Conclusions – How to Write Compelling Conclusions

Conclusions generally address these issues:

  • How can you restate your ideas concisely and in a new way?
  • What have you left your reader to think about at the end of your paper?
  • How does your paper answer the “so what?” question?

As the last part of the paper, conclusions often get the short shrift. We instructors know (not that we condone it)—many students devote a lot less attention to the writing of the conclusion. Some students might even finish their conclusion thirty minutes before they have to turn in their papers. But even if you’re practicing desperation writing, don’t neglect your conclusion; it’s a very integral part of your paper.

Think about it: Why would you spend so much time writing your introductory material and your body paragraphs and then kill the paper by leaving your reader with a dud for a conclusion? Rather than simply trailing off at the end, it’s important to learn to construct a compelling conclusion—one that both reiterates your ideas and leaves your reader with something to think about.

How do I reiterate my main points?

In the first part of the conclusion, you should spend a brief amount of time summarizing what you’ve covered in your paper. This reiteration should not merely be a restatement of your thesis or a collection of your topic sentences but should be a condensed version of your argument, topic, and/or purpose.

Let’s take a look at an example reiteration from a paper about offshore drilling:

Ideally, a ban on all offshore drilling is the answer to the devastating and culminating environmental concerns that result when oil spills occur. Given the catastrophic history of three major oil spills, the environmental and economic consequences of offshore drilling should now be obvious.

Now, let’s return to the thesis statement in this paper so we can see if it differs from the conclusion:

As a nation, we should reevaluate all forms of offshore drilling, but deep water offshore oil drilling, specifically, should be banned until the technology to stop and clean up oil spills catches up with our drilling technology. Though some may argue that offshore drilling provides economic advantages and would lessen our dependence on foreign oil, the environmental and economic consequences of an oil spill are so drastic that they far outweigh the advantages.

The author has already discussed environmental/economic concerns with oil drilling. In the above example, the author provides an overview of the paper in the second sentence of the conclusion, recapping the main points and reminding the readers that they should now be willing to acknowledge this position as viable.

Though you may not always want to take this aggressive of an approach (i.e., saying something should be obvious to the reader), the key is to summarize your main ideas without “plagiarizing” by repeating yourself word for word. Instead, you may take the approach of saying, “The readers can now see, given the catastrophic history of three major oil spills, the environmental and economic consequences of oil drilling.”

Can you give me a real-life example of a conclusion?

Think of conclusions this way: You are watching a movie, which has just reached the critical plot point (the murderer will be revealed, the couple will finally kiss, the victim will be rescued, etc.), when someone else enters the room. This person has no idea what is happening in the movie. They might lean over to ask, “What’s going on?” You now have to condense the entire plot in a way that makes sense, so the person will not have to ask any other questions, but quickly, so that you don’t miss any more of the movie.

Your conclusion in a paper works in a similar way. When you write your conclusion, imagine that a person has just showed up in time to hear the last paragraph. What does that reader need to know in order to get the gist of your paper? You cannot go over the entire argument again because the rest of your readers have actually been present and listening the whole time. They don’t need to hear the details again. Writing a compelling conclusion usually relies on the balance between two needs: give enough detail to cover your point, but be brief enough to make it obvious that this is the end of the paper.

Remember that reiteration is not restatement. Summarize your paper in one to two sentences (or even three or four, depending on the length of the paper), and then move on to answering the “So what?” question.

How can I answer the “So what?” question?

The bulk of your conclusion should answer the “So what?” question. Have you ever had an instructor write “So what?” at the end of your paper? This is not meant to offend but rather to remind you to show readers the significance of your argument. Readers do not need or want an entire paragraph of summary, so you should craft some new tidbit of interesting information that serves as an extension of your original ideas.

There are a variety of ways that you can answer the “So what?” question. The following are just a few types of such “endnotes”:

The Call to Action

The call to action can be used at the end of a variety of papers, but it works best for persuasive papers. Persuasive papers include social action papers and Rogerian argument essays, which begin with a problem and move toward a solution that serves as the author’s thesis. Any time your purpose in writing is to change your readers’ minds or you want to get your readers to do something, the call to action is the way to go. The call to action asks your readers, after having progressed through a compelling and coherent argument, to do something or believe a certain way.

Following the reiteration of the essay’s argument, here is an example call to action:

We have advanced technology that allows deepwater offshore drilling, but we lack the similarly advanced technology that would manage these spills effectively. As such, until cleanup and prevention technology are available, we gatekeepers of our coastal shores and defenders of marine wildlife should ban offshore drilling, or, at the very least, demand a moratorium on all offshore oil drilling.

This call to action requests that the readers consider a ban on offshore drilling. Remember, you need to identify your audience before you begin writing. Whether the author wants readers to actually enact the ban or just to come to this side of the argument, the conclusion asks readers to do or believe something new based upon the information they just received.

The Contextualization

The contextualization places the author’s local argument, topic, or purpose in a more global context so that readers can see the larger purpose for the piece or where the piece fits into a larger conversation. Writers do research for papers in part so they can enter into specific conversations, and they provide their readers with a contextualization in the conclusion to acknowledge the broader dialogue that contains that smaller conversation.

For instance, if we were to return to the paper on offshore drilling, rather than proposing a ban (a call to action), we might provide the reader with a contextualization:

We have advanced technology that allows deepwater offshore drilling, but we lack the advanced technology that would manage these spills effectively. Thus, one can see the need to place environmental concerns at the forefront of the political arena. Many politicians have already done so, including Senator Doe and Congresswoman Smith.

Rather than asking readers to do or believe something, this conclusion answers the “So what?” question by showing why this specific conversation about offshore drilling matters in the larger conversation about politics and environmentalism.

The Twist

The twist leaves readers with a contrasting idea to consider. For instance, to continue the offshore drilling paper, the author might provide readers with a twist in the last few lines of the conclusion:

While offshore drilling is certainly an important issue today, it is only a small part of the greater problem of environmental abuse. Until we are ready to address global issues, even a moratorium on offshore drilling will only delay the inevitable destruction of the environment.

While this contrasting idea does not negate the writer’s original argument, it does present an alternative contrasting idea to weigh against the original argument. The twist is similar to a cliffhanger, as it is intended to leave readers saying, “Hmm…”

Suggest Possibilities for Future Research

This approach to answering “So what?” is best for projects that might be developed into larger, ongoing projects later or to suggest possibilities for future research someone else who might be interested in that topic could explore. This approach involves pinpointing various directions which your research might take if someone were to extend the ideas included in your paper. Research is a conversation, so it’s important to consider how your piece fits into this conversation and how others might use it in their own conversations.

For example, to suggest possibilities for future research based on the paper on offshore drilling, the conclusion might end with something like this:

I have just explored the economic and environmental repercussions of offshore drilling based on the examples we have of three major oil spills over the past thirty years. Future research might uncover more economic and environmental consequences of offshore drilling, consequences that will become clearer as the effects of the BP oil spill become more pronounced and as more time passes.

Suggesting opportunities for future research involves the reader in the paper, just like the call to action. Readers may be inspired by your brilliant ideas to use your piece as a jumping-off point!

Whether you use a call to action, a twist, a contextualization, or a suggestion of future possibilities for research, it’s important to answer the “So what?” question to keep readers interested in your topic until the very end of the paper. And, perhaps more importantly, leaving your readers with something to consider makes it more likely that they will remember your piece of writing.

Try it!

Revise your own argument by using the following questions to guide you:

  1. What do you want readers to take away from your discussion?
  2. What are the main points you made, why should readers care, and what ideas should they take away?

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