- The conclusion needs to 1. restate the paper’s main points 2. answer the question, “Who cares?”, and 3. finish the paper with something punchy.
You have written a beautiful introduction and body, and now you have to finish the draft off by writing the conclusion! You want to finish strong and leave the reader with an interesting closing thought.
That being said, your concluding paragraph has to 1. briefly summarize your work (without sounding redundant), 2. illustrate why your paper is significant, and 3. end with a punch.
The conclusion should be formatted like an upside-down introduction–from the most specific to the most general. Therefore, the first sentence of your conclusion paragraph should describe the main points of your paper:
“Although there were a variety of lesser factors, the ultimate demise of the Roman Empire was a result of three main ones: poor leadership, outside pressure from barbarian forces, and weakening cultural unity.”
“Although Microsoft, Google, and Apple have similar company roots–nerdy college-aged kids tinkering around in garages–they have developed into very different companies. Apple has developed around the personality of a single person, while Microsoft and Google–while heavily influenced by their founders–have taken a less centralized approach.”
The trick with this sentence (or two) is to reiterate your paper’s main idea without sounding redundant. Copying and pasting your thesis is not a good idea. Another bad idea is to start out with a hollow-sounding phrase like “In conclusion,” “In summary,” or “As a whole.” These not-so-subtle phrases are sure to bore your reader.
Next, your conclusion has to relate your issue to a broader idea or question. Let’s say you’re writing a paper on symbolism and social overtones in The Crucible (a play by Arthur Miller about the Salem Witch Trials). In your conclusion, you should explain why your paper is significant.
Who cares? Who cares about Miller’s use of symbolism?
Your conclusion should make a link between the contents of your paper and a larger issue. A larger issue could be something like
- How the social overtones in the book have influenced how people view the Salem Witch Trials in hindsight
- How Miller’s style has influenced other playwrights or authors
- How Miller’s use of symbolism was seen by his contemporaries
Now is not the time to make a wild, unsupported claim. A small connection will suffice.
[Sentence restating paper’s main points about symbols in Miller’s play.] Miller’s use of symbolism in The Crucible dramatizes the hypothetical Salem described in his play. Such dramatization calls into question how much the theoretical Salem in Miller’s play differed from the historical Salem, which is a key question that makes the play so controversial and enduring.
The ‘larger issue’ here is how Miller’s use of symbolism helps underscore the difference between the Salem described in the play and the historical Salem. The difference between the two is a key question.
Another technique you might use for your conclusion is to describe where additional study needs to be done–where your essay stops and another essay could start.
At the end of your conclusion, you should have a punchy sentence that leaves your reader with an interesting thought. One way of doing this is to reconnect your ending sentence with your title:
Say you’re writing a paper on the similarities of Zeus and his son Hercules:
Title: Like Father, Like Son: Exploring Paternal Relationships in Greek Mythology
Concluding sentences: Hercules’ demeanor, athleticism, and attitude are similar to that of his father, Zeus. Both gods exemplify Greek ideals of masculinity. Greek mythological texts, then, reinforce the idea that fathers should pass Greek cultural values onto their sons. The story of Hercules reinforces the colloquial phrase, “like father, like son.”
Here the ‘larger issue’ is how Greek cultural values are shaped by Greek mythology. The ending is punchy. It contains a nice, memorable phrase and circles back to the interesting title.
The Crucible ends with John Proctor marching off to a martyr's death. By refusing to lie and confess to witchcraft, he sacrifices his life in the name of truth. At the end of the play, Proctor has in some way regained his goodness. Check out John's "Character Analysis" and "Character Roles" for more on his dramatic transformation.
Much is said elsewhere in this guide about John Proctor's journey, which is completed by his execution. As such, we'd like to use this section to focus on the actual last two lines of the play. We think it's interesting that, though this is Proctor's story, Miller doesn't give him the last word. Instead, Reverend Hale and Elizabeth Proctor get the honor. Miller writes:
HALE: Woman, plead with him! […] Woman! It is pride, it is vanity. […] Be his helper! What profit him to bleed? Shall the dust praise him? Shall the worms declare his truth? Go to him, take his shame away!
ELIZABETH: […] He have his goodness now. God forbid I take it from him! (IV.207-208)
It seems to us that these last two lines raise an interesting philosophical question (to which there is no right answer, sorry).
Hale does have a pretty good point. Though the character of Proctor is often lauded for his integrity, is he really helping his family by dying? His wife, sons, and unborn child will have to make it in the world without him. This is none too easy in the harsh Massachusetts wilderness. His choice of death could also be viewed as a form of suicide, which is verboten for Christians. His death might also be interpreted as inherently selfish... because he's placing his own self-image above the good of his family.
Of course, we doubt that Proctor's wife, Elizabeth, views it as abandonment. Though she tries her best to remain neutral when John is trying to decide whether or not to confess, it seems pretty obvious in the subtext that she thinks he should die an honorable death.
That makes total sense to a Puritan. They believed—as most modern Christians do—that a person's time on Earth is a mere speck when compared to one's afterlife. Elizabeth likely believes that if John lies, he'll go to hell for all eternity. If he dies a martyr's death, he'll inevitably see his family again and spend all eternity with them in heaven.
It looks like both Hale and Elizabeth have a point. There are pros and cons no matter what decision Proctor makes. Miller's choice of these particular last two lines seems to almost ask the audience a direct question: Which is more important, your honor or your life?
There's no definitive answer to this question. It's totally subjective. Like every great play, The Crucible gives its audiences a lot to think about long after they've left the theater.