So the first draft is finished, and now you have to edit the sonofabitch.
Most writers don’t particularly enjoy the task of rewriting/editing, but I do. Not sure why, but I find it sometimes more rewarding than the initial writing.
Now, for me, the best way to avoid tons of rewriting/editing is to do it as I go along, with as much foresight as possible. However, you can only do this effectively to a certain point, because you’re not always certain how things will go with the novel. Barring this luxury, here are some things to keep in mind as you go back to the start, dig in your heels, and begin slogging through those thousands and thousands of words all over again.
Cut mercilessly. No, seriously. Do it. Don’t mess around. If you see words, sentences, paragraphs, even whole chapters that detract from the flow of the story, excise or reshape them immediately. The worst disservice you can possibly do to your book is keep in this dead weight. Chop that passive voice—cut it off at the knees, make it squirm in a puddle of its own blood. It has no place in your book. Nor anyone else’s. Its lack of immediacy drops the reader right out of the story. If you have a character walking down the street, do not say, “He began to walk down the street,” just say, “He walked down the street.” You don’t begin to walk, you just walk—unless the action gets interrupted, in which case “began to” actually works; i.e., “He began to walk down the street when something in his peripheral vision distracted him.” That’s fine. Apply this to every action—walking, running, sitting up, leaning over, jumping around in pain after being kneed in the groin, whatever. Make your characters just do these things, rather than corrupting the image in readers’ heads and cluttering up the flow with passivity.
Show don’t tell. Yes, it’s the most repeated axiom in writing, I know. You know why? Because it’s true. Bring the reader through the action you describe, don’t just tell us about something interesting that happened to your characters in an after-the-fact fashion. Showing us rather than telling us creates immediacy and involvement. So instead of telling us that Joe Blow Character is now a sensitive, loving father who has, unfortunately, had a life of hell and torment and used to routinely wish he’d never been born, show us Joe’s sensitivity by taking us through an episode in his life in which this is demonstrated. Show us through dialogue between characters—and as an integral part of the novel’s story, not just an anecdote—proof that he’s a loving father. Include a scene with his kid in which he demonstrates this through his actions. Include scenes that, in and of themselves, convey to the reader that poor Joe has had a terrible, miserable life, making us understand why he wished he were dead. Telling us that your characters have these important character traits is simply not enough, and it’s not the least bit engaging, which leads to reader apathy and, before you know it, loss of interest to the point that we won’t care what happens to your characters, because we haven’t really come to know them.
Realistic dialogue. Sure, sounds easy, but it’s not. As you’re going through, look very closely at your characters’ dialogue, their interactions. Is the way they’re speaking natural for the kind of person they are? Do you have large paragraphs of information (aka, the dreaded “info dump”) spouting out of their mouths? This goes back to showing, not telling: Just because you’re perpetrating the info dump in dialogue rather than the narrative doesn’t make it any better. It’s still a large, cumbersome chunk of information that should be revealed through character interaction and natural story arc, not in one giant chunk because you’re feeling lazy. Do the extra work to reveal your plot naturally, as if it were happening in real life. Make sure your characters don’t know more than they should, and aren’t repeating crap that a) the reader should already have gleaned from your narrative, or b) the person the character is talking to already knows. These are big stumbling blocks for the reader, and you run the risk of insulting their intelligence, which is never a good thing. Don’t feel you have to drive home your novel’s main points in every scene, and don’t underestimate your readers’ comprehension abilities.
Well, there are three things, anyway, that should help you through the editorial labyrinth that awaits. Cheers, good luck, and have fun with it!
(This is a piece from 2005 that I was asked to write for NaNoEdMo. I’m going to try to make sure as much work is off my plate when January 3rd rolls around, so I’m not giving you folks more old material. But I, for one, think the above tips are just as valid in 2009 as they were in 2005.)