Murder Your Darlings

This article on writing by James Patrick Kelly should be required reading for anyone involved in any creative activity. I read it years ago, and though I forgot the exact phrase, I’ve followed its basic principles ever since; whenever I’m stuck on a design I remove the thing I like the most and continue to develop the design without it. Almost every time it’s that thing, that darling, that is holding me back, distracting me from the design. I find that what I’m doing is trying to adapt the rest of the design to fit with this thing, rather than than developing the design as a whole. Even if it wasn’t that thing, the act of removing something from the design, that act of subtraction is what frees up my thinking again. The article addresses this nicely, and you can see how it applies to more than writing:

Some writers like to fix problems by addition rather than subtraction. First they layer in just a little more complexity to develop a rounder Aunt Penelope. And then they expand the garage scene, so it will foreshadow the car chase. Last they have Biff’s lawyer explain the rules of evidence to his secretary after the trial so that slow readers will get the end. If these writers worry about wordiness at all, they might tighten a few lines here and there. Drop a “he said,” on page two. Major surgery is for beginners, right?

Nowadays it’s become (almost) a natural process and I find myself peering suspiciously at something that’s just too shiny, too perfect, too lovely, too early in the process. This isn’t to say I remove everything that’s nice from my designs, far from it, but what I tend to do is to move through versions very quickly. Version 1 of a design might have some text treatment I’m fond of, version 2 might have some aspect of a layout I like, version 3 something else, until I think I’ve got the ideas recorded and I can develop the design without them distracting me. Since I’m moving to a new version whenever I get stuck, these early versions are rarely complete designs; they’re more like rough sketches. While I’m working I’ll return to these sketches and use the ideas from them if they’re suitable, which is a far more pleasing way to work, and ends up being much more successful. Usually, of course, after I’ve got the final design (or a clientworthy version) I’ll look back at the ‘darlings’ I’ve saved and decide that they’re not all that special anymore, that they’ve been surpassed by what I’ve done while free from distractions. The ones that I still like I keep around for future inspiration. Sometimes, I even remember to look at them.