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!

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