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Lecture, Writing Conclusions

Pulling it all together

knotIf you are tired of writing by the time you reach your conclusion and are thinking of just getting it over with, stop thinking that way! The conclusion is what the reader will remember most from your essay. In a conclusion, a writer should seek to synthesize the ideas presented in the essay so that the reader can see the signficance of what has been presented. In addition, the writer should seek to establish the argument in a larger context; so that when readers are reading the conclusion, they are thinking about why the argument matters to them.

Strong Conclusions

synthesize Ideas:

The first order of business in a conclusion is to synthesize what has been said in the essay in a tidy closing statement or two. Do not make the mistake of summarizing the points you have just made (unless your essay was very long)—your reader will just get bored. Instead, show the reader how everything fits together. Compare the following summary sentence with a sentence synthesizing ideas:

summary:

In conclusion, the old Novato Train Station is an amazing landmark, but it has been left in ruins by the City of Novato. As I have discussed before, the amount of history behind this tiny little burned down building is very well hidden, and so, unfortunately, her history is overlooked.

synthesis:

The old Novato Train station is a sad sight in downtown Novato. If you look closely, you can see what it used to be: a beautiful, deco building that was the portal to the city. It invited visitors, and welcomed local travelers home. It spoke proudly of a growing town. Now what welcomes visitors to look around and commuters to come home? A weed-covered freeway off-ramp, gas stations, and convenience stores. To restore the train station would be to restore civic pride, and bring a bit of the romance of the past to our modern world.

show the significance of your argument:

Finally, you should show the significance of your argument in a larger context. Your goal should be to ease your readers back into their own living rooms, but with something compelling on their minds. Writers employ several techniques to accomplish this effect:

use a quotation:

An effective way to move beyond the content of the essay and show the significance of your argument in a larger context is to look to what others have said on the topic. Referring to what others have said shows that you are participating in an ongoing conversation about a topic that concerns a wide audience. Using a quote also shows that you are informed; and who you quote says something about your point of view—great minds think alike, so to speak. For example, the writer of the essay on the Novato Train Station might use a statement Gertrude Stein made about Oakland, "There's no there there," to characterize modern Novato.

If you began with an anecdote or short narrative, return to that beginning narrative and offer new insight:

This technique is great for creating coherence. The writer, after having explored an idea in depth, comes full circle, back to an opening image, but with more understanding. Consider, once again, the essay on the Novato Train Station: If the essay were to begin with a description of the Train Station in ruins to show how forlorn and neglected it is by the City of Novato, the author might conclude the essay with a full description of what the train station could look like were it to be restored. The reader, having just heard what the writer has to say about the importance of this landmark to giving residents a feeling of civic pride and a sense of place, would be able to appreciate the contrasting images.

look to the future:

This technique helps readers visualize an ongoing problem or concern, and it is often used by writers when they hope to offer a solution to a problem, or to inspire the reader the act to solve a problem. For example, with the Novato Train Station essay, the writer could point to two possible futures: one with the train station continuing to fall into ruin, becoming more of an eyesore and an embarrassment to the community; the other with the train station restored, becoming a source of pride to the community. The reader might then be inspired to act by supporting restoration efforts.

challenge your reader to action:

With this technique the writer says that something can and should be done to change a situation or problem discussed in the essay. Sometimes writers make a fairly direct appeal in a conclusion, for example, "It is time to act. Contact the City Council to let them know how you feel, or join the preservation committee. . . " Writers must be careful with this technique, however; if a writer suddenly changes the tone of the essay in the conclusion, a coherence problem may be the result.

pose a question:

A rhetorical question can help focus an issue. Writers sometimes use concluding questions like, "So what is to be done?" or "Why hasn't a solution been found?" One might also give an answer to a question posed at the beginning of the essay, an answer that synthesizes the content into a neat response.

provide an analogy:

An analogy helps a writer to bring an essay to a close in several ways. First, an analogy helps a writer explain something complex by comparing it to something that is easier to understand. In an essay on the realities of marriage, for example, a writer might conclude with the following analogy: "love is like a rose: it blooms and grows and creates joy; but it also has thorns." The features of love that the author wants to emphasize become clear and easy to understand in the analogy. In addition, an analogy helps readers connect to, and thus see the relevance of an experience that may be distant from their own lives. For example, in an essay on courtly love in Chrétien de Troyes's Lancelot, a 12th century work, a writer might compare the behavior of the knight who is enslaved by love to an aristocratic, married woman, to the behavior of the teenager in the 2004 film A Cinderella Story, who is enslaved by love to the most popular boy in school, but who won't pursue him out of respect for the social distance between them. Such an analogy would make the knight's elaborate "code of lovemaking," which would include months of silence about his love and noble and daring deeds, more familiar to a contemporary reader.

What not to do in a conclusion

  • Please, unless your instructor specifically asks you to, do not begin your conclusion with a phrase such as "in conclusion," "in summary," or "to sum up." These phrases put the attention on you and your writing process rather than on your ideas. They are distracting, and take away from the authority of your argument.

  • If you didn't make your thesis clear up front in the introduction, either by implication or by direct statement, don't suddenly state it in the conclusion at the end of things. Your reader needs direction at the beginning. If your argument only becomes clear at the end, you haven't done your job.

  • Don't strike out in a new direction in the conclusion. Any supporting points should appear in the essay. Your conclusion is for synthesizing ideas and showing your reader why your ideas are relevant and meaningful.

  • Don't skip the work of writing a conclusion by rephrasing your thesis. Your reader won't be fooled. Readers expect a powerful conclusion.

  • Don't suddenly change the tone of your essay. An essay that has been mostly informative, say, on the problem of global warming, should not suddenly become an appeal, as in "Please, call your congressman, now!" The goal should be to create a consistent voice throughout the work—a voice your reader can get to know.

  • Don't drop evidence in the conclusion that really belongs in the body of the essay. You may discover some useful material in your notes that you wanted to include but didn't. Don't give in to the temptation to just drop it in at the end. If you cannot fit it into the supporting paragraphs somewhere, then discard it.