What jigsaw puzzles could have taught me about writing – if I’d listened

This (pictured above) is a 1,000 piece jigsaw puzzle. Except that it isn’t – and that’s a lesson about writing I wish I’d learned many years before I did.

My puzzle is a 1,000 piece jigsaw puzzle, in the sense that there are 1,000 pieces in the box. But on the dining-room table, it’s ten 100-piece jigsaw puzzles: I did the frame, then the boat, then the chairs, then started on the cottage mansion. Nobody (I think) starts a jigsaw puzzle at the upper left corner and tries to put pieces in one at a time until they reach the lower right.

I used to try writing papers that way: starting with the Abstract, and writing until I got to the end of the Discussion. That’s the way I’d written undergraduate essays and lab reports, so that’s how I figured I’d write papers too. It didn’t work, of course. Well, actually, it was worse than that – it worked once,* thereby setting me up to expect that it would keep working. Reader, it did not. Attempting to write a whole paper in one piece makes a big job much bigger, and much more daunting. I now write papers very much like I do jigsaw puzzles, in at least three important ways.

The first way: I start with the edge pieces. Those are the easiest part, and they let me ease into the puzzle while providing something to anchor the rest to. For papers, the edge pieces are the title page, the Acknowledgements, and a set of section and subsection headings (in The Scientist’s Guide to Writing, I call this a “subhead outline”). These are all easy, so they tempt me into starting rather than procrastinating, and thus let me fool myself into thinking I’m making good progress. And since that feeling of progress keeps me at my keyboard, it’s a self-fulfilling prophecy (but in a good way, not like that screed I posted two weeks ago.

The second way: I divide and conquer. The boat, for me, is the Methods: fairly easy (I may even have written most of it earlier, as I was doing the work; to stretch the puzzle metaphor way too far, it’s as if I found the boat half-put-together in the box). Then the Results; then Discussion, then Intro. And each of those gets broken into smaller tasks, too: a figure, a subsection, a paragraph. The primary reason I proselytise about outlining before you write is that it’s a way to find and plan the story you want to tell; but an almost-as-excellent outcome of outlining is that it provides a menu of smaller tasks you can tackle instead of facing the soul-crushing totality of Writing A Whole Paper.

The third way: I don’t let a missing piece hold me up. See the towel draped over the left-hand chair? There are two pieces at the top I hadn’t found yet, and I could have spent time combing through the unsorted pieces looking for them. Instead, I moved on; I knew I’d find those towel pieces eventually, probably while looking for something else. I do the same when I’m writing. Can’t find the right word? Can’t remember a paper I know I need to cite? Dissatisfied with the way I’ve ended a section? I mark it (the gap will do, in a puzzle, but in writing I use three asterisks, as in ***citation***) and move on. I know that what I’m missing will often come to me later**; or alternatively, in revision I may delete the problematic bit anyway. Charge forward: a puzzle with 10% of the pieces not in place is easy (well, “easy” in a relative sense) to finish later. A jumble of pieces in the box is not.

It took me far too long to learn these three lessons. I could have learned them from doing jigsaw puzzles, and I wish I had, because I’d have learned them a lot sooner! But I did get there, and at least I can flog the metaphor thoroughly in hopes that it can help another writer who, like I once was, is labouring harder than they need to.

I finished the puzzle – or if you prefer, I finished the 10 sub-puzzles. Now, if each of us can just convince one vaccine-hesitant person to receive a Covid-19 vaccine (and the existence of those vaccines is a triumph of basic science), we can put the pandemic behind us and I can go sit in one of those chairs.

© Stephen Heard  March 30, 2021

Images: own work, released CC BY 4.0

*^For this paper, which I wrote from Abstract to Conclusion, more or less in a weekend. “I was right”, I thought, “writing is easy”.  Ha. It never happened again.

**^Remarkably often, in the shower, which is why I have a SCUBA notepad in there. Some of my very best ideas are scribbled on that notepad.


8 thoughts on “What jigsaw puzzles could have taught me about writing – if I’d listened

  1. Chris Mebane

    Reviewer 2
    Comments for the authors and editors:
    The puzzle “Ostentatious Cottage at Adirondack Chair Pond” has been assembled without any obvious gaps. However, I do have some criticisms.
    General comments:
    The size of the puzzle is excessive for the simple message of bucolic, humble bragging. I recommend reducing the size by at least 100 pieces.
    Specific comments:
    1. The introductory foreground is unnecessarily busy and distracts from the main results. Remove the towel.
    2. The lantern in the tree adds glare and is an unnecessary distraction for the early evening setting. It also could represent a fire hazard. No IRB approval statement for high temperature lantern use could be found.
    3. The bald eagle should have been an osprey.
    However, even with these changes I doubt that the novelty of this puzzle warrants presentation on the limited space of the dining room table, owing to competitive demands from other family members. I recommend considering a revised puzzle for display in the backyard.

    Liked by 3 people

    1. ScientistSeesSquirrel Post author

      Chris, this is awesome. I kind of want to write a Response to Reviews in the same vein, but I can’t top yours (or even match it).

      Although I will say, I’m fine with the eagle, but I really question the cardinals. But I’m not a good enough ornithologist to know if my misgivings are well founded.


      1. Chris Mebane

        Are those supposed to be cardinals? I thought they were mockingbirds. For figure clarity, authors must submit their image files as humungous, computer choking TIFF format….
        When I saw your paper as a jigsaw puzzle analogy, my thought was that’s probably the case with some papers – all the pieces of the original fit together in a nice rectangle, but then reviewers can’t help themselves but suggesting appendages or carving out cavities. With my own writing, I may feel that way even though it’s doubtfully true – there probably really are missing sections or stubs.
        Always enjoy your posts.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. sleather2012

    Exactly what I tell the students in my writing class

    The Three Rs of Science – Reading, Writing and Reviewing

    “The middle column represents how most of us now write papers especially in these days of cut and paste. We follow the line of least resistance, start with the title to give us a starting point, our methods should have been written already in our lab books, the results come next and then we get on to the harder bits, the Introduction and the Discussion; acknowledgements flow logically from this and then it is a matter of adding the references and perhaps the hardest bit of all, the abstract or summary. By the time you have done all this, your initial title almost certainly will no longer appeal to you so you come up with something new and more fitting.”

    although if you read on to the next paragraph I do question whether this is actually the best way to write 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Pingback: It’s not lazy to do the easy writing first | Scientist Sees Squirrel

Comment on this post:

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.