Having just completed the fifth version of my current novel, a major overhaul that added some 15,000 words while cutting thousands, I thought I'd talk a bit about the process, and some of the lessons I think I've learned.
Remember that revisions are not the same as edits. To revise is to change the story (improving or correcting), while to edit is to prepare the work for publication, cleaning it up to fix grammar and spelling.
The Revision Process Scott Uses(TM)
1. Ignore your novel! That's right, set it aside for a month. I know that seems like forever; I know that having just finished a draft, especially the first draft, you're wanting to look over your handiwork and start polishing. Don't. Not yet. You need to leave it alone and forget as much as you can about the story. Why? You want to get some sort of critical distance, to be able to come back to it fresh, to have your next look at the novel be as much like that of a first-time reader as possible. Some people advise setting the book aside for a year while you write the first draft of your next book. Those people are likely insane, well-meaning as they may be. I don't have that sort of patience. So I suggest at least a month and no less.
It is perfectly acceptable to have other people read the book during this phase, but don't read their comments until you're ready to look at the book yourself.
2. Read it, don't revise it! I recommend actually printing the whole thing out, either as double-spaced ms or in any format you like. For early drafts of my book, I actually went through the trouble of having a copy printed up via lulu.com, bound like a real book, so I could read it on the bus or at work, like it was any other novel I'd picked up. The idea is to approach it purely as a reader, to get a feel for your work as a story, not as a project you're working on. So just try to read it and not fuss with it at all. However, I recommend you make notes as you go along. Keep track of:
a) Things that you love
b) Things that you hate
c) Things that bore even you, the author
d) Things that make no sense
e) Things that are simply mistakes, like continuity errors
f) Whatever else strikes you as an issue
See if the story works. See if the plot works. See if your book holds your interest, getting you to turn the pages.
3. No line-editing! It's okay to fix spelling errors here and there, but revisions are the process of fixing the elements of the book, not the grammar. The first thing you want to deal with are the problems with plot, setting, character, pacing and theme. Sometimes those fixes will entail massive changes to your prose, and you waste time correcting grammatical mistakes in paragraphs you're going to delete later.
4. Fix one thing at a time! What's the worst problem your book has? Focus on that and make your repairs. Don't let yourself get lost in the revision process. Make a list, and refer to it. Look at the book as a whole, and take the long view of structure, texture, character and so on. Prioritize your layers of revision.
5. Keep moving! Don't get bogged down. Once you've fixed one problem, start over and fix the next one. Sometimes several problems and their solutions are intertwined and you'll have to work on multiple issues at the same time, but still you should concentrate on discrete tasks, and move on from one to the next.
6. Done? Time to read it again! The revision process, ironically enough, introduces errors while eliminating others. It's evil magic. But odds are, if you've made significant changes to plot or your prose, you'll have created orphaned sentences, accidentally deleted whole paragraphs you meant to keep, and renamed characters by mistake. This stuff happens. But now you get to do that line edit I wasn't allowing you to do earlier. I hate line edits. They make my eyes cross and my brain melt.
I would be very interested to hear if anyone else has a revisions method or formula they've had success with. (That's your cue to chime in.)