Saturday, August 25, 2007

Conclusion, Conclusion, Conclusion

The conclusion of an essay is one of the easiest bits to screw up. By the time a writer reaches her conclusion, she can taste freedom; she has only one measly paragraph to get out of the way before she can fling the paper aside and frolic off into the sunset, happy and carefree.* She really, really wants the conclusion to take only about four or five minutes to write.

Consequently, even if she claims she is not a devotee of the Order of the Sandwich, she will often write quite a sandwichy conclusion that consists mostly of a nearly word-for-word repetition of the introduction. If she is truly in a hurry, this conclusion will begin and end with her thesis statement. It will contain nothing new or particularly interesting.

This writer is not being very wise at all. Do not be like her. She is shooting herself in the foot, and then some.

The general belief that the conclusion should be a restatement of the introduction is a false one. A conclusion that restates an introduction is not simply boring; it also implies that the writer has spent the entire essay treading water. A paraphrased conclusion turns an essay into the equivalent of a paragraph that begins with a restatement of a thesis point and ends with a sentence that starts, "Therefore...", then restates the thesis point again. Yes, the thesis constitutes your argument--in effect, the conclusion to which you are going to come in the course of the essay--but by the time you reach the end of your paper, you should have turned this one basic idea into a complex interweaving of smaller related ideas and demonstrated how, exactly, you have arrived at it. If the conclusion repeats the introduction without paying any attention to the body paragraphs, those body paragraphs may as well not be there. The body of an essay adds enough complexity to its thesis that a failure to acknowledge it constitutes a failure to acknowledge the argument that you have just constructed.

Your essay should be more than the sum of its parts. The thesis is the sum of these parts; the conclusion acknowledges the greater import of the argument as a whole. It gathers all the bits of the argument together and examines their overall significance. Sometimes, it hints at larger related issues. It sums up the essay's ideas, but it does not repeat the thesis statement word for word. It should also leave the reader with a memorable image or idea; after all, the conclusion is the last part of the essay that he will see.**

Giving advice about conclusions is almost as difficult as writing them, mostly because there is no conclusion formula. Every conclusion must be tempered to the needs of the essay to which it belongs. I can provide an example and some general advice, but most of the latter is going to consist of warnings about what you shouldn't do rather than explanations about what you should. Taking my example for a model will do you no good; a different strategy is necessary for every conclusion.

My example is taken from a seventeen-page graduate term essay I wrote many years ago. It is not perfect, but it demonstrates the points I want it to demonstrate. Try not to be put off by the relatively dense language; I am writing in a style considered acceptable for a graduate student in English.*** I'm going to provide both the introduction and the conclusion so that you can see how the two paragraphs interact. I am not going to publish the fifteen pages in between. You really don't want to read this essay.

You should also note that these paragraphs are much longer than your introductions and conclusions should be (if you are writing short undergraduate essays, that is). As your papers grow in length, your introductions and conclusions inevitably will too.

The subject is Edmund Spenser's The Faerie Queene, an extremely long English poem written during the reign of Queen Elizabeth I.


At the beginning of Book IV of Edmund Spenser’s The Faerie Queene, the lady knight Britomart, having just won a joust at a tournament, unlaces her helmet and lets her telltale golden hair fall free. The spectators are amazed and confused: some believe that Britomart’s appearance is "faygned" by enchantment (IV i 14.5), some that she is a war-goddess, and some that her face is not a face but "a maske of strange disguise" (14.8). The simple truth–that Britomart is a woman dressed as a man–occurs immediately to none. [Starts with a relevant example from the text.] These people see reality in Britomart’s mask and falsity in her true identity; they are so thrown by the presence of the woman’s face beneath the visor that they would rather accept the visor and not the face itself as an indicator of who and what the knight really is. [Comments on the example.] In a way, this scene, with its odd theme of reversed masking, is emblematic of Spenser’s strategy in Faerie Queene IV. [Begins to connect the example to the thesis.] The book is one in which the so-called chivalric ideal, borrowed by the Elizabethans from popular romance and a sort of neo-medieval tradition of honour and service as knightly necessities, both comes to the fore and is shoved to the rear. [Elaborates on the theme emblematised by the example.] The poet paints picture after picture of what seems, at first, an almost Edenic "antique age" (IV viii 30.1) in which honour is all, then reveals the supposed paradise to be not just a mask hiding the "true face" of Elizabeth’s court but the "true face" of chivalry hidden behind the mask of that court. [Illustrates the theme and connects it to the initial example.] In Spenser’s elaborately constructed, obviously artificial fairyland is the same truth that Britomart bears in her undisguised being, and in his audience may be the same unwillingness to see that truth as anything but a splendid play. [Heading towards the thesis statement.] The allegory in Faerie Queene IV is thus also, and paradoxically, an explosion of the "chivalry" of the Elizabethan court-world and a stripping-off, through the medium of the mask of poetry, of that world’s allegorical mask. [Thesis statement: related, imagery-wise, to initial example.]


