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Confounding Conclusions: Understanding and Constructing a Text’s End

By Aaron Shaki

We all know what conclusions are supposed to do, right? End paper, everyone thinks to himself or herself. But it’s not that easy is it? Just as starting a paper can be challenging, bringing a text to a conclusion can be just as tricky and even frustrating at times. While many writers consider conclusions difficult to write, they are essential to writing a strong, cohesive text. Too often, writers neglect constructing a satisfying or even sufficient conclusion, opting to instead simply restate the thesis or summarize their work. It is the quick and easy way, so why bother with anything else?

Although merely restating the thesis and other important points does the job, these quick and painless strategies cause many writers to miss the opportunity to powerfully and satisfyingly conclude their texts for their audiences. A conclusion is the final ingredient that determines whether your paper leaves readers with a taste palpable enough to remember the writing once they’ve read your last word, be it in an academic or creative piece. After all, one of the worst things you can do is leave your readers with a bad taste in their mouths because you didn’t take the time to write a better conclusion.  So, let’s break conclusions down a bit more to better understand their how and what in our writing.

To write a conclusion, you must first critically think about your paper, especially with an argumentative essay.  A conclusion for an argumentative piece is different than other texts, like narratives, because it must conclude an argument.  Thus, a well-thought-out thesis statement is necessary for an effective conclusion.  You and your readers must know what you’re arguing. Without that, your conclusion will not work.  If you’re confident in your thesis statement, and you provided sufficient support for that thesis, think about what you would like to accomplish with your argument before you write the conclusion.  Depending on what you are trying to accomplish, pick a type of conclusion that best closes an argument and leaves readers with something to take away from your paper.

Here are some conclusion types:

  • Value Judgment
  • Prediction
  • Recommendation
  • Call to Action

While this is a limited list, most papers will have arguments that can easily incorporate the above conclusion types.  For example, a student came to the writing center with a paper about sleep deprivation.  She argued that Americans, on average, are sleep deprived but are not conscious of it. Furthermore, they can alleviate this sleep deprivation with better education. This is a great thesis as it is bold and clear, and it is complex, containing three different and crucial aspects of her central claim:

  1. Americans are sleep deprived.
  2. Americans are not conscious of their sleep deprivation.
  3. Sleep deprivation can be alleviated with better education.

The student provided studies and commentary from multiple sources to support these three arguments, so she only needed a conclusion.

Here are some tips for writing this conclusion, along with most others:

Briefly summarize big ideas and support points, then explain how they relate to your thesis, but don’t merely restate points.  You must show the reader how your points fit together, conveying the bigger picture or broader implications. The student above would want to briefly remind us of her three arguments and provide the most important points from her supporting evidence if needed.

Note: Do not provide new evidence in the conclusion. You should also avoid anything uncharacteristic of the paper, such as emotions that do not match the tone of the paper.

Think about the type or types of conclusions that will allow you to expand your thesis to broader implications.  Above, the student could give a value judgment for sleep deprivation. For example, sleep deprivation, based on the evidence, is a threat to the American culture. For a recommendation, the student could propose that the threat be considered a top priority, which allows her conclusion to also include a call to action, where she could incite more awareness to begin organizing support around raising money to fund more educational opportunities that combat sleep deprivation.

Another note: Good conclusions can expand the scope of your paper, giving readers a new view on your subject and a way to make new connections. However, do not introduce a completely new idea.

The length of conclusions depends upon your paper’s length, the extent of your thesis and the supporting evidence, and what you are trying to accomplish with an argument and writing. The type of paper is especially important because, for example, a narrative conclusion is going to be different than a thesis-driven conclusion. Narratives often offer more creative freedom.  Usually, a short narrative essay, spanning 4-7 pages, should contain a conclusion of one, maybe two, short paragraphs, or, if effective, one or two sentences.  A conclusion to a thesis-driven paper depends upon the length of the paper and the complexity of the thesis. Remember, it is not about a set length, but more so about successfully accomplishing a conclusion’s purpose, or bringing a text to a fulfilling close.

Advice from University Writing Center Consultants

Meg: Conclusions have always been the hardest part of my writing process and, more than not, the weakest portion of my texts. In my younger writing days, I had this little trick where I would copy and paste the introduction of my paper right above my emerging conclusion. Then, I would let this guide my conclusion writing. Eventually, I found that my conclusions were doing their jobs, or bringing papers to a close, but they weren’t doing much else. They were also very repetitive at times and, sadly, quite boring.

From this realization, I decided to really experiment with conclusions, mainly striving to push my text’s focus or thesis further, to reveal my text’s “so what?” in this final paragraph. I decided I wanted my final message to my audience to be my writing’s significance, not just a repeated thesis or rhetorical question. With this shift, I found that I was not only producing stronger conclusions but also enjoying this part of the writing process much more. This experience was mainly with academic writing, but I was later able to bring it into my other forms of writing.

