A sense of an ending: writing conclusions

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If all’s well that ends well, then something’s seriously rotten in the state of essay writing. Even the some experienced writers seem to struggle with conclusions.

Suspect conclusions come in one of three varieties, all of which leave something to be desired. The worst of these is simply leaving the ending off. Others write the thesis again and then say the same things they said in the introduction. (I’ve even seen some papers where the conclusion is literally a copy and pasted version of the introductory paragraph. Please don’t do this.) The third strategy, summarizing the points of the paper in one paragraph, is only slightly better than the other two strategies.

Since this summarizing strategy is very popular, let’s take a look at why it doesn’t work all that well as a conclusion. Think of summary paragraphs this way. Remember when someone gave you an explanation of a task that was fairly simple and then right before you went off to do that task, that person went through all the main points just to make certain you understood? How did that feel? Insulting? Condescending?  If you argument is not extremely complex, there’s a chance that your summary conclusion might leave your readers with that same feeling. Not a good strategy for winning over readers.

In certain cases, a summary of the main points into one paragraph might be desired or even necessary to assemble an argument that depends on several sub-arguments. If you’ve got an especially complex argument, by all means, put a summary paragraph as a final body paragraph to show the connections between those sub-arguments. If you don’t have a complex argument, then you should focus on putting those summary points as topic sentences of the relevant paragraphs. The effect will be an essay that is much more effective and readers who are happy to receive the points as they read rather than all at the end.

I’m not going to go into detail on why the other two strategies don’t work except to say that neither does for readers what a conclusion should. Concluding paragraphs should provide for a sense that readers have come to the end of a journey. The best feeling you can leave readers with is that feeling of having received a bunch of new information that is relevant to how they see the world. If you take readers back to the exact point they started from, it feels like the journey may have been wasted. If you leave a conclusion out entirely, you leave your readers without a sense of closure.

Writing conclusions does start with considering the introduction, but the purpose of this reconsideration is not to restate the points of the introduction because the introduction should ideally leave readers in a very different mindset than you want them in at the end of your essay. Good introductions show readers a picture of the world that causes the reader to question their understanding of your topic. In other words, the best introductions create a space for an essay to exist because the show the reader that further investigation into the topic is needed.

For example, take a look at the opening lines to Joan Didion’s “Goodbye to All That”:

It is easy to see the beginnings of things, and harder to see the ends. I can remember now, with a clarity that makes the nerves in the back of my neck constrict, when New York began for me, but I cannot lay my finger upon the moment it ended, can never cut through the ambiguities and second starts and broken resolves to the exact place on the page where the heroine is no longer as optimistic as she once was.

In two sentences, Didion creates a view of the world that is broken and needs to be put back together. We get the sense that we’ll be accompanying her on a journey to find a sense of closure. In the rest of the paragraph, Didion talks about being young and naïve and moving to New York to live a life like she’d seen in the movies and books about that city. Didion’s introduction sets us up with the expectation that she will face disappointment and have to figure out where things went wrong. That will set her up for a conclusion that leaves readers with the sense of understanding.

A conclusion is a place to help readers mend things. The tools you will use to do this mending are the new bits of knowledge that your analytical portion of your essay have provided for your reader. The best conclusions create a sense of an ending because readers feel that they have learned something that is immediately useful for them in understanding the world in a new way.

To achieve this feeling of closure, your conclusion should contain a restatement of the thesis. This restatement should not be a direct copy and paste job from the introduction. Instead, a good restatement of the thesis will remind readers of what they’ve learned. It will also remind readers of the puzzle you set out in the beginning and help readers to see how the knowledge learned is useful.

Didion’s essay is a personal essay, but she still has something that looks like her thesis in her final paragraph: “All I mean is that I was very young in New York, and that at some point the golden rhythm was broken, and I am not that young any more.” She does not arrive at the ultimate point that she set out to look for, the point at which she stopped being the heroine in some romantic tale of New York, but for her readers, understanding what it means to be “not that young any more” is the catharthis that the essay provides.

It’s crucial that Didion’s essay not end on that line though. She needs to keep going because to get the sense of an ending, we need to see that the knowledge makes a difference in how she sees the world. In her very next line, she starts telling a story about going back to New York, and that return trip looks very different from her initial trip. Her view of the world has changed, and when she returns to her new home, California, she finds a sublime beauty in the world that she originally left to go to New York. We as readers feel enriched with the knowledge we’ve gained. That is what good conclusions do.

Didion’s essay of course looks very different from most of the essays beginning writers have to compose, and it’s safe to say that no one assigned her with the task of reexamining her time in New York City and writing up a paper on it, but that does not mean that the lessons above can’t be applied to other genres of essay. Literary analysis essays will ideally start by pointing out an interpretative problem within the text and end with a paragraph that allows readers to reenter the world of the text and apply the interpretation provided within the essay to the original problem. A political science paper might introduce a problem that is delaying the development of a foreign country, advocate for a way to understand it, and conclude with looking at potential implications of that understanding to the country’s prospects. Lab reports typically end with a discussion of the results of an experiment and consider how they relate to the understanding of the topic described in the introduction.

Conclusions that follow this model of applying the knowledge created within the essay back to the world are easy to write with a little practice. Your readers will thank you for providing them with the sense that their time has not been wasted, and you’ll find that it forces you to think about whether your essay has said something relevant or not. In short, good conclusions help to assure that you’ll never be accused of writing essays told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.


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Good Writer, Bad Writer

Good writer, bad writer reflects the philosophy behind the first writing lesson I attempt to teach students. Too many of them come into college believing that their writing abilities are set in stone. The bad writers continue to struggle, and the good writers don't take enough risks in their writing, figuring that any misstep will throw them back into the "bad writer" category.

Good writer, bad writer is my attempt to break the power of that dichotomy. On here, I share the lessons and attitudes that I teach, but I also talk about the attitudes I have towards my own writing since many of those have informed my own teaching. Thanks for visiting.

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