Such a concession makes his tournaments strange beasts indeed. [Transition from final body paragraph, which deals with Spenser's tacit concession of romance's**** almost complete detachment from reality.] Though set about with the trappings of romance, they are too Chaucerian to be conventional; though apparently not concerned with Elizabethan-style pageantry, they are full of masks; though imbued with romance chivalry on the surface, they hide harsher emotions beneath. [Sums up Spenser's tournaments in all their glorious contradictoriness. Relates directly to last body paragraph, but also to several preceding body paragraphs.] In a sense, Spenser is reaching back to an ideal world that he knows is not really there and, when he has removed layer after layer of costume, revealing not Britomart’s face but Ate’s.***** [Not an observation that has been made before...but one arising from the material in the body paragraphs.] His tournaments show up Elizabeth’s chivalry as a return to "chivalric old days" that have never been. The queen is reaching for her symbolism not into the past but into the safer world of literature: a world in which Sir Thopas and the Squire’s numerous characters can wander around endlessly, unable to finish their own meaningless stories. [Ditto on the last red observation.] Spenser’s tournaments are allegories of Elizabeth’s in the same sense that Britomart’s face is an allegory of her visor. [Getting to the point. Relates back to the example in the introduction.] If that visor is removed–if one gets in behind Elizabeth’s pageants rather than Spenser’s and examines the allegory of her own preeminence that the queen is constructing around herself–one finds merely a fiction in which chivalric honour and courtly love themselves are implicated because they are based on the ideal of an impossible past. [Elaboration on last comment.] When Spenser rewrites romance tournaments as events of too many–or too few–masks, he is mirroring Elizabeth’s rewriting of chivalry. [This is the point. Again, it arises from material in the introduction and body paragraphs, but it also sums up fifteen pages of argument.] For political reasons, she has embraced the ideal of discordia concors and attempted to apply it to the social codes of her England. Spenser’s Faerie Queene IV removes the concord from the equation and lets Discord lurk, unacknowledged, behind the chivalric helm as a "maske of strange disguise." [This is really the point. It is basically the thesis statement over again, but with an essential added element: the idea of Discord being the face behind the visor. This identification of Discord as the "maske" is essential to the essay, but while it is only implied in the introduction, it is blatantly stated (after fifteen pages of proof) in the conclusion].

Some strategies I use here:

1) Presentation of a central image to which I can return in the conclusion. The example of Britomart pulling off her helm at the tournament provides the idea of the "maske of strange disguise" that I use as a metaphor for Spenser's allegory of Elizabeth's court.****** A central image can be eminently useful. It gives you an idea to which you can always return, thus giving your essay some structure. "Circling back to an idea in an intelligent manner" is not the same thing as "repeating an idea mindlessly, just because it's there."

2) Direct connection between the final point and the conclusion. Remember how I earlier railed against the whole "In conclusion" deal? I have not changed my mind on this one. "In conclusion" is no more a real transition than is "Secondly." If you're going to use a transition, make sure it's a relevant, useful one.

