Writers can spend hours working on a piece, carefully fine-tuning each sentence. By the time the conclusion rolls around, it’s common to feel worn out and ready to move on. The conclusion often gets short shrift and ends up as a hodgepodge of filler statements without a clear point of view. This outcome is a particularly dangerous pathway in content marketing, where articles that end with a whimper can lead potential clients to pass on what you have to offer.
Consider this example:
In conclusion, we’ve found that the research from this study shows that almost all organizations with regular skill-building programs are able to retain employees for two years on average, longer than those that don’t. While having these programs are not a requirement for employee retention, they are a good idea.
What we have is a dithering sentence, with a rote introductory phrase, and a solution offered without confidence.
So how can you write a conclusion that isn’t fluff? There are four approaches I’ve found most successful in my own writing (and reading) of conclusions. Each technique can be used on its own, but it’s when they are used together that they are most potent.
Write with conviction
Whenever I need inspiration for how to write with conviction, I turn to (good) argument essays or opinion pieces because they exist in order to persuade. Veteran writers of these forms have mastered the craft of bringing it all home effectively and leaving readers with no doubt as to their recommendations. Efficient delivery and a clear point of view are paramount to a conclusion’s success.
Consider this example from a Foreign Policy piece on foreign aid in the United States:
Policymakers must not forget the importance of reaching outward. There is now hard evidence that foreign assistance, especially in health, is precisely the type of investment that any administration should increase if it is seeking cost-effectiveness. To do otherwise would be myopic and is not in the United States’ long-term national security interests.
Coming in at 53 words, three sentences, and a whole lot of punch, the authors very clearly outline what is at stake if certain recommendations are not followed. While the “so what” must be displayed in the introduction, reiterating and reframing it at the end of a piece can help cement the author’s point.
Writers looking to sharpen their point of view and avoid leaving readers confused (or bored) should ask, “Why should my audience care about this topic? What action do I hope they will take after reading?” Shape your conclusion accordingly.
Create symmetry between the introduction and the conclusion
William Zinsser, the late journalist and professor, describes his approach to writing conclusions: “Something I often do in my writing is to bring the story full circle—to strike at the end an echo of a note that was sounded at the beginning. It gratifies my sense of symmetry.” This approach isn’t a simple recap, rather it’s a connection and reframing of the point to be made.
For example, an article from The Chicago Council on Global Affairs analyzes the issue of declining population rates in Japan and South Korea and how this affects many different facets of each country. The introduction offers a perspective on the areas of focus for this problem.
Increasing female labor participation rates is a start to laying the foundation for increased birth rates later, but ultimately the costs of raising children must be addressed. The costs of education and the lack of daycare options are significant contributors in keeping birth rates depressed.
The conclusion responds:
But incremental immigration and a focus on reducing the costs of private education will be the most important policy directives in the effort to boost sagging birth rates. The latter will prove to be the most difficult, as it will challenge the core parental commitment to education. But for birth rates to recover, a rethink of the importance of and financial commitment to private education will be required.
By allowing sentiments from the introduction to reverberate through the conclusion, readers feel the sense of symmetry.
Use a well-picked quote
For those who think setting a scene or an artfully chosen quote are devices solely for creative nonfiction writing, think again. If the research involved interviews, let a few well-chosen quotes convey the point of view or recommended courses of action. A recent McKinsey report on the evolving business partnership between China and Africa offers a great example in its final paragraph:
There is a wise saying in Yoruba: should I wash my left hand or my right hand? The answer is that the right hand should wash the left, and the left hand should wash the right. That is the way to do things. Africa is one hand; China is the other. Working together is the way to do things. Cheers to that. Ganbei! Ma gbadun!
These upbeat words are spoken by a Chinese businessman, quoting a Nigerian saying. Could the authors have concluded by saying that China and Africa are committed to working together on future business ventures? Sure, but getting the message across from someone with firsthand experience of this international relationship is much more valuable, something else a good conclusion should be.
Focus on concise writing
Writers, often afraid that their carefully constructed argument will be misunderstood, tend to belabor each of their main points again in the conclusion. Instead, take a page out of the book of the OGs of style, Strunk and White, who once wrote, “Vigorous writing is concise.”
They further elaborate on this advice by offering, “A common way to fall into wordiness is to present a single, complex idea, step by step, in a series of sentences that might to advantage be combined into one.”
Next time you review a conclusion, ask yourself if you’re veering into rehash territory.
In the words of grammar master Bryan A. Garner, “If, in persuasive writing, your opening words must arouse your reader’s attention, your closing words must somehow prompt your reader to act.”
Allow the various parts of your writing to inform each other; let each piece build, so when you reach the end, it’s a focused expression of the argument you’ve been making all along. So go forth and conclude like you mean it.