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!

Streaming Video Games to Add Daily Structure


While looking for a new job, I found myself missing the structure that getting up and going to work brings. So I imposed some structure on myself. Unless I have an in-person interview, or some other event, this has now become my daily routine.

Every morning, I get up and have coffee with my wife, before she goes to work. This gets me an early start, and prevents me from slipping into a nocturnal lifestyle.

After she leaves, I spend the morning hours split between bettering myself, searching for or directly applying for jobs.

Then, after lunch, I turn to stream video games! Going live on camera (almost) every day, helps keep me accountable to others – my (perceived) audience – and adds to the feeling of having a routine. A regular session typically lasts one hour.

I just finished the first series, a 20 session stream of Cities: Skylines. If you have that much time to spare, you can watch it all on Twitch or YouTube (or below).

After gaming, I turn my attention to work around the house and personal projects, like the Stratocaster, I am rebuilding. More on that in a later post.

This self-imposed routine has helped me stay both productive and sane. It keeps me on task, it keeps me accountable, and it makes me remember to have some fun along the way. So, I thought I’d share this little unemployment hack with anyone else out there, who might be in a similar situation. Of course, you can substitute streaming with anything else involving other people, the trick lies in the accountability and how easy it is to do (I don’t even have to leave the house).

If you’d like to follow me on Twitch, where I do all my streaming, go to my channel and hit Follow!

Ideas are Cheap but Not Worthless

Every day, several new ideas pop into my head. Many of them are incomplete, or frivolous and not very good. Occasionaly – let’s say once or twice a week – something genuinely fun, useful or with potential turns up. However, most ideas go to waste or are merely jotted down in a journal or a text document.

There is an overflow of ideas, to the point where even good ones are sometimes forgotten.

You probably get a lot of ideas too. Maybe it’s a business you want to start, a hobby you might pick up, a book you could write, a party you want to throw or a series of videos you could put on YouTube. Ideas come at us constantly whether we welcome them or not (in fact, they seem to come more easily when we are not looking for them, but that’s another topic).

The point is that ideas on their own have very little value.

It’s only when we act on our ideas, that their value increases. Whether you measure value in potential income, happiness or what-have-you, an idea by itself is fleeting; just a thought or a scribble. Actions make ideas real, give them substance and depth.

Caffeine and sugar are excellent idea stimulants, should you ever run low.
Caffeine and sugar are excellent idea stimulants, should you ever run low.
Since there are only have 24 hours in a day, and most of us have limited resources, the trick is to analyze your ideas, and determine which ones to act on, which to scrap, and which ones might be better off in someone else’s hands. This takes practice, which is sometimes referred to as “failure”.

Sharing ideas is not a bad thing. When you share ideas, you inspire others to get involved, to help you make it real or to develop their own ideas. Creative thinking is contagious, you see.

Too many people guard their ideas for no good reason. Secrecy can be necessary or helpful if you’re in the process of creating something for a competitive market (this is why we have NDAs). However, one reason I’ve heard over and over goes along the lines of: “I keep my idea a secret in case I want to make it real some day, so no one beats me to it.”

If that is your only reason to sit on an idea, you are not doing anyone any favors. Set it and yourself free, and go with an idea you can make real right now, rather than “some day”.

This post was inspired by an idea I had earlier today. This was for a video adventure game made for mobile devices. After writing down my initial thoughts, I read through them and realized this would be “some day” project. Mostly because it is too much work for me to do by myself, and I don’t have a team of developers, artists and writers standing by. So I decided to share the idea instead.

Maybe someone will make it happen, which I would love, whether I am involved in the process or not. I don’t think my idea is revolutionary, but it could be a solid, fun and potentially profitable game – if executed right. Continue reading “Ideas are Cheap but Not Worthless”