolkien always considered it a single book.

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