Dissectologist (noun). A person who enjoys assembling jigsaw puzzles.

The pandemic introduced me to puzzling (not a technical term), though I can’t yet call myself a dissectologist since I have completed a total of one puzzle (yes, just ONE) as an adult. The last time I assembled a jigsaw puzzle was in grade school, if not earlier, and those were cheap puzzles that come free with certain grocery items.

For my pandemic puzzling, I took on the challenge of assembling my first thousand-piece puzzle. I sought out this activity so I can tune out my anxiety-ridden mind while listening to podcasts. It turned out, puzzling had a lot to teach me.

Lesson #1: Some pieces fall effortlessly into place, while others are tougher to pin down. 

Certain puzzle pieces are easier to place—right orientation, right location, right fit—but other pieces are harder to place and tougher to pin down. A tough piece may find its place mid-way through puzzling, possibly in the final stretch, or it could be the final piece to the puzzle. Regardless, all pieces have a place in the puzzle, just be patient and persist.

Lesson #2: Look at the pieces from different angles.

Look at each piece closely. Examine the edges. Rotate it.

Looking at a puzzle piece from different angles will help in piecing things together. The details might help you find a connection. The shape or colors could guide you.

The difficulty of assembling a jigsaw puzzle will depend on the type of puzzle you have. Some puzzles are essentially just a big blob of color with a few details here and there, while others are more detailed, hence more for you to work with.

Lesson #3: Sort by similarity, but be open to surprises.

Sorting is a well-known strategy in jigsaw puzzles. You can sort by color, pattern, or general similarity. However, keep in mind that similarity can be misleading. Sometimes, one piece may look like a perfect fit for one section, but it’s actually a standout piece in another section.

What you thought was a piece of the sky turns out to be a part of the ocean. A puzzle piece can look so much like the other pieces until you immerse yourself in other sections. Don’t get lost in the details! Remember to step back to look at the bigger picture. These are the types of misdirects that can make puzzling more fun if you remember to keep an open mind.

Lesson #4: Don’t force it.

If you’re so sure that it’s the right piece, but it just won’t fit, don’t force it! It’s the wrong spot. Try it on another section and if it still doesn’t fit, set it aside. Pick up another piece and work on another section. Move on. You can go back to it with fresh eyes.

Don’t force it or you’ll wreck it. Puzzles don’t get solved with a heavy hand.

Lesson #5: The location could be right, but the direction is wrong.

Sometimes, the solution is simple, but you’re looking at it the wrong way. Refer to lesson #2: rotate the piece to make it fit. Don’t let your stubbornness get in the way. There are cases when your instincts are spot on, but your approach needs work. It doesn’t hurt to gain a new perspective.

Lesson #6: Certain pieces anchor floating sections to the bigger picture.

Anchor pieces not only stabilize your work but can also help you envision how seemingly disparate sections relate to the bigger picture. It could be a piece with part of a green leaf that anchors your sky to the forest or an ombré puzzle piece uniting land and sea. It could also be just a random piece that can lock a finished section in place instead of constantly repositioning this section while the surrounding pieces are missing.

These anchors or connectors help puzzlers attain balance and cohesion when there are too many unfinished middle sections floating around.

Lesson #7: Start with the edges, focus on the details, then work on solid colors.

Edges, details, solids—that’s how I worked my way to finishing my first 1000-piece jigsaw puzzle. You can find corner pieces while sorting to start building your frame. It’s always easier to figure out the limits of your puzzle to help you map out a defined area to fill as you go.

Next comes the details. Pinpoint identifiable areas and then find the pieces that fit. It could be features of a face or the roof of a house. These details will help the puzzle come alive—the meat to your skeleton.

Finally, save the big one-color sections for last. Since solid areas have little to no details to guide you, you’d have to rely on the shape. Examine seemingly one-hued pieces for details on the edges, slight gradations of the color, or other subtle irregularities of the color for added guidance.

This is just one approach to puzzling. You can choose to change it up or discover novel strategies. There are no hard and fast rules. Learn the tricks of the trade and then build your own strategy.

Lesson #8: Don’t get tripped up by errors.

You might find pieces that are different from the reference photo. This could be a printing error or a production mistake, like a wisp of the cloud where there are none or red dots in a solid black area. Mistakes happen, so don’t let them trip you up. Sometimes errors can help you determine faster how certain pieces fit together.

Just as you learn from your own mistakes, you can also learn from the mistakes of others.

Lesson #9: Do you focus on the shape or the content?

Puzzlers use different methods. Some like to look at the content and figure out its connection to the other pieces, while others focus on the shape and how they interlock.

Do you prefer puzzling over the outline or the content? I’m partial to content puzzling because I like seeing how certain pieces relate to the bigger picture. However, when it comes to the solid-color parts, if the pieces do not have any discernible detail, I resort to the shape puzzling strategy.

Through a cursory Google search of jigsaw puzzles, I found out that there are people who solve jigsaw puzzles without looking at the reference photo. Part of the satisfaction is in the discovery of the final, completed picture—the ultimate payoff.

There are also hardcore puzzlers who solve puzzles with the wrong side up, assembling pieces purely based on their shapes. I suppose that’s one way to approach it. You rid yourself of any distractions and hyperfocus on a single strategy. And when the task is done, your drudgery pays off when you see a cohesive picture formed from your single-minded, focused work.

Lesson #10: The amount of effort put in is proportional to the satisfaction you get from completing the puzzle.

When it’s right and it fits perfectly, it is very satisfying, but it’s the thorny parts, the sections you labor over, and the misdirects which provide a bigger sense of achievement once solved.

Once you place the final piece of the puzzle, what you do with the finished puzzle is entirely up to you. In my case, I might play this puzzle one more time before lending it or giving it away; passing on the joy of puzzling.

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