So much is at stake in writing a conclusion. This is, after all, your last chance to persuade your readers to your point of view, to impress yourself upon them as a writer and thinker. And the impression you create in your conclusion will shape the impression that stays with your readers after they've finished the essay.
The end of an essay should therefore convey a sense of completeness and closure as well as a sense of the lingering possibilities of the topic, its larger meaning, its implications: the final paragraph should close the discussion without closing it off.
To establish a sense of closure, you might do one or more of the following:
- Conclude by linking the last paragraph to the first, perhaps by reiterating a word or phrase you used at the beginning.
- Conclude with a sentence composed mainly of one-syllable words. Simple language can help create an effect of understated drama.
- Conclude with a sentence that's compound or parallel in structure; such sentences can establish a sense of balance or order that may feel just right at the end of a complex discussion.
To close the discussion without closing it off, you might do one or more of the following:
- Conclude with a quotation from or reference to a primary or secondary source, one that amplifies your main point or puts it in a different perspective. A quotation from, say, the novel or poem you're writing about can add texture and specificity to your discussion; a critic or scholar can help confirm or complicate your final point. For example, you might conclude an essay on the idea of home in James Joyce's short story collection, Dubliners, with information about Joyce's own complex feelings towards Dublin, his home. Or you might end with a biographer's statement about Joyce's attitude toward Dublin, which could illuminate his characters' responses to the city. Just be cautious, especially about using secondary material: make sure that you get the last word.
- Conclude by setting your discussion into a different, perhaps larger, context. For example, you might end an essay on nineteenth-century muckraking journalism by linking it to a current news magazine program like 60 Minutes.
- Conclude by redefining one of the key terms of your argument. For example, an essay on Marx's treatment of the conflict between wage labor and capital might begin with Marx's claim that the "capitalist economy is . . . a gigantic enterprise ofdehumanization"; the essay might end by suggesting that Marxist analysis is itself dehumanizing because it construes everything in economic -- rather than moral or ethical-- terms.
- Conclude by considering the implications of your argument (or analysis or discussion). What does your argument imply, or involve, or suggest? For example, an essay on the novel Ambiguous Adventure, by the Senegalese writer Cheikh Hamidou Kane, might open with the idea that the protagonist's development suggests Kane's belief in the need to integrate Western materialism and Sufi spirituality in modern Senegal. The conclusion might make the new but related point that the novel on the whole suggests that such an integration is (or isn't) possible.
Finally, some advice on how not to end an essay:
- Don't simply summarize your essay. A brief summary of your argument may be useful, especially if your essay is long--more than ten pages or so. But shorter essays tend not to require a restatement of your main ideas.
- Avoid phrases like "in conclusion," "to conclude," "in summary," and "to sum up." These phrases can be useful--even welcome--in oral presentations. But readers can see, by the tell-tale compression of the pages, when an essay is about to end. You'll irritate your audience if you belabor the obvious.
- Resist the urge to apologize. If you've immersed yourself in your subject, you now know a good deal more about it than you can possibly include in a five- or ten- or 20-page essay. As a result, by the time you've finished writing, you may be having some doubts about what you've produced. (And if you haven't immersed yourself in your subject, you may be feeling even more doubtful about your essay as you approach the conclusion.) Repress those doubts. Don't undercut your authority by saying things like, "this is just one approach to the subject; there may be other, better approaches. . ."
Copyright 1998, Pat Bellanca, for the Writing Center at Harvard University
Having trouble finding the right words to finish your paper? Are your conclusions bland? This handout covers basic techniques for writing stronger endings, including
- Diagnosing and improving paragraph cohesion
- Avoiding 7 common errors when drafting and revising conclusions
- Answering the reader’s unspoken question—“So what?”
Improve paragraph cohesion
A. Make your sentences conform to a “given/new” contract
“Given” information (familiar to your reader) should come first in the sentence. For example, you could reiterate a main idea in the sentence or two beforehand, or something apparent within the context of the sentence, or an idea that taps into readers’ general knowledge of a topic. “New” information (additional, unfamiliar, and/or more complex) should comprise the second half of your sentence.
The “new” info of one sentence then becomes the “given” or familiar info of the next, improving overall flow and coherence.
B. Use “topic-strings”
Each sentence needs a topic or main idea, which should be in the “given” part of the sentence. Shift “given” info closer to the beginnings of your sentences when you can, so that the topic is clear. As well, each paragraph needs an overall topic, usually established in the first or second sentences. To check paragraph coherence, see whether your sentence topics (“givens”) connect consistently from sentence to sentence. Can you find a consistent topic throughout the paragraph, almost as if you were tracing a single colored thread? A set of sentences with clear topics creates a “topic thread.” This, along with appropriate use of transitions, helps to ensure a coherent paragraph.
- If your topic thread is not apparent or seems to get lost, revise your sentences according to a “given/new” information pattern.
- Use transitions where needed to indicate opposition, agreement or linkage, cause & effect, exemplification or illustration, degree, comparison, etc. For more on transitions, see “Making Connections: Choosing Transition Words”.
C. Reiterate without being repetitious
Readers appreciate some consistency and won’t usually find a reasonable amount of repetition boring or monotonous. But avoid repeating the same subjects/topics using exactly the same words each time, and don’t repeat your thesis word-for-word in your conclusion. Instead…reiterate, using key concepts within slightly different sentence structures and arguments. Key concepts are often expressed in introductions, thesis statements, and near the beginnings of paragraphs; they act as a governing “topic thread” for your entire paper.
Avoid these 7 common errors in your conclusions
- Opening with an empty phrase, the equivalent of “throat-clearing.
Draft: “And, therefore, it is important to keep in mind that ...” “In conclusion…”
Revision: Omit these phrases. “In conclusion” or “To conclude” may be appropriate for an oral presentation, but in writing are considered redundant or overly mechanical.
Draft: “However, it is important in arriving at such a conclusion to recognize...”
Revision: Just say what we should recognize.
- Stuffing too much information into one paragraph or not developing the paragraph sufficiently.
- Not including a clear topic sentence: i.e. one that expresses the key concept governing this paragraph (i.e. “What is this paragraph about?”). It’s usually best to express your governing concept in the first or second sentence.
- Not checking for cohesion or flow (see “given and new” above). As a result, the sentences aren’t logically organized, or there is a sudden switch in topic, or sentences do not clearly connect to each other.
- Using transitions too frequently or too mechanically.
- Ending the paragraph with a different topic. HINT: Use a key word or phrase from the last sentence of the previous paragraph in the first sentence of the new paragraph. This technique helps the reader make connections.
- Finishing your piece with entirely new information or a quote that isn’t relevant.
Remember to answer the question "So what?”
Readers need to understand why your argument or research is significant. So consider the single more important idea (key concept) you want your readers to take away with them after reading your paper. It’s not enough merely to repeat your thesis or summarize your main findings in your conclusion; you need to answer the question: “So what”? Options include outlining further areas of inquiry and/or suggesting a sense of significance: e.g. why does what you’ve written matter? What should your reader take away?
For more about writing effective conclusions, visit the following:
“Strategies for Writing a Conclusion” from Literacy Education Online
“Conclusions” from the Writing Center at the University of North Carolina
Source for paragraph cohesion strategies: Williams, J. M., & Nadel, I. B. (2005). Style: 10 Lessons in Clarity and Grace (Cdn. ed.). Toronto: Longman.