“Endings are last impressions. They are closing numbers, final chords, deal-sealers. They deliver readers to the intended destination, influence what satisfaction each will take away…. The idea is simply to end by design rather than by default”
– Arthur Plotnic
The following notes on concluding paragraphs were inspired by, and sometime directly taken from (in quotes): The Craft of Research, by Wayne C. Booth, et al. and Arthur Plotnik’s Spunk and Bite.
Arthur Plotnik—beloved author of Spunk and Bite–has a crucial piece of advice: you should end your critical masterworks not by default but by design. “As Writers,” he writes, “we naturally focus on beginning a work and developing it, on all the challenges of getting and holding attention. Along the way we don’t think much about endings—just that we will write to length and make concluding noises in the last paragraph. But when we get there, feeling the expectations of all those readers invested in the journey, we wish we could touch down as gracefully, as meaningfully, as Apollo 11 did on the moon” (140). I appreciate Plotnik’s metaphor of journey and destination: getting folks started down the road is a major accomplishment, but you can’t leave them wandering and unsatisfied at the end. You need to help the reader feel as she or he has arrived in some crucial way to a new understanding or insight, to a new motivation to act or think differently.
(1) I always tell my students to save a significant nugget of knowledge for the end. Perhaps this is that big general claim that I thought was too broad for your intro or that was unsupportable with your current research. The conclusion doesn’t have to be about what is certainly the case or even what you are presently arguing. Your conclusion can be organized around a bold suggestion, a mighty ‘might.’
You already sold your main point in your introduction by introducing the significance of your key concepts and by making a strong claim and backing it up in the body of your paper. This clears that space for you to make that broader—perhaps bolder—suggestion, to gesture outside the bounds of your paper. Plotnik, voicing a similar strategy, suggests that as you write and revise try to “keep track of potentially dramatic closing materials” or “hold one of your best examples or anecdotes for the closing” (141).
Your argumentative body paragraphs are all shackled by the need to present viable reasons and supporting evidence. In the conclusion, you can remove those shackles. You are freeing the reader into a new world–our worlds change whenever we learn something, and your reader should feel changed in this way–a world that presents problems for which we don’t have answers, a world that presents solutions whose success we can’t yet measure. Conclusions are not doors closing on what we know, but doors opening onto what we might learn. Show us the way.
(2) Call for more research. Announce the need to spread understanding, suggest the most effective means of doing so, and explain or restate the potential dangers that lie behind a continued lack of understanding / action. If your argument has largely been woven around very similar voices, the conclusion is your chance to try and break some new ground.
(3) This relates back to #1: show us a vision of the world where your proposals, whether practical or philosophical, have made it into the world. Alternately, show us a vision fo the world that might result if your proposals are ignored.
(4) Close with a coda. Booth writes that “you can end with a rhetorical gesture that adds nothing substantive to your argument but that rounds it off with a graceful close.” A coda can be an apt quotation, anecdote, or just a striking figure of speech, similar to or even echoing your opening quotation or anecdote. In this way, your conclusion will continue to speak to your introduction, but also gesture beyond the bounds of your paper.
What not to do:
- Overly emotional appeals (readers are very good at spotting phoniness).
- A simple restatement of your thesis that shows no growth or movement.
- “In conclusion,” “In summary,” “As we can see / have seen”–nothing great ever happens after such tags!