Here’s a fun experiment: type the word “sorry” into your Gmail search bar. How many results come up? For me, it’s 450. We all spend our lives apologizing for one thing or another; writers, especially, tend to do a lot of apologizing. And yet, despite all this practice, very few people know how to craft a good apology, one that sounds sincere and heartfelt and that makes the wronged party feel better. Even if you are genuinely sorry, it’s easy to come off sounding unrepentant or even defensive. But on the bright side, even if you aren’t genuinely sorry, it’s possible to write a terrific apology — as long as you follow a few basic writerly rules.
1. It’s not about you.
This is one of life’s most difficult lessons for writers and non-writers alike. Before you send your apology, look it over. Which pronoun appears more frequently: “I” or “you”? If the “I”s outnumber the “you”s, consider revising.
Example: Recently my aunt asked me to babysit her daughter “from 9 to 12 on Sunday,” so she could attend a memorial. I agreed and cleared my Sunday evening. Imagine my horror, then, when I was awakened by the ringing of my phone at 9:15 in the morning on Sunday. Whoops — she’d meant 9 AM to noon! An honest mistake, but even after my abject self-flagellation over the phone, a subsequent written apology was definitely in order. Here was how it originally began:
I feel like such a moron…
But this, I realized, was a bad opener. After all, why should my aunt care how I felt, when she was the victim here? By immediately calling attention to your suffering, you implicitly force your victim to apologize to you, and this is sure to create further resentment on her part.
You can avoid this common pitfall by remembering rule #2:
2. God is in the details.
You may be embarrassed and reluctant to refer to the particulars of your mistake, but in an apology — as in all writing — specificity is infinitely preferable to vagueness. “I’m sorry about last night” will never have the same effect as “I’m sorry I vomited all over your heirloom Persian carpet. I know that it was priceless to you, and I could tell that you were devastated.”
And so I edited my apology to my aunt:
I must have inconvenienced you terribly on what was probably already a sad day, and I feel just awful about it. I hope it didn’t ruin your day (or [daughter’s name]’s day) too much.
Note that “I feel like such a moron” has been changed to “I feel just awful about it.” By calling yourself names, you’re practically begging your victim to reassure you: “You’re not a moron!” It’s an understandable impulse, but try not to give in. That’s not what this email is for.
3. Avoid the passive voice.
This is an important writing rule in general, but the temptation to use passive language is particularly overwhelming when you’re apologizing, and even the most seasoned politicians can succumb (cf. President Nixon’s famous words on Vietnam: “Mistakes were made”).
Example: Last year I was involved with a guy, and things ended quite badly between us. After a prolonged silence, he sent me an email that began like this:
lately, i’ve been really just sad and upset about how things came to be. i am a little confused about it all, but mostly want you to know how sorry i am if my actions were hurtful to you.
Though his heart is undoubtedly in the right place, his apology already violates Rules 1 through 3. He opens with his feelings (“I’ve been really just sad and upset”); he uses only vague and euphemistic terms (“how things came to be,” “it all,” “my actions”); and he distances himself from his wrongdoing with an elaborate syntactical contortion (“if my actions were hurtful to you”).
Perhaps you’re not a grammarian and you’re unsure if you’re guilty of this in your own apology. Here’s a nifty way to tell: imagine translating your apology into Latin. Or Spanish, or French, or whatever language you studied in school. How difficult would this be? (I don’t know how I would even begin to translate “if my actions were hurtful to you,” with its conditional tense and indirect object.) Your apology should lend itself to a simple, direct translation.
And while we’re looking at this guy’s apology, let’s remember Rule #4:
4. Spelling counts.
As does punctuation. And capitalization. It’s never a bad idea to proofread.
5. Don’t blame the victim.
Unless you committed an actual crime (in which case your writing style should be the least of your worries), you probably aren’t fully responsible for whatever happened, and your victim isn’t entirely blameless. But your apology email is not the place to point this out.
Example: Once my mom lent me her housekeys and invited me to spend the night with her at her apartment after I returned from a late-night trip. I arrived at her building at 3:30 AM, only to find that the keys wouldn’t open her door. I knocked, I called her cell phone, I called her landline, I buzzed her buzzer, I went downstairs and rang her intercom — all to no avail. I had to find another place to crash that night.
The following morning, I woke up to this email from her:
Subject: OH NOOOOOOOOO
OMG I’M SO SORREEEEE!!!!!!
Did you wind up going to Bkln at 3 in the morning??
I’m just horrified at what happened. Every now and then it happens that I lock the wrong lock. But of all the times for it to happen…!
But why didn’t you ring the intercom bell, or buzz one of the door buzzers, or even knock on the door? I mean, that constituted an emergency. Right?
Up until the final paragraph, this is the perfect apology, a model of the form. So outwardly focused! So specific! Not a single passive construction in sight! However, the final paragraph squanders all this goodwill and will likely inspire your victim to call you up screaming “I DID DO ALL THOSE THINGS! I DID THEM LIKE A BAZILLION TIMES! WHAT THE FUCK KIND OF IDIOT DO YOU THINK I AM?” which is not the desired outcome. Stick to what you did wrong; you can discuss the rest later.
(Also, seriously, Mom, did you really think it hadn’t occurred to me to knock?)
6. Look to the future.
No apology is complete without a forward-looking conclusion, a promise that you will make up for what you did. And so I concluded my email to my aunt:
I definitely owe you a favor, which you should feel free to call in anytime.
I believe this is what is known in the corporate world as being “proactive.”
Now you try!
Example: When I was sixteen years old, I had a blog on which I frequently complained about my high school enemies, by name, in unladylike language. The blog still exists, and not too long ago, one of my high school enemies came across it. As I gathered from the unladylike language she herself used in her Facebook message, she was not pleased.
Below is the apology I wrote to her in response. If I do say so myself, it’s a good one — but upon revisiting it, I can see that I broke at least one of my rules. Can you spot my mistakes?
Dear [name of high school enemy],
I’m so sorry I hurt your feelings. Thank you for bringing this to my attention; I have no memory of writing any it. Clearly I was an asshole at the age of sixteen.
Please accept my deepest apologies, and rest assured I will take that entry right down.
I hope you’re well otherwise! I think you’re terrific, despite what I apparently wrote on the Internet seven years ago. It’s a pleasure to hear from you again, even if it had to be this way.
Addendum: If you find that you’re having an inordinate amount of trouble following these rules, consider the radical possibility that you are actually not sorry and don’t wish to apologize. If this is the case, then don’t bother! Once you break the habit of apologizing when you don’t mean it, it feels even better to apologize for real.
Need writing advice? Send your questions to firstname.lastname@example.org