“I said something I wish I hadn’t.”
“I really messed up.”
“I upset someone and I regret it.”
Humans are not perfect. We make mistakes—but we can also own up to those mistakes to atone for them.
That’s where an apology letter comes in.
Writing an apology letter shows that you recognize your mistake and allows you to ask for forgiveness.
Asking for forgiveness is a difficult but inevitable part of life. But how do you do it? We will break down how to write an effective apology letter in this post.
What Is an Apology Letter?
At its most basic, an apology letter is a letter which says sorry.
But it’s not that simple. Often saying sorry is not enough.
Sorry is not a catch-all phrase for any mistake. If you accidentally spill someone’s drink, sorry is a perfectly acceptable response (you might also buy them a replacement!). But if you inadvertently cause someone to lose their job, the word sorry is not enough.
In this case you’ll probably need to apologize, own up to your mistake, suggest a solution, and only then ask for forgiveness. Writing an apology letter is a good opportunity to cover that content.
What Should You Include in an Apology Letter?
Before we look at the different types of letters, there are a few things that you should do in each one.
1) Acknowledge Your Mistake
You should start every letter by explaining why you’re writing. An apology letter is no different.
By acknowledging your mistake, you can both own up to your error and inform the reader what the letter is about.
Acknowledging your mistake will let the reader know that you are sincere and that you are seeking forgiveness. It is important to acknowledge your mistake straight away—by not doing so, you can annoy the other person and make the situation worse.
For example, if you broke your friend’s favorite mug at work, you should go straight to them and explain your mistake instead of squirreling it back into the cupboard for them to find later.
2) Apologize for Your Mistake
Now that you have stated your mistake it is time to apologize. Although sorry sums up what you are trying to say, it is sometimes better to be more specific.
Explain why you are sorry and acknowledge any negative outcomes from your mistake.
For example: if you accidentally lost an important document, acknowledge the extra work the person had to do and the stress that this loss must have caused.
Taking full responsibility is the best way to approach an apology, so try not to shift the blame onto anyone or anything else.
It is also best to avoid excuses if you can. Excuses can aggravate the situation and detract from your apology.
3) Share Your Plan to Resolve the Issue
It is all well and good to apologize, but what can you do to improve the situation? Let’s look at our previous example. Although there is nothing you can do about the lost document, you can promise that it will not happen again.
To convince your reader that your promise is not just empty words, you could present an action plan, like this:
I will create a physical backup folder for all documents in the future.
In addition to this, I will save all documents to an independent hard drive which I will leave at work. This means that they will stay safe, even if I lose my laptop.
4) Ask for Forgiveness
Asking for forgiveness is very important because it hands control of the situation over to the reader.
It also acknowledges that there are pieces of the relationship which need to be repaired. If you wanted to, you could take the opportunity to invite your reader to suggest their own solution before they forgive you.
This will help the person to feel like their opinions have been heard. It will also help you to understand the effect that the mistake had upon them.
I want to ask for forgiveness for my error. Are there any further steps I can take to ensure that this never happens again? I hope we can resolve this and continue to work together.
What Are the Different Types of Apology Letter?
There are four main types of apology letter:
Business Apology Letter
Third-Party Apology Letter
Mass Apology Letter
Personal Apology Letter
Each category has multiple usages.
For example, if you needed to write to your neighbor due to a disagreement, that would be a personal apology letter.
If you were writing to your boss after making a mistake, this apology letter would fall under the business category.
How Do You Write a Business Apology Letter?
A business apology letter could be addressed to a client, a partner, a supplier, another firm, a partnered retailer, or stakeholders.
A business apology letter should be:
Be clear about the purpose of the e-mail and do not skirt around the point. Avoid any vague language as it will undermine the purpose of the letter.
Straight to the point
Business professionals receive multiple e-mails a day. If you waste their time with unnecessary words you may annoy them further rather than placate them.
Match the professional tone normally adopted by your company or business sector. If you are unsure what language to use, err on the side of caution. It is far better to be too formal than not formal enough.
Focused on a solution
Instead of focusing your e-mail on the problem, focus on the proposed solution which will put a positive twist on the letter without ignoring the issue.
As a result your business will be presented in a better light and you will have a higher chance of repairing your professional relationship.
Dear [insert customer name],
We’re sorry we weren’t able to deliver your product on time. COVID-19 has caused a significant impact to our supply chain and has made restocking difficult.
We understand your frustration and we are doing all we can to prevent any future incidences of this kind. While this does not make up for any inconvenience caused, we would like to offer you a 20% discount on your next order
Please let me know if you have any other concerns or questions.
When Should You Write a Business Apology Letter?
You could address a business apology letter to a colleague, a boss, a customer, a supplier, or anyone else related to your place of business.
Here are a few examples of situations where a letter of apology might be needed:
If you have a problem with your supply chain and need to delay a delivery.
If you forgot an important meeting and arrived unprepared.
If you had to take a day off at the last minute meaning that a colleague has to take up extra work.
How Do You Write a Third-Party Apology?
A third-party apology letter is one in which the writer is apologizing on behalf of someone else, such as a letter from a manager to a customer on behalf of an employee who behaved rudely.
A third-party apology letter should be:
In the first line, let the recipient know who is writing and on behalf of whom. Explain why you are writing, and not the guilty party.
This may sound obvious but third-party apology letters need to be handled very carefully. Not only do you need to apologize for the actions of the perpetrator, you also need to apologize that the letter is not coming from them and likely apologize for your part in the situation, even unintentionally.
