It’s a Wrap! Writing Effective Conclusions

Kay Chubbuck

Princeton Writing Program

Conclusions are critical for any essay’s success. They provide your last opportunity for persuasion, for argument, for kicking your thesis home. They need to provide closure – to convey a sense of completeness – yet they should also leave readers thinking about your points. Conclusions can do this by illustrating the lingering possibilities of the topic, its larger (or modern, or real-life) implications, your essay’s true meaning or “so what?” Like the introduction, the conclusion is propelled by your motive in writing the essay – but rather than giving readers reason to read, the conclusion shapes their memory of your words once the essay is done. Often, the conclusion divides the distinguished from the undistinguished essay: the one readers will remember from the one readers will forget. As such, it should not simply restate your thesis or voice a vague, general point. It needs to make a lasting impression.

Different things an effective conclusion can do:

Create a “bookend” with the introduction by revisiting an image or anecdote raised in the first paragraph. How do we then “read” this image, or understand this anecdote, in light of the evidence your essay has presented? This is also called “putting a human face on the problem,” and is a common strategy in journalism. For example, imagine you begin an essay on Kent State by looking at John Filo’s photograph (“Pieta”) of the dead student in the parking lot. After stating your thesis, you investigate the events of Kent State from a particular angle. In your conclusion, you return to the photo and look it once more. What new angle has your evidence provided? Bring your essay full circle – with a twist.

Redefine your argument, particularly if your introduction asked a question or raised a “key term” that your essay examined. This is much like the previous example, but in this case the “bookend” is intellectual rather than personal or visual. For example, imagine your essay begins by questioning the stereotype of the Vietnamese civilian as an agent of the Vietcong. You have just spent several pages enriching or complicating that perception. In your conclusion, you could revisit the original question and place a new spin on it. Does this mean American perceptions are wrong? Is there some kind of culpability at work? Why does this matter? What is the greater issue here? This is much like the next type of conclusion: the “greater implication” ending.

Conclude by considering the implications of your argument. How does your analysis matter in the context of history, politics, science, literature, or other discipline in which the essay is written? Be sure, when writing this type of paragraph, to keep it specific. Suppose, for example, you have written an essay about the genocide that took place in Cambodia because of Pol Pot. Surely, this topic has real-world implications. What can we learn from these events? Why do they matter? What is the “so what?” factor to this paper? Suppose, too, that your essay considered the “tolerance” other countries gave to Pol Pot, the blind eye the world community turned on his atrocities. What can we learn from this? What implications does this have for diplomacy in the future? Why did we ignore what transpired? Similarly, imagine you have written an essay about the differing perceptions of the jungle in Vietnamese and American literature about the war. At first glance, this topic may not seem to have the “greater implications” of a paper on Pol Pot. But if you think about it, the American fear of the landscape can be blamed to some degree for our use of defoliants, while the Vietnamese bond with the landscape led to the creation of tunnel warfare: digging into the very earth for protection. Most topics about the Vietnam War will have some kind of real-life implications, and one technique you can use in your conclusion is to exploit them.

Conclude with a quotation from or reference to a source that amplifies your thesis and perhaps puts it in a new perspective. Be careful with this one: it’s tricky. You don’t want to end solely with someone else’s words – and you don’t want to introduce new, unrelated material — but this strategy can provide a means of complicating your essay, of putting a new spin on your topic. For example, an essay that has examined patriotism among Vietnamese soldiers could end with a quotation from Ho Chi Minh (which you then analyze) that illuminates your own reading of patriotism among North Vietnamese troops. Or you might end with facts about troops’ patriotism from a nonfiction source without quoting directly. This is different from putting your entire essay into context, from placing a creative work into its historical frame. Instead, it’s a broadening device, a means of widening your focus at the very end. This is a method of looking at the “big picture” without making general or sweeping claims.

End with the questions raised by your paper. This, too, is tricky. It’s the “inconclusive conclusion”: the conclusion that illuminates the questions raised by your work without necessarily answering them, often because there are no easy answers. This can be a powerful way to leave your readers thinking, but it can also comes across as apologetic or annoying. It works best in papers that analyze some moral issue (what is truth? what is justice? what is honorable in war?) because these type of questions often do not have answers. It works least well for essays that point toward an obvious conclusion because essays that are strongly persuasive don’t leave these doors open. For this reason, a paper that explores why the world community did nothing about Pol Pot – why the atrocities in fact took place – might be able to end with some provocative questions. But a paper that analyzes Jimi Hendrix’s status as an anti-war icon would need a different type of conclusion, perhaps an anecdote or a quotation.

Effective conclusions also end with a “kicker”: a simple sentence, often composed of one-syllable words or structured in a parallel fashion, that “kicks” your point home. Sometimes, this kicker is a quotation from another writer, but more often the “kicker” is composed of your own words, your own commentary on the quotation (if you use one) or the anecdote or the implications discussed in this last paragraph. The reason the “kicker” is important is because the final line of your essay, like the first one, generates interest for your topic. Done well, it will leave your reader thinking and create a good impression. Short sentences have punch; long sentences belabor the point, dragging and trailing as they attempt to remake the essay in the last few words, gasping their way to the finale as this sentence is doing because the writer obviously isn’t sure what to do and isn’t happy about the conclusion and so tries to say everything again all at once. Don’t do this.

Other don’ts for the conclusion:

  • Don’t restate the thesis in so many words.
  • Don’t repeat the language of the assignment, particularly if it was not part of your essay. (This was a big problem with Essay #2. Suddenly, there were all these sentences about “true” war stories in essays that otherwise did not mention this issue. Don’t do this. It’s jejune.)
  • Don’t apologize for your paper or your claims.
  • Don’t engage in platitudes or generalizations.
  • Don’t introduce completely new material. The conclusion shouldn’t look like a body paragraph.
  • Don’t refute the claims you have made. The counter-argument does not belong in this paragraph.
  • Don’t belabor the same point in six sentences. Have something worthwhile to say.

Ultimately, you should devote as much time to writing your conclusion as you do to crafting your introduction. It is one of the set pieces of your argument, and the impression your conclusion makes will last long after your readers forget the middle of your essay. In real-world terms, you should realize, too, that lazy readers often skip to the conclusion when they get bored or frustrated. They look for the “so what?” This could happen to you. For this reason, your conclusion needs to have snap, or purpose. Use it to end your essay with a bang.