There aren’t any particular rules for revision, except doing what works for you. For instance, you might be like me and revise line by line, and sometimes paragraph by paragraph, as you’re composing a first draft. I like to have sentences sound good before I write the next one, while other writers don’t care, preferring to clean the mess later. No matter, you’ll still need to go back to the beginning and read it all over again, correcting stylistic errors and cleaning up tangled sentences.
What I strive for is clarity and accessibility in my writing, but this takes time. Complexity and opacity are easy, and usually well-represented in my first draft (alas). After doing line by line revisions, I’ll step away from the work for a time. It could be long enough for a cup of coffee or a trip to the bathroom, or as long as the next day. It all depends on how I’m feeling. The important thing is to create some separation between the work and yourself, allowing you to see it with fresher eyes.
What I’ll discover after a day, for instance, are structural issues I didn’t see the first time around, or redundancies I can eliminate. Less is more, so cutting words will strengthen the piece. Compose as many drafts as you can until you feel the piece is “ready” or done. How do you know it’s ready? For me, it’s a feeling. When I begin another revision of the work, I see fewer and fewer things I’d like to change. The tangled mess I had at the beginning is sleeker, and the engine of prose is purring smoothly. It’s a sound I’ve grown to hear and enjoy.
Stop revising when you believe that what you’ve written is your own voice, and can represent you in the wider world. Many times, in the final stages of revision, I’ll send my last draft to a friend or someone whose judgment I trust. I’ll simply ask them to review it and identify any weaknesses anywhere in the piece. I don’t ask them, or want them, to “fix” these weaknesses, just to point them out. It’s the writer’s job to fix problems, and a good writer is someone who has faced almost all the problems and come up with solutions.
As in all things, the more revision you do the better you’ll get at it. Be disciplined and patient in seeking to improve your work. Try to revise in different formats. Print a draft out on paper and revise with a red pen, or blow up the font size on your screen and revise based on that. Revision literally means “looking again,” so keeping your eyes fresh is important.