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In praise of paper and pencil

Pencils, ink, chalk, paper, and glue are great map-making and thinking
tools. So too are internet mapping sites and GIS software.
Choose appropriate tools based on what you need to do.

Krygier and Wood (2011)

This quote from Krygier and Wood’s excellent book, which is a must-read for all geoscientists, inspired me to write this article. It reminded me of all the times when I was having a hard time interpreting and felt the need to see my data from a different perspective. One way forward is to shut down the software and do something completely different for a few hours. Another is to print out the key working materials to take advantage of the flexibility that working with paper and pencil gives us.

Paper and pencil are helpful at various stages of many of our geoscience activities. Rather than relying on just one tool, the iteration between paper and software allows us to maximize both our creativity and efficiency. I highlight here the value of this iteration in preparing presentations and reports, in well correlation, and in seismic interpretation.

Presentations and reports
Even Microsoft says that the best way to start preparing a presentation is not to open PowerPoint. They recommend using Word, but paper is much more flexible. The key to preparing a presentation or report is to decide what your story is and then to set that story out in a logical fashion. Jotting a sequence of headlines and sketching out the diagrams, charts, and tables you will need can be done most easily with paper and pencil. Paper also gives us the maximum flexibility to erase, re-write, re-order, and re-number our thoughts until we are happy with our outline. Only then should we turn the computer on. Additionally, I find this planning is often best done outside the normal working environment, anywhere where your thoughts are free to roam most widely. It might be at home, on a train (where I wrote the first draft of this article), at an airport, or on a plane.

The need for a second phase of ‘paperwork’ often becomes apparent part way through preparing a large presentation or report when you can no longer see the wood for the trees. It can be a struggle to present your ideas coherently. Try printing out the presentation, and then find a pencil. Slides can often be printed six to a page because it’s the flow of the story, not the detail, that is important. A paper copy of a report allows us more readily to see the big picture. Pages can be ordered and pencil notes allow us to re-structure our text and improve the story.

Well correlation and seismic interpretation
Correlating anything more than a very small number of wells requires significant skill in 3D spatial awareness. To assess their geological credibility, well correlations may need to be checked against a variety of maps such as gross isochore or net sand maps. If faults are present we may need to construct fault plane maps. Having these maps in paper form alongside our computer-based correlations makes the iteration from logs to maps and back again much easier than trying to do it all on the workstation.

Correlations are to some extent model-driven and these benefit from being viewed at multiple scales. However large our monitors and however good their resolution they do not provide the flexibility of having paper copies at various scales. The nature of visual perception is such that the patterns we see are scale dependent: by looking at our correlations at different scales we may see a variety of new geological possibilities representing different scales of reservoir architecture. Paper also allows us to test new ideas by quickly colouring different patterns on our correlations, or cutting our paper to re-order wells or re-datum them. These new ideas, if useful, can then be fed back into our workstation interpretations.

The same idea of scale dependency is true for seismic interpretation. The workstation constrains how seismic data can be displayed and we may miss seeing the big picture. Plotting key seismic lines and hanging them on your office wall is a great way of generating new ideas. I remember once visiting my company’s head office and looking several times at a regional line hung up in a corridor. I knew it showed something interesting but I could not see exactly what it was. However, on returning to the regional office where I was based I suddenly had a eureka moment. Within a day a new play had been developed and mapped on the workstation, leading to an oil find in a large stratigraphic trap. Without that paper copy it might never have been found.

Krygier, J and D Wood (2011). Making Maps: A Visual Guide to Map Design for GIS. 2nd edition. Guilford Press. 256 p.

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