Writing the puzzle

my stick figure chalk drawing of the family dog #writing

“It's like putting together a puzzle.” That's how my buddy explained oil and gas abstracting. “Does that sound like something you'd be interested in?”

Yeah, I told him. I'll give it a shot. I still had no idea what “abstracting” and “chain of title” and “runsheet” and “mineral ownership report” meant, but it all sounded better than selling cars in the middle of the financial crisis.

It didn't take long to see what he meant by saying that my new job was like putting together a puzzle. And it didn't take long to figure out that I liked the job. And now, all these years later, I've found myself asking why exactly title research resonated with me, because it wasn't something I wanted to do before February 2008, when I first moved to Texas. Before then, title research wasn't something I realized was even an option.

With oil and gas abstracting, the desired scene of the completed puzzle is always the same: You're trying to get to 1. No matter how many owners under one tract of land, no matter how fragmented the interest—the final report should be whole. Complete. Like a jigsaw puzzle.

Through the lens of puzzle-making is another way to look at writing. Whatever we're writing, we're always checking to make sure that we have all the pieces. If we ever feel as if we do have all the pieces, then we have to worry about putting them in the right places. But when we do so, maybe we discover that we've put together a puzzle different from the one we had in mind when we started. Maybe the final picture doesn't match the one on the box.

Complex title and mineral ownership necessitates a flowchart. I think of flowcharts as roadmaps that show where ownership began—usually with a patent from a state agency to the original grantee of the land—and the path it took to get to its current state. Writing is a bit like a roadmap too, starting readers at one place and then leading them somewhere else at the end.

Perhaps the biggest problem with this analogy is that our writing most likely never has all the pieces to make everything whole. Something is always missing. And if something's not missing for one reader or audience, that doesn't mean something's not missing for another. Our projects will never be perfect. And we may reach the point of doing more harm than good if we keep cramming in more information at the expense of the flow or of our readers' attention spans and patience.

But still, we have to try to get enough pieces. And we have to lay down the roadmap to show the proper order in which each piece needs to be experienced.

We have to write the puzzle as best we can.


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