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Wrapping Up

The end.


They lived happily ever after.

And that, my good friends, is why you should vote for this candidate.

The lived happily ever after. Or did they?

It seems so easy. You reach the end of a piece of writing. You neatly tie it up in a knot. Maybe you leave a little thread hanging to keep the reader thinking. But you’ve finished, and your audience knows you’ve finished.

It may seem easy, but it’s difficult for me. For almost every one of these essays, writing the last paragraph is incredibly difficult, and takes a proportionally large amount of time. I have a number of tropes that I use for starting essays, and those usually give me momentum to get through most of the essay. Then I reach the end, and I struggle to find the right way to end the flow of ideas. Stopping when I run out seems wrong, as there’s nothing to tie the essay together. However, unlike argumentative essays, these essays don’t necessarily have a clear conclusion to which I’ve been trying to lead you [1]. Perhaps it’s that I’m often much more concerned about the journey than the destination. Nonetheless, we do have to end somewhere. And so I struggle to find the right way to wrap up my essay [2].

As a reader, you can probably tell that I struggle to come up with good endings. The evidence? Sometimes the essays really just do run out without a real ending (hopefully, not all that often). Sometimes I had followup comments after the end of the essay because the end doesn’t feel right. Sometimes, the last paragraph is even more stilted than the rest of the essay. It should be clear that I’m not comfortable with just wrapping up.

I have the same problem in almost all of my prose writing [4]. When I’m writing argumentative essays, and reach the end, I reflect back on the old adage of Tell them what you’re going to say, say it, and tell them what you said. But it seems pretty damn boring to just repeat the same idea again, so I look for other ways to end well. Conclusions are also the part of writing I have the most difficulty teaching to my students. I can usually get them to write something workmanlike at the end, but not something elegant.

I wonder if it’s just me. I note, for example, that Connections, one of my favorite resources, does not seem to have a section on conclusions. I assume that means that Erik doesn’t find that he needs to guide his students on how to write good conclusions. Joseph Williams’ Style, Toward Clarity and Grace also lacks a full section on conclusions [5].

In fact, I see that Williams’ and McInerney’s Writing In College seems to imply that conclusions are easy.

Your conclusion is the easiest to revise, because you will probably have already written a conclusion that makes a good point. Most of us write to discover, and it is at the end where we discover our most interesting ideas. We have to make sure our introductions cohere with our conclusions, but for the most part, our conclusions will be the richest, most complex part of our paper, because that is where we are prepared to do our richest and most complex thinking.

Wow. That’s intimidating. Now, not only do I have to figure out how to tie things together, I have to be prepared to do rich and complex thinking while I conclude. Maybe that’s one of the reasons that I find conclusions so difficult; my best writing training happened in Little Red Schoolhouse. At times, I find that conclusions are easier in thesis-last papers, but thesis-last papers are both risky and difficult.

I also have difficulty in finding how best to end other kinds of writing. I almost always end up labeling the last paragraph or two [6] of my longer memos with something like Summary or Conclusion. My letters of recommendation tend to end with paragraphs that look a whole lot like the introduction [7].

How should I get better at ending pieces of writing? Practice is usually good practice. However, even after eighty-plus essays, I’m still finding endings very difficult. Maybe after another eighty or so essays, I’ll feel more capable of writing endings. Research is also good practice. Perhaps I should look more into what writers guides (or guides to teaching writing) say about writing strong conclusions. It can be useful to identify stumbling blocks. I should probably acknowledge the issues that make it hard for me to write endings. I’ve identified two in my meanderings above: I often care more about the path than the destination, and my experience at Chicago makes me set standards that I find it difficult to reach.

I suppose that if I really want to be a better writer, I should do what many good writers do, and start a Commonplace book in which I focus on good conclusions, to help myself think about and remember how others achieve what I long to achieve.

Or maybe I should just ask SimpsonE [8].

Queue Edie!

[1] That is not to say that I find it easy to end argumentative essays. We’ll consider argumentative essays a bit later.

[2] It’s interesting that we have a number of metaphors that treat a piece of writing as a present: wrap up; "tie together; etc. [3]

[3] Okay, maybe it’s just two metaphors.

[4] Why do I say prose writing? Because I also write proofs, programs, documentation, examinations, unit tests, and more. In most cases, other than proofs, the writing does not really require an ending. And proofs have a pretty clear ending. I also say prose writing because the CS department has been trying to find the best way to respond to a request to provide writing outcomes for our curriculum, and it’s pretty clear that they won’t be happy if we just say students can write proofs and programs.

[5] I only have the table of contents at hand, so it may be that Williams or Columb write about conclusions. But Williams clearly does not consider conclusions enough of an issue that they warrant their own section.

[6] Or three or four or more.

[7] As I hope I’ve suggested, Stu Dent is thoughtful, talented, not only good at working with others, but also able to take on a leadership role. They will clearly fit well into this opportunity. I recommend them to you. Bleh.

[8] Or HunterJ, who I think reads some of these essays.

Version 1.0.1 of 2016-10-12.