Relatively inexperienced writers tend to walk around with a mental list of writing rules, which they have painstakingly gleaned from high school and college English and writing teachers. A snippet of such a list might read:
1. Don’t use personal pronouns such as “I” or “you” when writing a paper.
2. A good thesis statement lists the three items the author will discuss, and each item in the thesis corresponds to a paragraph in the body of the paper.
3. A good paper should be organized as follows: tell ‘em what you’re going to tell ‘em, tell ‘em, and then tell ‘em what you told ‘em.
4. A conclusion should summarize and restate.
There is no problem with a list like this in theory. Guidelines help make order out of chaos and help us learn which writing structures are preferable to others. The problem with this list is its inflexibility. The list of writing rules becomes The Writing Commandments, with all the attendant fear and trembling.
The academic writer is faced with some puzzling questions as assignments become more complex. What happens, for example, if your thesis statement doesn’t lend itself to the three-item list format? And what if you can’t adequately explain each point in only one paragraph? Doesn’t this conflict with Commandment number 2?
Given this conflict, what are the options? The writer could jettison the more complex argument in favor of one that fits more comfortably into the five-paragraph model. Or, the writer could defy the Writing Commandment, which would be a cardinal sin, of course. Hmmm…
As the above example shows, blind adherence to rules doesn’t get you very far as a writer. After all, teachers preach many of these Writing Commandments because they want to prepare students for the rigid requirements of standardized test essays. Are teachers to be blamed for this, when high test scores benefit the student, the teacher, and the school? Surely not, but putting Writing Commandments in perspective helps us to see that these commandments are merely one technique among many available to a writer.
Most writers have relatively little trouble throwing the five-paragraph model out the window.Their five-paragraph dreams usually only last until their first ten-page paper assignment is given. The “summarize and restate” recipe for conclusions, however, is much more persistent. Let’s take a look at it, shall we? Oh, yeah. And bring your hammer, because this is one Writing Commandment that should definitely bite the dust.
When writers employ the “summarize and restate” conclusion technique, they’re trying to end up exactly where they began. You are presenting your reader with a condensed version of the material he or she just read (summarizing).And to top it off, you are paraphrasing your thesis statement as well (restating).
But do we want to end up exactly where we began? At the beginning of your paper, you proposed a statement for your reader to consider (the thesis). Over the course of your paper, you systematically progressed through a defense of that thesis. In other words, you have been progressing through this idea with your reader: you have been moving forward. Summarizing and restating takes you backward, essentially retracing your steps.
Why would your reader want to do that? Wouldn’t he or she want to continue moving forward? Yes, your reader would. Of course, stopping at the end of the paper’s main section would certainly be abrupt. You don’t go out to dinner with someone and then shut the door in his or her face without saying good night, right? Same idea.
So, what are the options? Why not try the following:
- Take a step back and consider your subject from a broader perspective than the one you employed in the paper. Put your idea in context, examine its implications, or suggest areas for future study.
- State your point in a new, more complex way (rather than restating it). The reader will be able to appreciate your more nuanced approach because the reader has read the paper. It provides a pleasant payoff for the reader.
- End with your most melodious, emotionally powerful statement or image. Leave the reader delighted.
A written document’s conclusion, whether academic or professional, is like a song’s last note. It has the potential to affect the reader (or listener) more than any other part of the paper. It’s well worth your while to invest some time in making that last note a sweet one.