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3 simple editing lessons from the late WG Sebald to improve your blogs now

On 6 November 2001, Penguin Books published Austerlitz, the seventh book by German writer WG Sebald.

A haunting novel about memory and loss, it garnered huge critical praise. There was even talk of a future Nobel prize for its author.

Just over a month later, on 14 December, Sebald suffered a fatal heart attack while driving near his home in Norwich. While his death shocked the literary world, the work he left behind cemented his status as “one of the most important writers of our time”.

Sebald’s prose style – a digressive and often oblique blend of fact and fiction – doesn’t obviously lend itself to writing for the web. He did, though, impart some invaluable lessons on the writing and editing process.

Here are just three to apply to your blog content now.

1. Write about obscure things but don’t write obscurely

The Rings of Saturn, arguably Sebald’s most famous book, ostensibly deals with a walking tour of East Anglia.

And yet, in the first dozen pages alone, topics covered include the significance of sand in the work of Gustave Flaubert, the skull of 17th-century English polymath Thomas Browne, and the dissection of a hanged Amsterdam petty thief, captured in Rembrandt’s ‘The Anatomy Lesson’.

You might have some obscure topics to cover too.

The Tapered Annual Allowance, changes to IR35 legislation, and the tax advantages of holding a commercial property in a SIPP won’t hold universal appeal. But if your clients are asking these questions, your blogs need to answer them.

Doing so clearly, concisely, and without the use of jargon is crucial to getting your obscure points across. Always reread your finished work objectively, through the eyes of a layperson. Is your meaning clear?

Sebald’s The Rings of Saturn has been referred to as the “finest ever book of long-distance mental travel” and a “bible to the psychogeography movement”.

Your blog just needs to be referred to when your clients want straightforward answers.

2. Every sentence taken by itself should mean something

Born in Bavaria in south-east Germany in 1944, Sebald settled in the UK in the 1970s. He spent the rest of his career lecturing at the University of East Anglia (UEA) in, among other things, German literature, and fiction.

Sebald’s final novel, Austerlitz, follows the title character’s journey through the worst horrors of the 20th century as he tries to reclaim his forgotten past. Over 400 pages of chapter-less, paragraph-less prose, single sentences run into multiple pages.

And yet, in his UEA writing workshops, Sebald (unknowingly) offered the perfect advice for editing your newsletter articles.

Firstly, once you’ve finished writing your blog, give yourself some time away from it. As Sebald said, “Lots of things resolve themselves just by being in the drawer a while.”

Secondly, when you come back to your article, read through it carefully and ask yourself, “Is every sentence pulling its weight?”.

A sentence that is adding nothing, or repeats something already said, needs to go.

This holds true whether you’re taking your reader on a “terrifying diving-bell descent into the drowned landscape of European history” or celebrating a colleague’s recent exam success.

3. Don’t revise too much or it turns into patchwork

Sebald’s work combined travelogue, history, fiction, and memoir, the meaning often wilfully and purposely obscured.

That won’t work for your blogs.

Whether you’re writing a technical pensions piece, a case study, or even a job advert, you’ll need to think carefully about what you want to say and then say it as succinctly as possible.

Anything superfluous creeps in? Cut it. If you find yourself digressing, would the new topic be better served in its own blog?

Giving yourself a set amount of time to write – and a rough word limit – should free you up to be ruthless when editing. But, as Sebald well knew, there is a fine balance to be struck.

Your business’s voice is on display in everything from your logo and branding to your website design and the words on the page. You’ll have a tone of voice unique to you and your business, which your clients will know, expect, and feel comfortable with.

Over-vigorous editing can turn your writing into a robotic patchwork. Be concise, but don’t dampen your distinctive voice or personality.

The Yardstick Agency can deliver your message to those who need it

WG Sebald’s legacy lives on, more than two decades after his death.

From the bookshop owner in John le Carré’s final novel, Silverview, who receives impromptu lessons on Sebald’s work, to the poems of former-poet laureate Andrew Motion and Carole Angier’s 2021 biography, Speak, Silence: In Search of WG Sebald.

The late writer’s lessons, too, live on, and they should be adopted. Take them into your work, if you can.

If you find, though, that you don’t have the time or patience to commit to writing and editing, why not turn to the experts?

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You can find out more about how Yardstick’s team of content writers could help you and your business by contacting us at or calling 0115 8965 300.

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