concluding a paper

Conclusions can be hard. There are a few big traps that conclusion writers can fall into. In order to avoid them, try the following three things.

Deep breath. It’s good to be bold.

The conclusion generally requires bigging up what you’ve done. In a thesis you have to name and claim your original contributions. At the end of a journal article, you have say what readers now know that they didn’t know before they read your paper. So the conclusion summarises the stellar work that you’ve done. You say that you’ve made a pretty convincing case.

So, even if you don’t feel like it, you have to write the conclusion as if you have changed the reader’s mind, at least to some extent. They’ve learnt something by reading what you’ve written. They are less ignorant about your topic, as John Warner puts it. The conclusion is not a place to be bashful. But it’s also not a place to be a braggart. You have to hit just the right assertive tone, adding in enough caveats to show you know you haven’t done everything.

However you have done something. You can’t be timid and spend so much time discussing what you didn’t do that you convince the reader that the paper is unimportant. If you are not feeling much like an expert, writing with sufficient authority might require you to summon up a last bit of chutzpah. Go on, it’s worth it.

Think about moving the reader forward and then bringing them to a satisfactory stop

The conclusion needs some new insights that keep the reader engaged – usually called the So What and Now What  – also known as spelling out the implications for policy, practice, and/or further research. 

But what is this So What and Now What? It can help to think of the So What and Now What as completing the cotton reel structure of the paper. Journal articles typically start with a more general, abstract and/or contextual proposition. The bulk of the paper then moves inwards. But it moves out again at the very end to the general, abstract or contextual proposition you established at the outset.

So, at the end of the paper you may want to suggest that there are at least some answers to the problem you carefully identified and evidenced several thousand words ago. Perhaps there are significant consequences that logically follow from the argument you’ve made. You may want to project your line of argument into the future, hinting at what might come to pass. (You can see what this might look like in the two examples at the end of this post. )

Don’t rush. A truncated, trite, or cliched conclusion won’t do

You may find that you are running out of words by the time you get to the end of the paper. The temptation is just use the words you’ve got left. A mistake. The problem with fitting the conclusion to the remaining inadequate word count is that you may telegraph the important work that the conclusion has to do – you don’t make the case for contribution, nor do you offer any answers, consequences and projections. Coming to an abrupt stop and failing to address key concluding issues will leave the reader dissatisfied. My rough guide to managing conclusions holds that it’s better to go over the word count and then cut back overall as part of the revision process.

Trite and cliched conclusions are another story. I must confess that this is my particular weakness. I find it difficult to think of last sentences that aren’t the academic equivalent of “They all lived happily ever after”. Or perhaps something akin to Chicken Little’s pronouncement “The sky is falling, the sky is falling.” I have no easy remedies for glibness other than to say it’s probably helpful to know if you have an issue. I know the tendency to cliched is something I have to work on through several drafts. And so I do.

A strategy to try: Analysing conclusions

It’s helpful to have a look at how papers in your discipline conclude. Conclusions can vary depending on the purpose and nature of the paper as well as the field. And remember, there is no one best right way to write a conclusion, and you do see conclusions and discussions that don’t conform to the more usual pattern.

So, doing a little analysis of conclusions can very useful for seeing different ways to manage the process of finishing off. I’ve got a couple of examples from social science papers that show how an analysis can reveal conclusion moves and their rhetorical staging.

When you analyse conclusions the point is not to take the phrases used and apply them in your own work. No, the point is to see the argument moves and the ways that the author introduces points and elaborates. The argument moves are composed to persuade, written so that readers understand why what they have just read is important – readers should take note, remember and use.

Examples of conclusion analysis:

Paper One Conclusio(Politics, reporting on a new empirical data set)

  1. Connection with literatures

The approach taken in this article builds on some of the conceptual ideas of ( short outline of theory). 

2. Summary of results and Claim for contribution

Our findings provide important further evidence for the idea that … (summary of results and discussion which connect with the theory).

3. So What and Now What

Our article also points towards areas in need of further exploration – most obviously… (implications for research) 

The evidence here suggests that ( a bit more summary of results and discussion)  …Consequently it would be a mistake to assume that …  ( pointing out how not to interpret the results, a neat and assertive way to talk about what are often called limitations)

If… then… yet (Establishing a trend, and projecting possible social changes and what the results of this paper might have to suggest) 

The public response to ( current events) .. demonstrates that… But the policy response to .. is.. Yet … ( extrapolation from results of what might result if public policy continues in this direction).

Paper Two Discussion and Conclusion ( Sociology, arguing that the field needs to adopt a perspective from another discipline in order to tackle a topic of ongoing significant concern)

  1. Connection with literatures 

While existing literatures have mentioned ( topic) in the form of.. and highlighted… 

2. Summary of results and Claim for contribution

We have shown here that…. ( outline of the key ideas that make up a “new perspective”) This perspective can add… 

3. So What and Now What

Adopting this perspective could for example ( what might be added to the literature if further research is done using the ideas in the paper)

These ( ideas developed in this paper)  could help us go further in understanding… (everyday problem) These…  are likely to be … 

Further empirical work could use (ideas developed in the paper) outlined here to… For example…. ( outlines a current pressing policy problem)

Drawing on ( ideas outlined in the paper) … adds further.. ( outlines policy area lacking evidence) 

( Ideas in the paper)…. could also further develop .. The example of the ..( outlines a practice problem)  illustrates this possibility… ( shows how ideas developed in the paper might be applied to the problem)

The ( another problem but this time in research) is also worthy of further inquiry. Adopting (the ideas outlined in this paper) could… 

Additional posts about conclusions

Photo by Patrick Perkins on Unsplash

About pat thomson

Pat Thomson is Professor of Education in the School of Education, The University of Nottingham, UK
This entry was posted in conclusion, journal article, so what and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to concluding a paper

  1. Rebecca says:

    Thank you for this. I am thinking a lot about my conclusion as I will be writing that in a few months. I found this (and all your articles) so practical, thoughtful and useful. Also helps keep the panic down when I read your tips and sample phrasing. 😉

    Like

  2. Theresa says:

    I am currently writing an article and am finding the conclusion difficult . The way that you break down the different ways of approaching this section really helps.

    Like

  3. Catherine says:

    Thank you, that’s such a a help.

    Like

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