“The End” – That two word sentence has a nostalgic ring to it. It’s the conclusion of virtually every children’s story. It comforts us to hear, after the “happily ever after”, a little reassurance from our storyteller that all has been told.
But such tidy wrap-ups aren’t realistic. Once we get past childhood, we come to see that the world is more complex than the tidy little stories we enjoyed. We see that happiness is complex, and that nothing lasts forever. We see that there are no princes to save us (or princesses to rescue) – just fellow human beings, each struggling for his or her own happiness.
As we become aware of the complexity of our lives, we should come to reflect that complexity in our writing. Tempted as I’ve been, in the throes of a particularly gnarly essay, to wrap up my final piece of evidence with a “This proves my thesis. The end.”, I’ve resisted. Because, just as life itself can’t be compartmentalized and wrapped into tidy pieces, an essay whose argument thoroughly engages its author cannot be confined to a simple conclusion.
So you should write compelling conclusions. The final paragraph of an essay shouldn’t be a recap of the preceding paragraphs. It shouldn’t be a reminder of your introduction.
Yes, your essay should build and therefore (necessarily) have a conclusion that references the arguments that came before. But this conclusion shouldn’t be a “the end.” Your conclusion shouldn’t treat your reader like a simple child, someone who needs to be told when an ending has been reached. Your thesis statement should already have encapsulated your argument, and your essay should be engaging with that argument from every salient perspective.
Your final “so what” shouldn’t reiterate the argument you’ve already given. Rather, your conclusion should be more open-ended, more of a question. The conclusion should show that you recognize implications beyond the arguments you’ve already made. It should broaden the scope of your argument beyond the topic of the body of the paper. It should be as engaged and vibrant as you are.
Which is not to say that conclusions ought to be far-flung non sequitors. Nor that your conclusion should introduce a completely new argument, or undermine your entire paper. There’s an art to suggesting a larger frame of reference without shifting it completely. And there’s no template to the perfect conclusion. (Sorry. Like I said at the start of this post, life’s no fairy tale.) What it takes is practice. Writing and re-writing. Editing and re-drafting. Consulting friends and peers (and professional editors, of course).
I wrote my undergraduate thesis on a modern retelling of a fairy tale. What drew me to the story, even as a kid, was the way that it challenged and added complexity to the fairytale plot-line. I much preferred reading Ella Enchanted to any version of the Cinderella story. The complexity of the expanded, extended version engaged more with my imagination, so as a reader I remembered it more fondly.
So it is with conclusions.
The more thoughtful, expansive version—the version that grapples more with complexity and uncertainty, and with life as it truly is beyond the little structured argument of a paper—is the version that will stick with readers. It’s the conclusion that will leave your reader with the best possible final impression. And (hopefully) the best final grade.