So much is at stake in writing a conclusion. This is, after all, your last chance to persuade your readers to your point of view, to impress yourself upon them as a writer and thinker. And the impression you create in your conclusion will shape the impression that stays with your readers after they've finished the essay.
The end of an essay should therefore convey a sense of completeness and closure as well as a sense of the lingering possibilities of the topic, its larger meaning, its implications: the final paragraph should close the discussion without closing it off.
To establish a sense of closure, you might do one or more of the following:
- Conclude by linking the last paragraph to the first, perhaps by reiterating a word or phrase you used at the beginning.
- Conclude with a sentence composed mainly of one-syllable words. Simple language can help create an effect of understated drama.
- Conclude with a sentence that's compound or parallel in structure; such sentences can establish a sense of balance or order that may feel just right at the end of a complex discussion.
To close the discussion without closing it off, you might do one or more of the following:
- Conclude with a quotation from or reference to a primary or secondary source, one that amplifies your main point or puts it in a different perspective. A quotation from, say, the novel or poem you're writing about can add texture and specificity to your discussion; a critic or scholar can help confirm or complicate your final point. For example, you might conclude an essay on the idea of home in James Joyce's short story collection, Dubliners, with information about Joyce's own complex feelings towards Dublin, his home. Or you might end with a biographer's statement about Joyce's attitude toward Dublin, which could illuminate his characters' responses to the city. Just be cautious, especially about using secondary material: make sure that you get the last word.
- Conclude by setting your discussion into a different, perhaps larger, context. For example, you might end an essay on nineteenth-century muckraking journalism by linking it to a current news magazine program like 60 Minutes.
- Conclude by redefining one of the key terms of your argument. For example, an essay on Marx's treatment of the conflict between wage labor and capital might begin with Marx's claim that the "capitalist economy is . . . a gigantic enterprise ofdehumanization"; the essay might end by suggesting that Marxist analysis is itself dehumanizing because it construes everything in economic -- rather than moral or ethical-- terms.
- Conclude by considering the implications of your argument (or analysis or discussion). What does your argument imply, or involve, or suggest? For example, an essay on the novel Ambiguous Adventure, by the Senegalese writer Cheikh Hamidou Kane, might open with the idea that the protagonist's development suggests Kane's belief in the need to integrate Western materialism and Sufi spirituality in modern Senegal. The conclusion might make the new but related point that the novel on the whole suggests that such an integration is (or isn't) possible.
Finally, some advice on how not to end an essay:
- Don't simply summarize your essay. A brief summary of your argument may be useful, especially if your essay is long--more than ten pages or so. But shorter essays tend not to require a restatement of your main ideas.
- Avoid phrases like "in conclusion," "to conclude," "in summary," and "to sum up." These phrases can be useful--even welcome--in oral presentations. But readers can see, by the tell-tale compression of the pages, when an essay is about to end. You'll irritate your audience if you belabor the obvious.
- Resist the urge to apologize. If you've immersed yourself in your subject, you now know a good deal more about it than you can possibly include in a five- or ten- or 20-page essay. As a result, by the time you've finished writing, you may be having some doubts about what you've produced. (And if you haven't immersed yourself in your subject, you may be feeling even more doubtful about your essay as you approach the conclusion.) Repress those doubts. Don't undercut your authority by saying things like, "this is just one approach to the subject; there may be other, better approaches. . ."
Copyright 1998, Pat Bellanca, for the Writing Center at Harvard University
Do you remember the last words spoken by your ex-boyfriend or ex-girlfriend, the final advice given in your senior year by your favorite teacher, the words spoken by your mother or father as you left for college? These important moments ended a passage in your life; thus, they took on heightened significance and resonated long after they were spoken. In the same way, a good conclusion continues speaking to and resonating with a reader long after he or she has finished reading it.
A good conclusion should
- Remind the reader of the thesis statement and answer the question, “So What?”
- Give the essay a sense of completion and closure
- Leave the reader with a final, lasting impression
- Make the reader glad that he or she read your paper
Several types of effective and memorable conclusions
The Simple Summary
If you choose this common type of conclusion, be sure to synthesize, rather than merely summarizing. Avoid a dull restatement of your major points. Don't monotonously restate your major ideas; instead, show your readers how the points you raised fit together and why your ideas matter. Also, try to avoid the phrase, “and in conclusion.” This can insult the reader's intelligence: After all, if you've organized your paper well, it will be obvious that you have begun your concluding remarks.
The Frame or Circle Technique
Here, a writer circles back to the beginning, returning to the metaphor, image, anecdote, quotation, or example he or she used in the introductory paragraph. Echoing the introduction gives essays a nice sense of unity and completion.
The Panning to the Horizon Technique
This technique moves the reader from the specifics of a paper or essay to a larger, perhaps even universal, point. It redirects the readers, giving them something meaty to chew over. You can demonstrate the importance and broad significance of your topic by using an appropriate analogy, tying the topic to a larger philosophic or political issue, posing a challenging question, or encouraging the reader to look to the future.
The Proposal or Call to Action
Especially useful in a persuasive or argumentative essay, in this type of conclusion the writer makes a proposal and/or asks the readers to do something, calling them to action. It is frequently seen in sermons and political speeches.
The Concluding Story Technique
Here, the writer sums up the essay by sketching a scene or by telling a brief anecdote that illustrates the topic's significance. Often, this approach makes an emotional connection with the reader.
The Delayed Thesis Conclusion
In some essays, the writer takes an exploratory approach, perhaps dealing with a variety of proposals and solutions. The conclusion states the thesis almost as if it is a discovery, allowing the reader to make the discovery along with you. However, this can be a difficult technique to carry off. The thesis, even though it may go unstated until the very end, should nevertheless serve as the inevitable controlling force for the entire essay.
Teresa Sweeney & Fran Hooker, Webster University Writing Center, 2005