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
**^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.