Conclusions: It’s Easy to Say Goodbye

Students writing at table

If the opener establishes a contract and the body fulfills it, the real work of the closing is to drive it home.  The reader not only should know that the promises of the essay have been met, but the reader should feel it as well.  Consequently, a good closer hits the head and the heart. 

The Head

Most know that a conclusion should restate the main point of the essay, but not in some mechanical, repetitive way that a reader would find insulting (“does the writer think I’m that dumb?”). 

But how to do it?  By far the best way is to put some time between drafting the essay and writing its ending.  Ideally, a day or two.  But if you don’t have that kind of time, take a little break.  Study for a test.  Shoot somebody on Call of Duty.  By the time you come back to the essay, you might have a slightly different way of looking at the paper’s purpose, and then you’ll be able to put different words on it. 

The Heart

If you’ve done your job well, your readers have learned new things and see the world a bit differently than before.   But they also want something else—the feeling of closure, something satisfying to hang on to now that the hard work is over.  Here are three ways that might contribute to their sense of satisfaction. 

Closing the Loop:  Consider how you began the essay.  If you began with a story, you might close by referring to it again.  If you scared them with a startling fact, return to that fact and how it looks now in the light of the rest of your essay.  Here, Joseph Campbell brings us full circle to a question that began his essay.  The answer would make more sense if  you read the book, but the strategy he’s using is quite obvious. 

And so, to return to our opening question:  What is—or what is to be—the new mythology?

It is—and will forever be, as long as our human race exists—the old, everlasting, perennial mythology, in its “subjective sense,” poetically renewed in terms neither of a remembered past nor of a projected future, but of now:  addressed, that is to say, not to the flattery of “peoples,” but to the waking of individuals in the knowledge of themselves, not simply as egos fighting for place on the surface of this beautiful planet, but equally as centers of Mind at Large—each in his own way at one with all, and with no horizons. 

                  Joseph Campbell, Myths to Live By


Use another’s words:  Sometimes another writer will help give you the distance and perspective you need to end well.  Here’s the end of an article in The Wall Street Journal on using bird and bat guano as commercial fertilizer: 

Today’s guano market is “potentially in the millions,” proclaims Mr. Thompson, who is certain he will get his share.  So is Mr. Risso, who says he just might become another W.R. Grace.    “Everybody has a place where he hits the barrier of his limitations,” he adds modestly.

Mr. Risso’s enthusiasm knows no bounds.  He has already composed what may be the best—and worst—guano poem.  It begins:  

On the islands of Peru

Seabird droppings fall for you

And when brought to the U.S.A.

They cause a big hallaballoo.


Call to action:  Move from reading to doing by encouraging new actions, behaviors, or ways of thinking.  Here, Kim Chernin’s essay on how diets reflect women’s attitudes toward power concludes by challenging readers to solve fundamental problems in our culture:

This social malaise, this tyranny of slenderness, is expressed in unhealthy dieting, in ever-more-widespread eating disorders, in the dictates of fashion.  For millions of women, it is a cause of unremitting pain and shame.  And it cannot be obliterated unless we address ourselves to resolving some of the most basic conflicts in our culture. 


A Closing Thought on Closings

You don’t have to wait till the end of your writing time to do the closing.  If a good idea for the grand finale comes to you in the middle of the assignment, drop everything and write it, or at least take a few notes.  Also, keep an eye on the closing the whole time you’re working on the paper.  If you keep the end in view, you’re likely to set aside some quote, some story, or a detail that will make for a smashing conclusion.