The recipient is not frustrated with you personally, so try to build and maintain a relationship with them. Treat the letter as an olive branch and take full advantage of the fact that you can shift blame.
Example of a third-party apology:
Dear [insert name],
We’re Chad’s parents, and we would like to apologize for Chad’s behaviour yesterday which resulted in Jen being bitten. We fully intend on having Chad apologize to Jen himself, but as his parents we wanted to add some context to the situation and also say we’re sorry as well.
Chad often gets overstimulated, and we think that might have caused yesterday’s tragedy. He looks forward to his playdates with Jen, which leads us to believe that this is a one-off incidence. Nonetheless, his behavior is unacceptable and we have given him a strong talking to on why what he did was wrong. He has also been grounded, and will write an apology letter to Jen.
Once again, we are truly sorry for any distress this may have caused.
Bod and Sharon (Chad’s parents)
When Would You Require a Third-Party Apology Letter?
A third-party apology letter is required in one of two cases:
- If the person at fault is unable to write an apology themselves.
- If it is inappropriate for the person at fault to write the letter and it would be better for someone else to write it.
Examples of this second type are:
If a customer at a restaurant was abusive to another customer, the manager may wish to write an apology on behalf of the restaurant.
If a child bit another child at preschool the parent may wish to write an apology to the other parent.
If a dog was noisy and kept waking up next door’s baby, the owner may wish to write an apology to the parents.
How Do You Write a Mass Apology Letter?
A mass apology letter is one in which many people have been affected by a single issue. A mass apology letter should be:
Many people will need to read this letter so it should get to the point as quickly as possible. Make a sincere apology, and then say how you will fix the situation.
Use basic terminology and grammar to ensure that everyone can understand the meaning. You can use ProWritingAid’s Readability Report to identify any hard-to-read paragraphs. To achieve this, you should aim for a reading level that is suitable for a 5th grader or below.
When Would You Require a Mass Apology Letter?
Mass apology letters are usually written by someone with responsibility for the care or experiences of a large group of people. It's important to strike the right tone so that you can maintain your authority and trust with the recipients.
Here are some instances in which you might need a mass apology letter.
To consumers if one of your products needs to be recalled after an issue was detected.
To residents if there was an avoidable power cut in your housing stock.
To parents if students were given the wrong information about upcoming exams.
Example of a mass apology letter:
Dear People of Townsville,
On Friday, November 19, 2021 the city of Townsville was without electricity for four hours as a result of an overloading of the city’s grid. This was not scheduled, and therefore required an emergency response. We understand how difficult this must have been for you the citizens, particularly the business owners. We’d like to offer our sincerest apologies for the inconvenience caused, as well as any disruptions. We take incidents like this very seriously, and our team is already refining our maintenance schedules in order to avoid similar events in the future.
We remain committed to ensuring that we sustain the high standard of service delivery that we hope you expect from us.
The Team at ABC Electrical
How Do You Write a Personal Apology Letter?
If you are writing your apology letter to friends, family, neighbors, relatives, acquaintances, or even strangers, and if it doesn’t serve or include a commercial purpose, you’re writing a personal apology letter.
A personal apology letter should be:
Conversational: Keep the tone informal to avoid sounding pompous and false. Make a direct apology to the recipient without hiding behind complex language.
Full of remorse: Unlike in the previous example, it is advised that you express your own emotions about the situation. It is important that the recipient believes you are truly sorry.
Focused on the relationship: The most important thing is to limit the damage that your mistake causes to your personal relationship with the person so make it clear that you care.
When Would You Require a Personal Apology Letter?
A personal apology letter is probably the most versatile type on this list. Almost any apology that is not directly related to your work will require this form of apology.
Examples of when this type of apology might be appropriate are:
When you broke your mom’s favorite ornament with a bouncy ball.
If you lost your friend’s guinea pig whilst looking after it.
If you crashed into your neighbor’s garden wall and damaged it.
Example of a personal apology letter:
Dear Mrs. Steel,
I’m really sorry for running over your garden gnomes the other day. My dad was teaching me to drive and I mistakenly touched reverse instead of forward. I’d be happy to replace them, though that may not happen immediately. I’ve taken a summer job at the mall and I’m committed to saving every penny so I can buy them back.
I hope you find it in your heart to forgive me.
Should You Write a Letter, Text, or Call to Apologize?
When it comes to business, third-party, and mass apologies, letters and e-mails are the only way of doing things professionally.
A personal apology may feel stilted or unnatural as a letter and may be better delivered by text, phone call, or even in person. It totally depends on the situation and your relationship with that person.
The way that an apology is delivered is just as important as the content of it, so give this question some thought.
However as a general rule:
E-mail or letter:
If you are only acquaintances or if there is a large age gap between you and the other person. For example, if a 14-year-old cycled over her 67-year-old neighbor’s flowers, an e-mail or letter apology would be best.
If the mistake was minor and you are friends with the person or a similar age. For example, a student accidentally smashed another student’s mug.
If the mistake was bigger and you are friends with the person. This can also be a good option for family members when you cannot see them in person. For example, someone forgot their grandma’s birthday and the card arrived late.
If the mistake was major and it is a friend or family member that you can reasonably visit. For example, someone had a big argument with their best friend and realized afterwards that they were totally out of line.
I sincerely apologize that I can’t write your letter for you. But that doesn’t mean that we can’t help. You can always revisit this article if you need a refresher.