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.
- The conclusion needs to 1. restate the paper’s main points 2. answer the question, “Who cares?”, and 3. finish the paper with something punchy.
You have written a beautiful introduction and body, and now you have to finish the draft off by writing the conclusion! You want to finish strong and leave the reader with an interesting closing thought.
That being said, your concluding paragraph has to 1. briefly summarize your work (without sounding redundant), 2. illustrate why your paper is significant, and 3. end with a punch.
The conclusion should be formatted like an upside-down introduction–from the most specific to the most general. Therefore, the first sentence of your conclusion paragraph should describe the main points of your paper:
“Although there were a variety of lesser factors, the ultimate demise of the Roman Empire was a result of three main ones: poor leadership, outside pressure from barbarian forces, and weakening cultural unity.”
“Although Microsoft, Google, and Apple have similar company roots–nerdy college-aged kids tinkering around in garages–they have developed into very different companies. Apple has developed around the personality of a single person, while Microsoft and Google–while heavily influenced by their founders–have taken a less centralized approach.”
The trick with this sentence (or two) is to reiterate your paper’s main idea without sounding redundant. Copying and pasting your thesis is not a good idea. Another bad idea is to start out with a hollow-sounding phrase like “In conclusion,” “In summary,” or “As a whole.” These not-so-subtle phrases are sure to bore your reader.
Next, your conclusion has to relate your issue to a broader idea or question. Let’s say you’re writing a paper on symbolism and social overtones in The Crucible (a play by Arthur Miller about the Salem Witch Trials). In your conclusion, you should explain why your paper is significant.
Who cares? Who cares about Miller’s use of symbolism?
Your conclusion should make a link between the contents of your paper and a larger issue. A larger issue could be something like
- How the social overtones in the book have influenced how people view the Salem Witch Trials in hindsight
- How Miller’s style has influenced other playwrights or authors
- How Miller’s use of symbolism was seen by his contemporaries
Now is not the time to make a wild, unsupported claim. A small connection will suffice.
[Sentence restating paper’s main points about symbols in Miller’s play.] Miller’s use of symbolism in The Crucible dramatizes the hypothetical Salem described in his play. Such dramatization calls into question how much the theoretical Salem in Miller’s play differed from the historical Salem, which is a key question that makes the play so controversial and enduring.
The ‘larger issue’ here is how Miller’s use of symbolism helps underscore the difference between the Salem described in the play and the historical Salem. The difference between the two is a key question.
Another technique you might use for your conclusion is to describe where additional study needs to be done–where your essay stops and another essay could start.
At the end of your conclusion, you should have a punchy sentence that leaves your reader with an interesting thought. One way of doing this is to reconnect your ending sentence with your title:
Say you’re writing a paper on the similarities of Zeus and his son Hercules:
Title: Like Father, Like Son: Exploring Paternal Relationships in Greek Mythology
Concluding sentences: Hercules’ demeanor, athleticism, and attitude are similar to that of his father, Zeus. Both gods exemplify Greek ideals of masculinity. Greek mythological texts, then, reinforce the idea that fathers should pass Greek cultural values onto their sons. The story of Hercules reinforces the colloquial phrase, “like father, like son.”
Here the ‘larger issue’ is how Greek cultural values are shaped by Greek mythology. The ending is punchy. It contains a nice, memorable phrase and circles back to the interesting title.