Learn How to Jam

On Puzzling, Process, and You


By Christine Carron

I love jigsaw puzzles. Last night, I finished a particularly tricky one. My puzzle speed slowed dramatically toward the end as I sorted out the last fifty pieces or so, which all looked very similar. I got it done through a combination of methodical analysis, leaps of intuition, and sheer determination. Yet, as I moved piece by piece toward the end of that particular puzzle, what kept circling in my thoughts was the entirety of the puzzle process.

In particular, I was pondering where the puzzle process begins. The end is clear; every piece in its place. But what is the first thing one does to put a puzzle together? My guess is that many puzzle players would speak to finding edge pieces and putting the frame of the puzzle together. 

But is that really the beginning of the puzzling effort? From a project management perspective, I suggest not. Putting the frame together assumes a whole lot of work has already been done. 

How do you really start to put a puzzle together?

Puzzle Process Steps

  • STEP 1: You buy a puzzle. Or choose a puzzle from your collection. 
  • STEP 2: You find a surface big enough for your puzzle, which may necessitate some decluttering, or at least shifting of things away from said surface. 
  • STEP 3: You dump out all the pieces and turn them right side up. Note: Depending on how many pieces the puzzle has and how many resources (other than you) you have at hand, this can take some time.  
  • STEP 4: Sort pieces at least into edge pieces and non-edge pieces, and possibly other categories depending on the puzzle’s image. Note: This task can be done concurrently with STEP 3. 
  • STEP 5: Put the puzzle together.
  • STEP 6: After enjoying the completed puzzle for a while, dismantle it and put it away.

An important part of my job as a process improvement consultant for software development projects is to make the work the team is actually doing visible. To the decision makers, who might not understand why the project is late; to sales people, so they can sell work more accurately going forward; and to the team members, so they stop beating themselves up trying to meet unrealistic deadlines and move into more confident action.

Writing, like puzzling and software development, is a process that has many steps that are often not acknowledged yet take time. It helps in our self-management and process management if we name those hidden steps and make them visible. 

Writing-a-Novel Process Steps

The first time I decided to write a novel, I sat myself down in front of a computer and started writing.  Brainstorming and pondering, too; definitely some notes and mind-mapping, but I really thought if I was going to write a novel, I’d better start writing. Like pronto! I didn’t have the knowledge or experience to understand how much I was glomming together. Here is what I really did and this is only at the very highest level: 

  • STEP: Decide what to write. 
  • STEP: Learn how to write/tell a story.
  • STEP: Make time in schedule for writing. 
  • STEP: Deal with doubt.
  • STEP: Think about character, setting, plot, i.e., the various pieces of a novel.
  • STEP: Create scenes.
  • STEP: Write.
  • STEP: Revise. 
  • STEP: Edit/proofread. 

As you are an observant reader, I have no doubt you noticed that I took off the step numbers for these steps, unlike the puzzle process steps. Why? Because even as I note some of the key steps involved, I want to minimize implying a correct order. And arguably the learning effort was going on throughout the whole effort, and is still going on. But setting the learning aside, some writers like to do these steps concurrently. Some like a more consecutive approach. As a process improvement consultant, it is not my job to impose a process or an order on anyone. 

Process-Improving a Process

As noted, I help make all their work visible. And then, together with an individual or a team, we explore what might help them get that work done more effectively, whatever effectively means to them. To get to that end, I ask questions such as:

  1. Do you currently work these steps consecutively or concurrently? Why? Is it habit, or how you were taught, or something else?
  2. Do you like your current process? 
  3. Is your current process serving your mission and your goals?
  4. What adjustments do you think would help your work go more smoothly? 
  5. What has kept you from making those adjustments?

I do offer options for consideration, based on my experience. Practices and processes for them to try on to see if it works. But I work across many types of companies, from large pharmaceutical companies with regulatory requirements to academic teams doing cutting-edge exploratory work. It would be folly for me to think that there is a one-size-fits-all solution for such diverse teams and work. We don’t offer authoritative solutions for writers through Goodjelly either. 

Celebrating Your Process

Do I have a part of me who wishes there was a one-size-fits-all solution to building a writing career and to churning out great novels one after the other? That we could just buy a box from the store with all the right pieces ready for us to put together and presto-bammo, we are successful writers? Sure. 

But that is a very small part of me. There is a much bigger part who wants the adventure in all its messiness and joy, and not-knowing slogs and grace-filled ahas and wins, and all the figuring-it-out-as-I-go in between. And I want the same for you. 

For you to have your journey. To find the pieces of your perfect writing adventure. For you to put them together in a way that exalts your voice, your way of being, your take on the world. (Oooooooooo, happy chills!)

Let the puzzling begin!

The Goodjelly Prompt of the Week

  • Think about how you approach writing and how you approach putting a puzzle together. How are they similar? How are they different?
  • If you had to write a high-level step-by-step process for how you approach writing, what would the steps be? Which steps would be done consecutively? Which would be done concurrently?
  • Do you have a sense that some parts of your process are serving you better than others? What is it about the serving-you-well parts that work for you, and how might you make the serving-you-less-well parts function more like the parts you like?

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