However, transitional words are not always necessary in conclusions. Not every essay merits a smooth slide from the last body paragraph to the conclusion. Sometimes, a pause between the final point and the conclusion can be effective as well. The conclusion of one of my dissertation chapters begins:

Kyng Alisaunder involves enough contradiction that it can be a baffling poem and may occasionally seem a poorly constructed one.

This sentence returns directly to an idea discussed in the chapter's introduction; it does not relate directly to the preceding paragraph. However, the ideas that follow this (controversial) statement relate back to the chapter as a whole and encompass the idea just covered. The pause (inherent in the apparent lack of transition) between the important final idea and the conclusion draws the reader's attention to the paragraph as a conclusion.

Sometimes, a pause is effective; sometimes, a smooth transition is. It's up to you to decide which to use, and when.

3) Introduction of seemingly new material that nonetheless arises direction from the essay's body. My comment about Discord/Ate's face being the "maske" is an apparently fresh comment that nonetheless both echoes and elaborates on the thesis statement. I am, in fact, restating the thesis here, but I am doing so in such a way that it now seems bigger than it did in the introduction. In fact, what has happened is that the body paragraphs have lent the thesis a richness and complexity that are not yet apparent in the introduction. A plain restatement would have negated or dismissed this complexity. Make sure that you acknowledge and take into account your own argument.

4) Memorable last sentence. In this case, my conclusion derives from my initial example, and it is "memorable" because it offers the reader an image that can be visualised. You should always aim for a memorable last sentence, but you can do so in a variety of ways: through imagery, a clever and relevant turn of phrase, a thought-provoking comment about the conclusions you have drawn, a thought-provoking hint about the implications of the conclusions you have drawn, and so on. Again, it's up to you. Note, however, that a simple repetition of your thesis statement is not going to stick in the reader's mind; her eyes are fairly likely to skim impatiently over it.

You will have noticed that my introduction and conclusion above are by no means identical or even all that similar to each other. I can't stress enough that a conclusion that paraphrases an introduction tells the reader that the essay's argument has gone nowhere. The introduction cannot encompass all of an argument's complexities; if it could, it would be the length of an essay. Acknowledge these complexities in your conclusion. Acknowledge that--with luck--the reader has learned something from your essay. Don't parrot your own words so that you can toss the essay into your backpack and go watch a geriatric Bruce Willis blow up terrorists. Your conclusion should not introduce brand new material, but it does need to contain something new, if only a connection that you haven't yet drawn explicitly in the course of your essay.

In the end, your conclusions are your own responsibility. No model is going to help you here. Actually, models will only hinder you. Ignore them. Do not follow the Yellow Brick Road. The conclusion is the bit of the essay that offers the most scope for creativity, so bloody well be creative.*******

Next time, I'll take another short break from the whole essay-structure thing and talk a bit about active and passive voice.

*Actually untrue. She hasn't done her proofreading yet. If she doesn't do her proofreading, I shall kick her into the sunset.
**Unless he is anal and goes back to read the introduction again.
***Also, it could be worse. My professors are always complaining that my writing is not dry and scholarly enough. If you think these paragraphs are boring, you haven't read 99.9% of the stuff out there.
****"Romance" is not, here, the hideous mushy garbage that Hollywood is always forcing upon us in the diabolical forms of Sandra Bullock and Meg Ryan. Medieval and Renaissance romance generally involved knights on quests, quite a bit of fighting (with flying body parts and rivers of blood), the occasional magical damsel, and hairy beast-men roaming the landscape, hitting people with clubs.
*****Ate is the classical goddess of discord. That whole thing with the Trojan war and the thousand ships and the twenty years of death and sex and despair and betrayal and slaughter and extreme difficulty getting back to Ithaca was basically all her fault.
******Yes, it is an example that becomes a metaphor for an allegory. Aaaaaaaaagh.
*******Do no be so creative that your conclusion becomes scattered and unfocussed and suddenly begins discussing camels for no particular reason. Be creative in a controlled way.


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Tim Edmonds said...

Nice post! It's of a great help, thanks! I also follow the rules described here while writing a conclusion for an essay. It really helps ;)

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