How Jigsaw Puzzles Made Me a Better Writer

Puzzles do more than kill time — they’re a writer’s best friend.

Several colorful jigsaw puzzle pieces. Via Unsplash.

Like many people I know, I developed a love for puzzles early in 2020, just as the pandemic reached the United States. Goodbye nights out with friends. Hello jigsaws! At first I viewed them as mere distractions. They helped to pass some long, stressful nights and focus my attention so I didn’t worry as much about the world around me. As long as I was fitting together those tiny cardboard pieces, I was content.

But as the pandemic wore on — and my love of puzzles grew — I realized that I was feeling more inspired as a writer. Even as I was doing less writing.

Very strange.

But the more I thought about it, the more I realized that my puzzle obsession was a big reason for why I had more ideas than ever. And why, when I actually sat down to write, I could knock out 1,000 words easily instead of sweating over 200. Here’s how puzzles helped me to keep writing through one of the worst years in recent memory.

They Calm My Brain and Improve Concentration

Something I heard from fellow writers more than anything else this year was that they weren’t writing. And they weren’t reading. They weren’t doing much of anything, really, except worrying. I totally relate. There are still days when all I can do is doom scroll through my social media feeds, and feel aghast at all the bad news. But when things get really bad, I pull out a puzzle. The act of concentration it requires allows my brain to reset. For the hour or so I’m puzzling, I’m not worrying or obsessing. I’m relaxing while lightly problem solving. When the puzzling is done, I feel refreshed and better able to concentrate on other things, like writing. Nothing else, not meditation and not TV watching, has come close to having the same effect as puzzles. There’s something about the simultaneous state of being actively engaged but relaxed that works magic on my brain.

They Make Me a Better Problem Solver

Solving puzzles requires all kinds of strategies: separating the edges, organizing by color, or perhaps by shape. Working on key images first, or perhaps starting with splashes of color. Every puzzle requires a different approach. The more I put together puzzle pieces, the more I realized that those problem solving skills were translating to my writing. Like jigsaws, my essays and stories are often built from different pieces that need to be rearranged, spun, flipped over, or put aside for later. This used to be really hard for me, but after working several puzzles, I realized that I was able to do all of this faster and with more effectiveness. Gone were the pre-puzzling days of sitting at my desk staring at a revision for hours on end. The a-ha moments are now the norm instead of the once-a-week experiences they used to be.

They Inspire Me to Think Creatively

When a puzzle is only half-finished it looks strange: the images aren’t quite right. Even looking at the box top to discern what the image is SUPPOSED to look like doesn’t always work, because the colors are off or the size is different (or the image on the actual puzzle is fuzzy). So I have to fill in those blank spots myself by imagining the details and layout. Doing so helps me to think in terms of “what comes next,” a way of thinking that’s crucial to writers. In recent months I’ve discovered that my ability to think about future plot points has increased substantially. It used to be so hard for me to think through a plot. I’ve tried diagraming, outlining, even just winging it. But now, no matter my approach, the “what comes next” comes easily and swiftly. Thanks puzzles!

They Remind Me the Importance of Details

One tiny detail makes all the difference in a puzzle. Two pieces may be shaped the same and look almost identical in terms of color and design. They’re separated only by one tiny little dot of color or marking at the edge. If you miss that crucial detail, the puzzle remains unfinished — or at least becomes a frustrating slog to complete. The same goes for great writing. No matter how strong the structure or compelling the characters, if the details aren’t right, the story falls flat or feels like a chore to finish. You may decide to not finish it at all. As an avid puzzler, I’ve gotten good at identifying details, noticing what’s missing, and finding just the right tiny dot of color (or character flaw) to make my work sing.

They Improve My Short-Term Memory

No matter how many tricks I’ve tried — and there are many tricks out there — my short-term memory often lets me down. Maybe it’s the stress of the pandemic, or maybe it was never very good anyway. But whatever the reason, I’ve often found myself not remembering why I started down a certain storyline or where I had wanted to go next. I’ve tried the old trick of ending halfway through a sentence and picking it up the next day. I’ve always kept copious notes. But whatever the reason, I’ve frequently lost my best ideas to the wind. But puzzling has really helped. These days I’m so much better at keeping track of my thoughts and ideas, even if I have to put them on hold for a day or two.

Why is this? Well, according to a recent study, puzzling is great for short-term memory. “Performance was consistently better in those who reported engaging in puzzles,” says Keith Wesnes, professor of Cognitive Neuroscience at the University of Exeter Medical School. He continues: “and [memory] generally improved incrementally with the frequency of puzzle use.”

Don’t get me wrong: I still forget where I’ve left my phone and what I was looking for when I entered a room. But on the average, I’m much better at remembering things. And my writing has greatly improved for it.

Freelance writer and editor; dreamer; a believer in helping others to write better and be more creative.

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