The biggest development in this evolution was the courage to take chances in my writing. At times, in my conclusions, pushing my thesis or point to another level or different perspective didn’t work, but I learned to recognize these weaker conclusions during my revision process. I also learned that a conclusion could do so much more than just restate everything you have already said, which is one of the most important writing lesson I have learned thus far.

Emily: The way I write my own conclusions is dependent on the type of writing I am asked to do. If you’re asking about a typical, reflective conclusion, I typically go back through my paper and pull three to four large points to reflect upon. In persuasive writing, I typically plan the paper, and then write my conclusion first, as it is the most crucial piece.

With students, I usually tell those who have a hard time writing conclusion to think of it as an inside-out introduction. Meaning, in an intro, you start broad, with some facts about an issue or something, and then you slowly give more specific information leading to your thesis. In conclusion writing students should tackle it oppositely. I find that making “writing formulas” is really helpful for students. I always tell them, however, that it is merely a learning tool, and that as they become more comfortable with writing, the more creative they should be with their conclusions and intros.

Allie: Like theses, I think conclusions are pretty tough to write right out of the gate. I’ve found that writing multiple drafts helps me write effective conclusions since, oftentimes, my first conclusion actually becomes my introduction. Honestly, I don’t know how I write my conclusions. I know I read through my paper and find main points, and I know I reference my thesis, but how I put it all together depends a lot on what the assignment is, how long I have to write it, and the intended audience I’m writing for.

When working with students, I always remind them that the most important thing is that the conclusion should reference your thesis, though not restate it directly, it should comment on your main points, and it should push your paper one more step. While you shouldn’t introduce any new information in your conclusion, you can still push the reader to think about what comes next, or what this new information means to the discourse community.

Cat: Writing conclusions has always been a hot topic for my students in that they have consistently been convinced that I hold some sort of “answer” in terms of what should be included and what step-by-step process they should follow to achieve the perfect conclusion to all things.  I’ve never been able to provide such a template, thank God, but I have developed an opinion on how conclusions should be perceived.

In my opinion, a conclusion is not really a conclusion.  What I mean is that a concluding paragraph lives outside of its definition in terms of its intended purpose.  Yes, a concluding paragraph should give a nod to the thesis – but should not directly restate it.  Yes, a conclusion should re-focus the reader towards some of the major points.  But, in my opinion, the best conclusions give the reader a direction to follow in terms of further considerations, further research, and further applications of what has already been discussed.  For example, if the essay is a thesis-driven essay about economic issues that are curtailing the growth of a local community, the concluding paragraph should reinforce this issue, but it should then take the assertions and the research provided in the essay and apply it to a different circumstance or to a larger-scale issue.  In my classes I call this “adding the meta to your claim”.  When I finish reading a researched essay, I like to be given hints as to where this research can take me, beyond the essay and the already-researched material.  For the hypothetical economics essay, a good conclusion might conjure applications statewide that could be implicated using the conclusions drawn from this localized case study.  Or perhaps the conclusion could point to socioeconomic trends nationwide that could benefit from the claims that have been proven in this essay.  To me that effectively positions a research essay within a larger conversation, and I think that is ultimately what a conclusion is for.  Not to restate what has already been said, but to give the reader a lead in terms of what to consider next, where to apply this idea outside of its current confines, or what needs further study in order to make a larger claim.

That’s how I go about writing my own conclusions, and that’s how I frame conclusions for my students and my clients.  In that spirit, I conclude this post with a suggestion.  Perhaps our discussions and claims about conclusions can provide us with an avenue to discuss meta-awareness of our claims.  If we know conclusions should include certain elements such as reminding the reader of the thesis and the major points, perhaps we should take that knowledge and incorporate it into how doing these things adds to the specific rhetoric and specific audience that an essay needs to cater towards.  If we are going to give advice about conclusions, might we also allow that advice a venue for further contributions and guide our readers towards not only stocking their “writing tools closet” with directive assertions, but also allow our readers to consider conclusions as more than a revamp of what has been said? Conclusions can also be the venue for guiding the reader towards what hasn’t been established.  Conclusions can be the beginning of the next research project, essay, short story, or even the next lab report.

Kyle: Conclusions should literally be the part where you draw conclusions. I don’t like to think of it as the paragraph where you end your paper; I like to think about it as the part of your paper that makes connections. The connections could be to the larger world/society, they could be to another relevant topic, or even to yourself. Regardless, this should be where you take all of the evidence that you’ve gathered and say something relevant about it in the context of a larger/different issue.