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How to Write an Apology

Sometimes you think you've written one, but you have not.

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FREEBIE #2: Today is the monthly webinar for Magic Show members. I'm going to teach my storytelling template for business writing. Join the group at the link above, grab the webinar link there, and join us today, Friday, April 3, at noon ET US. It's free!


We're all feeling our way through the current unpleasantness, which means we are going to make mistakes. Some of those will merit an apology. Here's a popular essay of mine about how to write that apology effectively.

The purpose of an apology is to show contrition. Whether this restores some balance of cosmic justice is beyond this writer’s powers of observation. As a practical matter, the display is to begin to restore credibility, character, and good will. More immediately, it is to staunch negativity flowing the offender’s way.

That is, an apology is written to foreclose on bad attention and clear the way to get back to work.
It’s not hard to say I’m sorry. But as with so many occasions for professional communicators, the temptation rises to fill the page. Thus apologies are easy to screw up.
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The most common apology isn’t an apology at all: I regret if anyone took offense at my remarks.

Willie Sutton regretted getting caught robbing banks, but that didn’t mean he was sorry. The I regret… path leaves a little wiggle room, and many readers will see it as the wink that it is. Regardless of the author’s intention, the ambiguity is obvious. Depending on the situation, an effective apology requires several parts, but every apology should be unambiguous.
If you’re sorry, say it.
If you’re not sorry, don’t say it halfway. Defend yourself.
If you’re not sorry but you’ve decided to say you are anyway, at least put your heart in it.
Get the words “I am sorry” in there in some high-profile place – at the top, near the end, repeated – just be sure it’s obvious. There’s no wiggle room in “I’m sorry,” so don’t try to improve upon it. Let simplicity be the bearer of clarity. And don’t try to soften the blow, because the supplicant's explanation will to the benefactor sound like an excuse. Typically, this will lead to having to compose a follow-up apology. Politics past and present are filled with examples.
Here’s an emphatic apology from the musician Henry Rollins, who wrote some intemperate comments at the death of Robin Williams. After only a few hours of opprobrium in social media and beyond, Rollins wrote this on the LA Weekly website:
For the last 9+ hours, I have been answering letters from people from all over the world. The anger is off the scale and in my opinion, well placed.
The article I wrote in the LA Weekly about suicide caused a lot of hurt. This is perhaps one of the bigger understatements of all time. I read all the letters. Some of them were very long and the disappointment, resentment and ringing clarity was jarring.
That I hurt anyone by what I said, and I did hurt many, disgusts me. It was not at all my intent but it most certainly was the result.
I have had a life of depression. Some days are excruciating. Knowing what I know and having been through what I have, I should have known better but I obviously did not. I get so mad when I hear that someone has died this way. Not mad at them, mad at whatever got them there and that no one magically appeared to somehow save them.
I am not asking for a break from the caning, take me to the woodshed as much as you see fit. If what I said has caused you to be done with me, I get it.
I am deeply sorry. Down to my marrow. I can’t think that means anything to you, but I am. Completely sorry. It is not of my interest to hurt anyone but I know I did. Thank you for reading this.


Like all effective communication, an apology should be brief and specific and then over.

As Elton John sang, “sorry” seems to be the hardest word. Fortunately, it is also one of the shortest. Write it, mean it, and move along.

A little extra note, hidden away down here. I take on a few one-on-one writing students as they appear, usually people who want to improve their ability with op-eds, speeches, or even creative writing. Obviously I have more free time than usual just now, so if you're interested, let's talk. We'll find a price that works for both of us (I'm cheaper than you're expecting these days), and if you have a trade in mind for your skill or some cool item, I'm open to that, too! Email me.

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