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Stop Apologising (for the things you’ve never done)

One of the defining features of confident writing is that it’s not apologetic.

Yes, I know it’s good to signal that you’re human, that you’re not perfect, that you have doubts and concerns and things you’re insecure about just like the next person. That’s part of being engaging, warm, human. It’s part of making connections, and writing with rapport.

But we can take that too far, to a point where the writing starts to become apologetic. I seem to have been doing battle with this over the last few weeks, and I’ve been jotting down some thoughts on its various guises:

8 Tell-Tale Signs that You’re Being Over Apologetic:

1. Your writing is littered with verbs in the passive voice (and I don’t just mean a few, I mean littered)

2. There’s an explicit apology in the text (when there isn’t anything to apologise for)

3. You spend as many words justifying what you’re saying as saying it

4. There are too many words: too much wrapping, too many abstract words, too much clutter, all getting in the way of the bit that really matters (the point)

5. You explain what you’re going to do long before you actually do it

6. Your sentences have come out back to front, with the important stuff (the agent, the verb) languishing away at the end

7. You dole out the apologies elsewhere, in the preamble to a post or on Twitter, managing expectations down

8. There’s a missing punch: you’ve backed away before you got to the killer blow, the repetition for effect, the slowing down to an unavoidably measured, significant pace, the delivery of the emotional truth. The ker-pow that you recognise when you read it (and when you write it)

I’m going to explore some ways to shift from apologetic to confident writing in the next couple of posts: one on ways to manage and shift your state before you write (and as you write), the other on changing some of the language patterns you might have got over familiar with.

It’s worth making the effort.  If you can cut out the apologies you’ll find:

  • Your writing is easier to read
  • You avoid long and complex sentences (and the grammar gremlins that go with them)
  • You convey confidence in your subject
  • Your writing makes you start to feel more confident
  • You stop diminishing what it is that you really want to say


For any Jam fans out there, yes, the title is from A Town Called Malice, one of my favourite teenage songs.  Once I got the idea to write something on apologising I just couldn’t get the song out of my head again.

Here it is:

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  1. Brad Shorr says:

    Joanna, The Jam is fantastic! Definitely not an apologetic band. You’ve really hit on a good topic here because sometimes we are not aware that we write apologetically. It can happen subconsciously. Thank you for the eye opener.
    .-= Brad Shorr´s last blog ..The World’s Greatest Marketer =-.

  2. Karen Swim
    Twitter: karenswim

    Joanna, I agree with Brad, this is a brilliant topic. Your examples of apologetic writing smacked me upside the head. I struggled with this just last night. We must come to the page boldly, without apology for our thoughts and ideas. It makes perfect sense. I find that when I am writing apologetically it mirrors an inner struggle with confidence. I love these coaching tips Joanna!
    .-= Karen Swim´s last blog ..When Change Meets Resistance =-.

  3. Jan Scott Nelson
    Twitter: JanScottNelson

    Oh, goodness me, Joanna. How did you know?! I’ve just been going through loads of my old blog postings from a time before and discarded so many for reuse because they are either apologetic or occasionally, dare I say it, passive aggressive, which is particularly horrid when wrapped up as an apology that was unnecessary in the first place. Right on he button again, Joanna!
    .-= Jan Scott Nelson´s last blog ..A moment of recognition =-.

  4. Meryl K Evans says:

    I’m sorry if I am guilty of this :) I never considered that writers could be apologizing without actually saying, “I’m sorry.” Thanks for the incredible insight.
    .-= Meryl K Evans´s last blog ..How Muscle Memory Affects Writing =-.

  5. --Deb says:

    It’s all about the confidence, isn’t it? If you have conviction that what you’re writing is worth the writing (“This is something that everyone should know!”), it’s going to show. If you have doubts or hesitations … you’re going to sound apologetic. (“You might not agree with me, but here’s something I thought I’d maybe just kind of mention…”)
    .-= -Deb´s last blog ..7 Reasons Why A Good Schedule Can Keep you On Track =-.

  6. Lori Hoeck says:

    Hi Joanna,
    I love how you ripped the mask off of writing apologetically! This is a gem: “3. You spend as many words justifying what you’re saying as saying it” Thank you for the eye-opener.
    .-= Lori Hoeck´s last blog ..One woman learns self defense is a mindset =-.

