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.
In what manner have you reiterated your ideas? What have you left your reader to think about at the end of your paper? How does your paper answer the “So what?” question?
As the last part of the paper, conclusions often get the short shrift. We instructors know (not that we condone it)—many students devote a lot less attention to the writing of the conclusion. Some students might even finish their conclusion thirty minutes before they have to turn in their papers. But even if you’re practicing desperation writing, don’t neglect your conclusion; it’s a very integral part of your paper.
Think about it: Why would you spend so much time writing your introductory material and your body paragraphs and then kill the paper by leaving your reader with a dud for a conclusion? Rather than simply trailing off at the end, it’s important to learn to construct a compelling conclusion—one that both reiterates your ideas and leaves your reader with something to think about.
In the first part of the conclusion, you should spend a brief amount of time summarizing what you’ve covered in your paper. This reiteration should not merely be a restatement of your thesis or a collection of your topic sentences but should be a condensed version of your argument, topic, and/or purpose.
Let’s take a look at an example reiteration from a paper about offshore drilling:
Ideally, a ban on all offshore drilling is the answer to the devastating and culminating environmental concerns that result when oil spills occur. Given the catastrophic history of three major oil spills, the environmental and economic consequences of offshore drilling should now be obvious.
Now, let’s return to the thesis statement in this paper so we can see if it differs from the conclusion:
As a nation, we should reevaluate all forms of offshore drilling, but deep water offshore oil drilling, specifically, should be banned until the technology to stop and clean up oil spills catches up with our drilling technology. Though some may argue that offshore drilling provides economic advantages and would lessen our dependence on foreign oil, the environmental and economic consequences of an oil spill are so drastic that they far outweigh the advantages.
Since the author has already discussed the environmental and economic concerns associated with oil drilling, there’s no need to be passive about the assertion; the author thus moves from presenting oil spills as a problem to making a statement that a ban on offshore drilling is the answer to this problem. Moreover, the author provides an overview of the paper in the second sentence of the conclusion, recapping the main points and reminding the reader that he or she should now be willing to acknowledge his or her position as viable. Though you may not always want to take this aggressive of an approach (i.e., saying something should be obvious to the reader), the key is to summarize your main ideas without “plagiarizing” yourself (repeating yourself word for word). Indeed, you may take the approach of rather saying, “The reader can now, given the catastrophic history of three major oil spills, see the environmental and economic consequences of oil drilling.” For more information about summary, please refer to the textbook piece on incorporating sourced material into your essays.
As you can thus see, reiteration is not restatement. Summarize your paper in one to two sentences (or even three or four, depending on the length of the paper), and then move on to answering the “So what?” question.
Leaving Your Reader with Something to Think About: Answering the “So what?” Question
The bulk of your conclusion should answer the “So what?” question. Have you ever had an instructor write “So what?” at the end of your paper? You might have been offended, but the instructor was not saying that he or she did not care about your paper; rather, he or she was pointing to the fact that your paper leaves the reader with nothing new to think about. You cannot possibly spend an entire paragraph summarizing your paper topic, nor does your reader want to see an entire paragraph of summary, so you should craft something juicy—some new tidbit that serves as an extension of your original ideas.
There are a variety of ways that you can answer the “So what?” question. The following are just a few types of “endnotes”:
The Call to Action
The call to action can be used at the end of a variety of papers, but it works best for persuasive papers, such as social action papers and Rogerian argument essays (essays that begin with a problem and move toward a solution, which serves as the author's thesis). Any time your purpose in writing an essay is to change your reader’s mind or you want to get your reader to do something, the call to action is the way to go. Basically, the call to action asks your reader, after having progressed through a brilliant and coherent argument, to do something or believe a certain way. Following the reiteration at which we previously looked, here comes a call to action:
We have advanced technology that allows deepwater offshore drilling, but we lack the advanced technology that would manage these spills effectively, As such, until cleanup and prevention technology are available we should, as gatekeepers of our coastal shores and defenders of marine wildlife, ban offshore drilling—or, at the very least, demand a moratorium on all offshore oil drilling.
This call to action requests that the reader—remember, you need to identify your audience/reader before you begin writing—consider a ban on offshore drilling. Whether the author wants the reader to actually enact the ban or just to come to his or her side of the fence, he or she is asking the reader to do or believe something new based upon the information he or she just received.
The contextualization places the author’s local argument, topic, or purpose in a more global context so that the reader can see the larger purpose for the piece—or where the piece fits into the larger conversation. Whereas writers do research for papers so that they enter into specific conversations, they provide their readers with a contextualization in their conclusions so that they acknowledge the broader dialogue that contains that local conversation. For instance, if we were to return to the paper on offshore drilling, rather than proposing a ban on offshore drilling (a call to action), we might provide the reader with a contextualization:
We have advanced technology that allows deepwater offshore drilling, but we lack the advanced technology that would manage these spills effectively. Thus, one can see the need to place environmental concerns at the forefront of the political arena. Many politicians have already done so, including So-and-so and So-and-so.
Rather than asking the reader to do or believe something, this conclusion answers the “So what?” question by showing the reader why this specific conversation about offshore drilling matters in the larger conversation about politics and environmentalism.
The twist leaves the reader with a contrasting idea to consider. For instance, if I were to write a paper that argued that the media was responsible for the poor body image of adolescent females, I might, in the last few lines of the conclusion, give the reader a twist:
While the media is certainly responsible for the majority of American girls’ body image issues, parents sometimes affect the way girls perceive themselves more than the media does.
While this contrasting idea does not negate the writer’s original argument (why would you want to do that?), it does present an alternative contrasting idea to weigh against the original argument. The twist is kind of like a cliffhanger, as it’s sure to leave the reader saying, “Hmm . . .”
The Suggestion of Possibilities for Future Research
This approach to answering the “So what?” question is best for projects that you want to turn into a larger, ongoing project—or, if you want to suggest possibilities for future research for someone else (your reader) who might be interested in that topic. This approach involves pinpointing various directions which your research may take if someone were to extend the ideas included in your paper. Remember, research is a conversation, so it’s important to consider how your piece fits into this conversation and how others might use it in their own conversations. For example, if we were to suggest possibilities for future research based on this recurring example of the paper on offshore drilling, the conclusion might end with something like this:
I have just explored the economic and environmental repercussions of offshore drilling based on the examples we have of three major oil spills over the past thirty years. Future research might uncover more economic and environmental consequences of offshore drilling, as such consequences will become clearer as the effects of the BP oil spill become more pronounced.
Suggesting opportunities for future research involve the reader in the paper, just like the call to action does. Who knows, the reader may be inspired by your brilliant ideas and may want to use your piece as a jumping-off point!
Whether you use a call to action, a twist, a contextualization, or whether you suggest future possibilities for research, it’s important to answer the “So what?” question so that your reader stays interested in your topic until the very end of the paper. And, perhaps more importantly, leaving your reader with something juicy to consider makes it more likely that the reader will remember your piece of writing. Why write just to end your paper with a dud? Give your conclusion some love: reiterate and then answer the “So what?” question.
"How to Write a Compelling Conclusion" was written by Jennifer Yirinec