“You know a good conclusion when you see it.” Such is the sentiment of many professors, but the ambiguity of this statement makes the conclusion an aspect of academic writing that students tend to agonize over. Unlike the often formulaic introduction, the structure of the conclusion can vary greatly depending on the needs of the essay, making the students’ task quite challenging. What can students, anxious to wrap up their papers and move on with their lives, do?
It doesn’t help that students may be inclined to rely on a formula based on the five-paragraph essay, a trope of high school writing. Drawn on the chalkboard as an upside-down triangle (the introduction), three boxes (the body paragraphs) and a right-side-up triangle (the conclusion), the five-paragraph essay is constraining, but it sets students in the right direction and gives them preconfigured, polygonal molds from which they might eventually break free, in a cataclysmic event of great power and awesomeness.
To understand the conclusion of the five-paragraph essay, it’s necessary to know what the introduction’s upside-down triangle symbolizes. The introduction’s “triangle” starts off with a broad hook (the long edge of the triangle), and the triangle narrows as it explores background on the subject. It culminates in the sharp, precise thesis (the triangle’s point). The five-paragraph essay’s conclusion is a reflection of this upside-down triangle: starting off with a slight rephrasing of the thesis (the triangle’s point), broadening as it summarizes the larger points of the argument, and ending with a conclusion so broad that it considers implications to the “wider world.” Incidentally, this sentence often starts with that unfortunate turn of phrase—“in conclusion.”
While the five-paragraph essay formula is effective in getting students to start thinking about conclusions, it leaves much room for development. The idea of introducing an argument’s implications is the vital component of any conclusion, regardless of the discipline. Thus, moves to address implications for the paper are important even if they are initially, and sometimes clumsily, vague in their redefinition of, say, the synergy of the rhythmic layout of the Bayeux Tapestry.
Though the conclusion of a humanities paper or the discussion of a lab report may seem to need entirely different approaches, both have some uniting characteristics. A strong conclusion takes the paper’s argument in a new direction without steering it off course. It sails through the Strait of Magellan and witnesses fertile land on the other side—okay, we’ve had enough metaphors. This preponderance of cosmic implication is what writers struggle with—how to leave the reader with just the right amount of food for thought (instead of inadvertently opening up a can of worms).
Critically, the conclusion should consider the consequences of argument, the end result and key takeaway from the paper. It should provide the answer to the “so-what” questions: Why did we just read this paper? What are we getting out of this? Why should we care?
The excerpts featured in this section answer these questions and do so through literary and scientific analysis, respectively. In Victoria Gruenberg’s conclusion for “Cast List: Social Performativity within Hamlet and Consequent Dramatic Abilities of the Play,” she goes beyond the critique of Shakespeare’s Hamlet as metatheatrical to argue that Hamlet is a work of social performance, broadening the performativity of Hamlet to include its audience. Victoria’s piece is notable in that it expands the discussion of Hamlet in a method that seamlessly builds upon her analysis into a crowning conclusion with strong implications for future Hamlet analysis. Moreover, she motivates her conclusion through the “subtler hints at the performativity of the moment” – propelling the paper to its eloquent conclusion.
On the other side of the academic spectrum lies the excerpt from Saisai Chen’s scientific paper, “The Placebo Effect and Depression: Who is Susceptible and How Does it Work?” The paper creates a final conversation between the author and her sources in a way that neatly revisits the thesis and motive while leaving room for future research. In particular, Saisai’s paper cautions the limitations of the studies, citing the Khan et al. study’s 99% white population as a cause for skepticism, while offering the cautious result that the placebo effect might have a “synergistic effect” when a patient’s “expectations, past experiences with medication, and neuroanatomical features” are taken into account. In a science paper, a precise and measured conclusion is often a strong one.
Our editorial team hopes the two excerpts will show how strategies in the conclusion from literature and science perspectives are often in common with each other, especially when one considers their deviation and elevation from the conclusion of the polygonal, formulaic five-paragraph essay.