  7. Barbara Ling, Virtual Coach says:

    Excellent point! I think that watering down one’s work truly does stifle one’s creativity…it’s difficult to change lives if you’re not confident enough to stand beyond your own convictions.
    .-= Barbara Ling, Virtual Coach´s last blog ..Today’s Quote of the Day – Success Is Not For The…. =-.

  8. Barbara the Virtual Coach's Journal - Page 21 says:

    [...] Stop Apologising (for the things you’ve never done) | Confident Writing [...]

  9. Ken Hannahs says:

    Great article! In my writing classes there are always three or four women (always women… I think this is specifically common with the fairer sex) that write in full “apology mode.” You sit there, and all you want to do is scream “JUST WRITE!” Passive voice can make anything boring. Even spectacular scenes of an alien race descending onto the Earth’s crust can be boring.

    I think I have a bad case of beating people over the head with my writing. It may come off as hostile, but it’s definitely not passive.

    Great post!

    .-= Ken Hannahs´s last blog ..Why I Will Never Be ‘Artsy’ =-.

  10. Fred H Schlegel says:

    Oh I so should have read this ten minutes ago. It is such an easy habit to fall into, specially when the subject is a bit controversial. But alas send has been pressed. Great advice here Joanna.
    .-= Fred H Schlegel´s last blog ..Scenario Planning As A Spur To Entreprenurial Thinking =-.

  11. Paul says:

    You’re right Joanna! And you make it so clear that apology is not essential to writing. It has its place as you point out but it isn’t an essential component that always needs to be there in our writer’s voice. You have absolutely, 100% helped me to get this. No apologies :)
    .-= Paul´s last blog fusion FAQ =-.

  12. Laura Cococcia says:

    I’m a *huge* apologiser when it comes to everything - and you made me much more aware of how it comes out in my writing. Something I’m working on - thank you for always keeping things on track, Joanna.

  13. Joan says:

    Good points.

    It really stuck with me when I read somewhere to quit saying, “I feel that . . .” and “In my opinion . . .” when I blog. Everybody knows that your blog is your opinions. If you think the mayor is a crook, just say it.
    .-= Joan´s last blog ..Update to this overview page =-.

  14. Alex Lim says:

    Thanks for your meaningful words Joanna. I’ll take note of those tips, as I found myself apologetic based from the 8 Tell Tale Signs. I already committed myself to use active voice as much as possible but I haven’t totally made it as a habit. This is really an excellent post, definitely a call for a change.
    .-= Alex Lim´s last blog ..De-Personalize Your List Building Strategy, Proven To Increase Opt-Ins =-.

  15. Leah Pauls says:

    Funny, this topic has been coming at me from several directions. In writing, in business, in music, in the classroom, even in motherhood and marriage, I have been learning to talk straight, omit the negatives, and highlight the positives. When success is the goal, there is little room for the ” I can’ts” or the “I don’t knows.” If ability or knowledge is lacking, go out and get it; figure out a way. Then come back and showcase.

  16. Janice says:

    Please when you have the time, If you can Help Thank you
    .-= Janice´s last blog ..Why I have stayed =-.

  17. Joanna
    Twitter: joannapaterson

    Brad I’m tickled pink we’ve discovered that we’re both Jam fans! Our friendship now makes even more obvious and perfect sense :-) It was a great blogging milestone to find a reason to post some of their work. Re the writing… you’re right, it can happen subconsciously, and like apologies in life, it can creep up on is. I think I became more aware of it because - by coincidence - I was noticing it in a range of different settings and different writing styles. But the underlying pattern was there.

    Karen I think that’s why I find intention so liberating - the feeling that we ‘should’ be confident is hard, but when we focus on the intention, the difference we want to make with our words those fears fall away and our writing just does become more powerful, it resonates in a different way. And it does definitely mirror an inner struggle - but the good thing is when we write more confidently that sends a feedback loop back inside too and we *become* more confident. (I’m only saying that because of personal experience - that’s the main thing I’ve learned to enjoy via blogging :-) )

    Jan isn’t it fabulous that you can look back and see how far you have come? :-)

  18. Joanna
    Twitter: joannapaterson

    Meryl I very much doubt you ever are ;-) Glad you enjoyed it

    -Deb yes, it is. Nearly wrote “I think it is” then caught myself at it ;-) If we focus on the difference we’re going to make with our words - if there’s a powerful intention or conviction behind it… it can change the way we write. The apologies can and do fall away.

