“What should I write at the conclusion of my paper?” a student recently asked me. Endings are hard. The best ones don’t let up; they build on what you’ve already written.
Beginnings are more important than endings; you need to capture the reader’s attention with your title and first few words. But as hard as it is to start well, it may be harder to end well. “In conclusion”? How lame. You might as well say “And they all lived happily ever after.”
If you’re writing more than 500 words, you need an ending. You’ve stated the problem, you’ve argued your point, and you’ve proved your case. Now you need some way to get off the stage gracefully.
Especially for writers trained in the rigid and dreadful 5-paragraph essay, there is no guidance for what to do after the conclusion. So people trail off aimlessly, undermining their own concluding points.
“Because that’s true . . . “
The reason people have trouble with conclusions is that they are thinking of winding down, rather than finishing impressively. When you trail off, the reader does as well.
Here’s how to have a dynamic ending: Assume you have proven your point. Then ask, if that’s true, what follows from that? The end of the reasoning is the beginning of the ending.
There are many flavors of this:
- What should I do? Now that you’ve proven your point, what steps should the reader take in response? Invest in cloud storage? Hire a designer? Change the way they run meetings?
- What will happen next? You’ve shown what is happening now. As a result, what will happen next year? In five years?
- What is the broader significance of this? Dolly back. What does this mean for world politics? For marketers in other companies? For relationships between men and women?
- Are analogous things happening elsewhere? If you’ve made a point about politics, what does it mean for the boardroom? If you’ve drawn a conclusion about France, does it apply in Germany and the U.S. as well?
- When is this true? And in what situations does it not apply?
This is how analysts think. At Forrester, we called it “What it means.” At Giga, it was “So what?” It has one drawback — it requires you to think a little harder just when you’re ready to relax. But to be clear, I’m not asking you to write another whole essay. I’m suggesting that you write a single, somewhat speculative paragraph or short section showing the significance of what you wrote already. And it works. Even if people don’t completely buy your additional reasoning, having read it, they’re more likely to accept your original conclusion, since you’ve now shown you can build on it.
How I build past the ending
Here’s how I concluded my piece about the clarity of Bill and Melinda Gates’ annual letter. This is in the “What should I do?” category:
Can you communicate as Bill and Melinda Gates do?
When you are the sole people in charge of an unimaginable amount of money, you can do as you wish. The rest of us have to worry about our bosses, our shareholders, and our colleagues. Bill and Melinda Gates have a freedom to communicate clearly that the rest of us can only imagine.
But they can inspire us, not just with their acts, but with how they talk about them.
Admit your mistakes. Share where you’re working on things. When people disagree with you, explain why you think you’re right without vilifying the person who asked, and cite evidence to back up your point of view.
You may not have $41 billion in assets, but you can learn from somebody who does.
Here’s how I ended my piece about not apologizing to your editor for the quality of your writing (this answers “When is this true and when is it not true?”)
What you can apologize for
If you really want to apologize, there are three things you should apologize for:
- Being late. If you don’t deliver things in time, I don’t have time to read them as thoroughly as I need to. So that’s not particularly nice.
- Not finishing. It’s hard to edit things that are missing a big chunk at the end. It’s better to deliver a crappy or incomplete ending than none at all. Give it a shot. That’s much better than an incomplete draft.
- Not learning. In your last three pieces, I showed you what passive voice is, what parallel structure is, how to write a lede, or whatever. I took extra time to make you a better writer, not just to improve your document. And yet, you didn’t even try to get better. For that, sure, you owe me an apology.
But don’t apologize for the flaws in your writing. I’m not your mom. I’m your editor, and I’m here to help.
And here’s how I ended my analysis of the Republican tax plan — with “What it means.”
What this all means
I’m no economist. But I’m fascinated by this debate. I haven’t even gotten to some of the other provisions, like rule to allow companies to repatriate income they’ve parked overseas and eliminating the estate tax.
Don’t be fooled by the left and the right framing this up with their arguments about who wins. Concentrate on the real question: what are we going to go without if we spend less money, or are we just going to blow up the debt? And if you cut taxes, will the people and companies spend their money or just hoard it?
I have to come up with one of these every day. The key is to take a different perspective on what you just wrote. Then people will come away feeling that they actually learned something.
And in conclusion . . .
If you know what you are concluding, and you conclude there, you may feel you have done your job, proven your case, and delivered what the reader needed.
But if you take that one more step and figure out what the consequences of your conclusion are, you’re stretching into new territory.
Such steps are generally tentative. After all, you spent a while proving your case, and now you’re created an unsubstantiated extension of your conclusion. You’re jumping a teensy bit out into the unknown. That feels scary.
But just beyond your conclusion is the beginning of what you should be thinking about next. So go out there, even though it’s scary. Because out there, in the insecure world of consequences beyond your conclusion, is where they next discovery is going to come from. Then the next time you have to write something, you’ll know where to start.