Few writing tasks challenge academic writers as much as drafting the conclusion to a piece of academic writing. Conclusions overwhelm even the most seasoned writers. How do we pull all of our ideas together in a few brief paragraphs or pages? Haven’t we already explained our ideas to the reader? Must we rehash them one more time? We’re tired of writing. We want the reader to figure out the point without our advice.
Gauging the right length and scope of the conclusion makes writing it even trickier. An essay or article may wrap up in a few snappy paragraphs, while a dissertation or book merits a longer conclusion. Misjudging the scale of the conclusion bewilders the reader. A conclusion that seems too short for the work makes the reader feel like the passenger of a reckless driver who stomps on the brakes of a speeding car without warning, causing the sound of screeching tires and the stench of burning rubber. On the other hand, a rambling conclusion feels like riding with a driver who insists on meandering for hours down an endless, winding road without a map.
Many writers struggle to craft good conclusions. Writers sometimes fail to conclude in a compelling way because they write summaries rather than any actual conclusions. They often arrive at the conclusion having discovered along the way what it is they wish to say and write introductions instead of conclusions. Some writers add new evidence into the conclusion. Even worse, poor writers introduce their main arguments in the conclusion.
A good conclusion, however, is a critical part of any text. If the introduction leads the reader from his or her world into the subject of the text, the conclusion guides the reader home.
In writing the conclusion, consider the following suggestions:
Restate the main argument. Particularly with longer works, readers lose track of the writer’s main argument of the overall work. Use some different words and rephrase it, but remind the reader of the main argument.
Answer the “So what?” question. Showing the reader why he or she should care about a certain topic is a vital role of the conclusion. Sometimes the writer may think that the importance of the topic is so obvious that he or she doesn’t need to explain it. Readers cannot read the writer’s mind; they need the writer to explain to them why the topic matters. The answer to the “So what?” question (at least in the humanities) may be one of the following:
- The topic always seemed simple, but in reality is quite complicated.
- The writer challenges the reader’s deeply held belief about the topic.
- The topic shows us a paradox or problem that needs to be solved.
- The topic, while small, shows us how to understand better a larger process or phenomenon.
Regardless of how the writer chooses to answer the “So what?” question, a good conclusion will show the reader why the topic matters.
Bring the reader full circle. Connecting the conclusion to the introduction can be an effective way to close a piece of writing. Is there an end to a story? Is there an answer to a question raised in the introduction? Just as fiction writers often bring readers back to the first scene, academic writers can also satisfy readers with a conclusion that returns to the starting point.
Point to a broad application. Plenty of academic research focuses on specific topics of interest to a small group of people. How does what we’ve learned influence the way we think about larger issues? How should the reader apply these broadly? Does the work add to a large public debate on the topic?
Make recommendations or pose solutions. If the main topic poses a problem, offer ideas to solve it. The reader also will think of ways to solve the problem, but the writer should provide some initial ideas. Writers might also suggest directions for future research. What would help us understand this topic better in the future?
Link the work to a current event or topic. Some research can be applied to current events or issues. Even historical research impacts the way people think about the present. Linking research conclusions to a current event also allows writers the chance to use some relevant examples. Using real-world, present-day examples helps the reader understand the practical application of the writer’s research findings.
Find a model. Anyone who has ever read a weak conclusion has experienced reading the final word of the conclusion and then thinking, “Huh?” A flat conclusion robs a powerful argument of its force. A vague conclusion leaves readers unsatisfied. On the other hand, a well-constructed conclusion leaves the reader feeling satisfied, enriched by the time he or she has spent reading the text. Not all conclusions are created equal. Some writers have greater skill with conclusions than others. Find an effective and powerful conclusion. Analyze it. How does the writer structure it? What makes it effective? Pay attention and take note. Reproduce the structure of an effective conclusion in your own writing.
Use strong language. Undercutting the argument with weak language undermines the work as a whole. Many writers sabotage themselves in the conclusion with weak language because they fear generalizing or being wrong. They hedge and dodge with weak, wishy-washy words: suggest, might, could, seem, may, possibly, probably, etc. Starting sentences with dependent clauses and passive voice also saps the power of the main argument. Be daring. Be bold. Make strong statements.
Keep it simple. Simple language is best. Writers sometimes abandon simple and clear writing near the end, wanting to put big ideas in big language. Match the language of the conclusion to that of the main text. Writers also must take care to explain big concepts and simplify them for the reader. Readers often do not know or understand what the writer knows or understands. Writers must show readers what they mean rather than assume any shared knowledge of big concepts or ideas.
Good conclusions conclude; weak conclusions stymie both the writer and the reader. Though a challenge to write well, the conclusion is a vital part of any written work. Walk the reader through the entire conclusion and show him or her why what you’ve written matters. Be kind to readers and craft the best possible conclusions. They will thank you.