How Writing a Book Is Different From Making a Jigsaw Puzzle

Why my 2017 blog post didn’t quite get it right

Julia Goldstein
Dec 29, 2020 · 5 min read

My most popular blog post for 2020 was called, “Why Writing a Book is Like Making a Jigsaw Puzzle.” I didn’t write that post this year, though. I published it in March of 2017 when I was formulating the ideas for my first book.

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Part of a 1000-piece jigsaw puzzle I made this year.

That 2017 post made some valid points, but it wasn’t entirely accurate. Here are three reasons why writing a book is not like making a jigsaw puzzle:

1. Writing a book is a creative endeavor. Making a jigsaw puzzle is not.

Jigsaw puzzles do require brainpower to recognize which shapes and patterns go together, but they don’t require creativity. Even if you refuse to look at the image on the box while making a jigsaw puzzle and figure out the picture as you go, there’s only one way to correctly assemble the puzzle. You might not see the solution right away, but you won’t succeed unless you place the pieces in the right configuration.

In contrast, writers face infinite choices when deciding how to organize their thoughts and their story. There is no one fixed result. Some may argue that nonfiction writers don’t have as much creative leeway as fiction writers because we must rely on facts. Still, we can choose which facts to present and how to explain and support them.

We exercise creativity when we write each sentence and each paragraph. Even if our book’s primary purpose is to inform rather than to entertain the reader, there’s still a creative element. The practical guide that I published in November, for example, incorporates storytelling.

2. It is much easier to multitask when working on a jigsaw puzzle.

Puzzles do not require my full attention and concentration. I can carry on a conversation with someone in the same room or by phone while doing a jigsaw puzzle. Assembling a puzzle can either be a meditative solitary experience or a more social one. If I stop and take a break, it isn’t hard to get back to work. I can see where I left off.

That is not the case for writing, whether I’m working on a blog post or a book. If someone tries to engage me in conversation, I can’t respond to them coherently unless I stop writing. And once I stop, it can be hard to get back on track if I didn’t get all my ideas onto paper (or typed into Word or Scrivener) before I got interrupted.

If you’re a writer struggling to make progress on your first or latest book, I advise you to protect your uninterrupted writing time. Whether you set aside 30 minutes a day or less frequent four-hour blocks, do what you can to minimize distractions.

3. The boundaries are defined for a jigsaw puzzle but arbitrary for a book.

My 2017 blog post did mention the distinction that the border of a jigsaw puzzle is fixed, whereas a book outline is not, but I didn’t go far enough. Arbitrary word count goals can help define a book’s scope, but the topic or the story may require a longer or shorter book. As each chapter takes shape, the content may expand or contract. Writers who can be flexible during the editing process will create a book that better serves the intended reader.

When I started writing my first book, I didn’t foresee how much the structure of my finished book would differ from what I put in my initial six-page outline. Now that I have the benefit of hindsight, I realize that I was not nearly clear enough about my audience and purpose when I began writing. I struggled to decide what to include and what to omit. Anne Janzer’s latest book, Get the Word Out, would have been a great help, but it didn’t yet exist.

My vague statement about the book’s topic was accurate. The blog post read, “All I will say now is the book is about materials and why what stuff is made of matters, for the health of people and the planet. Right now, the border feels a bit unstable — perhaps some of the pieces don’t quite fit — but I will persevere and put the entire puzzle together.”

I did persevere. A year and a half later, after countless revisions in which I discarded entire sections and added others, I sent a draft to a professional copy editor. The finished book, Material Value, launched on Earth Day 2019.

My outline was much better defined for my second book, Rethink the Bins. I started with a clear purpose — to explain what happens to household waste after it leaves the collection bins and to give readers practical advice on how to handle their recyclable and non-recyclable waste. It helped that I had completed most of my research before I began writing. Also, the book is short, around 100 pages.

When I started writing in late 2019, I sensed upfront that Rethink the Bins would work best with five chapters plus a resource section. The book needed to cover: 1. Where the waste goes, 2. Recycling overview, 3. Composting overview, 4. Common types of waste, and 5. Waste tracking methods. The only thing I added in the final version was an epilogue recognizing the effect of pandemic-related restrictions on the adoption of reusable packaging.

In contrast, my initial outline for Material Value was a mishmash of many loosely connected ideas. It was more a brain dump of my knowledge about materials than a coherent book concept. I hadn’t followed the advice I wrote in my blog post where I said, “The book needs to make sense as a whole. Every piece needs to support the thesis in some way.” Fortunately, I refined the structure substantially before wasting too many hours writing content that didn’t belong.

I’m guessing that my old blog post attracted traffic because both jigsaw puzzles and book writing became quite popular this year. If you are among the throngs of people who embarked on a book writing project this year because you were stuck at home, I hope that you are satisfied with what you have accomplished so far.

Note: If you go back and read my post from 2017, you will see that it mentions a writing group that a friend and I had just launched. Although the group still exists on Meetup, it hasn’t held an event since June 2019. If you’re looking for a supportive group writing experience, I suggest searching “Shut Up and Write!” on Meetup. For those who want to learn more about the business of writing, publishing, and promoting nonfiction books, I encourage you to check out the Nonfiction Authors Association. I run the Seattle chapter, which now meets online.

Want to read more of my writing? Go to juliagoldsteinauthor.com/blog.

Julia Goldstein

Written by

I’m a professional writer and the author of Material Value and Rethink the Bins. My beat is materials and sustainability. https://www.juliagoldsteinauthor.com

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Blank Page is home to stories that help creatives get smarter at writing.

Julia Goldstein

Written by

I’m a professional writer and the author of Material Value and Rethink the Bins. My beat is materials and sustainability. https://www.juliagoldsteinauthor.com

Blank Page

Blank Page is home to stories that help creatives get smarter at writing.

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