    Lori yet again I can see comparisons with black belt writing, posture, how we hold ourselves, how we stand firm and proud… glad you enjoyed this one

    Barbara that’s it, in a nutshell. I think in some ways when our writing is more confident it scares us, because it shows us something of our power, and we’re scared of that. But if we want to make a difference we need to face up to that, accept it, embrace it, and keep on doing it.

  19. Joanna
    Twitter: joannapaterson

    Ken I’m glad you enjoyed the post and thanks for saying hello both here and on Twitter. The point you raise is interesting… I’m not sure. I’m going to leave it and see if anyone else bites.

    Fred I think there’s an element of learning from our more faltering words - there’s a sign there maybe that the issue is one we’re not totally comfortable with - a sign it might be good to listen to and reflect on. But it can also become habitual, and we apologise all the time even when there’s absolutely no need. I hope you still like the post you sent btw!

    Paul I think the ‘aha’ point for me is in realising we actually get in the reader’s way when the apologies creep in - we dilute the message we’re trying to pass on. And if we believe in what we’re teaching, writing, coaching… that’s when the apologies need to go. (PS: thanks :-) )

  20. Joanna
    Twitter: joannapaterson

    Laura awareness is half the battle - once you can tune into it you can start to edit it out, then over time your writing style will adapt… and you’ll find yourself starting to think and write and feel with more confidence too. I bet!

    Joan sometimes we do it to create rapport and soften the language… I know, I’m sure I do it myself. But it can become deep rooted and habitual, a pattern of trying to undo what we say just as much as we’re trying to say it. It’s a good point though about the blog being our space and our opinions - and that really is why they give us such amazing space to develop more confident writing voices

    Alex shifting the use of the passive is like any habit change - it starts by paying attention and doing it deliberately and consciously, but it will start to become a new habit over time. Something you do without thinking. Seeing the results of an editing shift from passive to active can also be motivating - esp when you see all the spare words fall away. I think of it a bit like getting a really good hair cut - getting rid of the passives gets rid of a lot of the extra weight, and allows the shape and beauty to shine through

    Leah you’re right, the words and mindset and emotional state are all inter-linked. One can feed off and support the other - which is one of the many reasons I advocate writing with confidence… I’d love it if more people also felt that way… what a difference we could start to make!

    Janice I try to help by sharing ideas that are about promoting confidence… not much, but the best I can do. Good luck.

  21. Jan Scott Nelson
    Twitter: JanScottNelson

    I’ve been thinking about this some more. Drawing on my own experience, as well as many years of doing personal development work with women, I’d say that our apologetic mode often stems from an expectation of ‘good’ behaviour and a perceived need to put everyone else first, to ensure everyone’s point of view is recognised. It can also have its roots in relationships with overbearing people, perhaps parents, siblings, playground bullies etc. It is a defence.
    I guess the answer lies in being assertive (in my book that’s warm, friendly, clear, unequivocal) in our writing as well as in our every day interactions.
    Fascinating conversation AGAIN, Joanna. :-)
    .-= Jan Scott Nelson´s last blog ..A moment of recognition =-.

  22. Darren Todd says:

    Too true. I’m more guilty of apologizing while sending something to one of my readers. This really does set a tone and ultimately hurt the “fresh eyes” effect with which they would have read the work.

    Good job!

  23. Kerry Grier says:

    Thanks for this. It armed me with a red pen and created something a lot more punchy and sleek. I will be following your blog - fantastic stuff!

  24. [...] about that as I was writing the pieces on apologising, and reading your comments and feedback, I kept on coming back to [...]

  25. Joanna
    Twitter: joannapaterson

    Jan I think you’re right - it flows from the inner state, and an over-developed need to please (which flows in turn from what we’ve learned from experience, as you say). The answer is about finding ways to be assertive - and I do believe that starting to write that way can help us to feel that way (as well as the other way round)

    I’m glad you’re enjoying the conversation. Me too.

    Darren hi and thanks for chipping in. It’s interesting how we try and dampen expectations down, isn’t it? They’re hard habits to shift… but worth trying to do so I think

    Hi Kerry thanks for saying hello. Punchy and sleek: now that sounds great! I’m glad to have helped with the red pen work :-)

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