The Art of Elimination

Sometimes projects get too big, deadlines get too close, creative disagreements happen, or for some other reason you’re either stuck, falling behind schedule, or both. In my experience, this often happens when projects become too bloated with half-cocked ideas and unfinished features. To solve the problem you must invoke a dark art, namely the art of elimination.

I love the expression “kill your darlings”. In three words, it perfectly captures what this is all about. We tend to look at our ideas as darlings, loved little entities to nurture and grow. We take pride in them, boast about them and even build things around them with the help of others. But most ideas are not as good as they seemed, when they first appeared in your head.

There is a reason why the painter sketches before creating the final piece, the writer produces several drafts, the director does alternative takes, the game dev makes hundreds of builds; all of this in pursuit of perfection. What is also true is that in nearly every project using an iterative approach, those last few iterations are about cutting the fat to focus on what is important.

This can be agonizing. I witnessed a film director barricade himself in the editing room for two days, because his film was 6 minutes too long for the short film competition he was entering. He looked like hell at the end of it, and the film did not win the competition, but he got it done and submitted on time. At the end of the day, getting it done is the first building block for actually shipping something.

Here is how I approach the art of elimination in any creative project.

First, focus on the high level. What is the story we are telling here? What are the top priorities we want to convey? Keeping this list short is very important. One or two items is ideal, and you shouldn’t go beyond four.

Secondly, split your project into parts. If it’s a novel, split it into story arcs or subplots. If it’s a game, split it by quests, meta-game or whatever makes sense. The idea is to have an overview of the logical building blocks that make up your project. Chances are, you already have that in some form.

Once the project is split into parts, it becomes much easier to see which parts take up the most space. Compare this to the list of priorities, and evaluate how they connect. How does each part further the priorities? If you find that something is non-essential to the priorities, it makes a good candidate for getting cut. Note that “space” in this context can refer to anything from playtime in a game to how much mental focus a reader spends on it in a novel – while not necessarily a specific number of words or minutes, these are good data points to use as indicators.

Identify the best candidates for cutting. If none are found, you are probably not looking hard enough. But if I take your word for it, the next step then is to dive deeper into each of the parts you have identified, and find individual components within these parts that might be axed, combined or reduced. This will invariably lead to more fine editing and polish, but likely also an overall tighter result, without outright reducing the number of parts.

Doing this may sound simple, but choosing what to cut can be extremely difficult. If there are several contributors, and you are left to make the decision, it is likely that someone will disagree with or be upset by your call. However, there is no point blaming the editor, producer, or whomever is enforcing the limitations causing the cuts (in my experience, a looming marketing deadline and launch commitments are the most common causes for cutting things at the last minute). It just happens.

Killing your darlings can suck, but it can also be liberating and open your eyes in a different way, to the story you are telling or experience you are building. It enhances the focus of your top priorities, which tends to also increase the impact on and retention of the target audience by making your story clearer and easier to understand. Editing is your friend.

One thing to watch out for when cutting content, is that sometimes what may seem non-essential in one context (say, the main plot line) can be essential in another context (like world building). Make sure you examine your project from multiple angles.

Don’t be afraid to cut boldly to see what happens. You can always save a backup without the changes, and restore if you think it was too drastic. If you have to kill your darlings, you may as well have fun doing it. Good luck!

Game of Thrones Spoiler Maker

With so many theories and spoilers floating around regarding Game of Thrones, I decided to make this little script, which generates (made up) GoT spoilers. You can call them theories, if you prefer. The script was inspired by this tweet. :)

To get another spoiler, just click the button under the displayed one…

If you thought this was fun, please share it with your friends.

I, Polymath

Everyone is told to specialize, to “pick one thing” and become an expert in that one thing. But for many creative people, specializing in a single field can feel like an impossible ask. There are too many exciting things out there, it seems, and you want to try them all! It turns out that there can be good reason to not specialize.

This is a topic, I have fought with more than once, going back more than a decade. I am now in my early forties, and I still unapologetically experiment and dabble. Not because I get easily distracted by the next shiny thing; I do tend to finish at least one project in whatever discipline I am exploring. It’s because I love learning, and finding patterns and overlaps between various skills and art forms.

This passion for passions is what led me to write novels, take pictures, code video games, and make music. It turns out that my kind has a name – several in fact: creative generalist, jack-of-all-trades, renaissance man, or polymath.

Mr. da Vinci, pictured above, is another famous polymath. Not bad company, right?

The times when I fought against it, were usually efforts to try and fit into the perceived expectations of a job market, a freelance client, or product launch. No single title seemed to stick. The closest I’ve come to a title that might cover it all is “storyteller”, given that conveying a story is part of all of the things I seem to take an interest in. It’s more of a theme than an actual job title, though.

You might say, that my specialty is the accumulated knowledge and high level overview that comes with studying many disciplines. Despite our specialist-centric society, there is real value in such experience. For example, it can, as the Dude might put it, really tie the room together, when you are working with several specialists. I am pretty good at herding and translating between groups of specialists, and I credit that to having varied experience.

The downside to being a polymath, is that I am not the worlds greatest writer, photographer, game designer, or composer. But I can communicate with all of the above with a fair amount of confidence and authority. This comes in handy when managing projects and events, hiring, scoping, and prioritizing when the specialists are too focused on their own issues to see the bigger picture.

After all these years, my advice to someone with many passions would be to not specialize in one at the cost of the others, but to seek the middle, where there is overlap between them. What are the themes and approaches that can be applied across your passions, and where do they intersect? For me, they connect thematically through storytelling, and pragmatically through cross-disciplinary communication and project management skills.