Endings are hard: How to write a strong conclusion [Book Review]

Nobody knows how to write good conclusions. So for the second post in my recap of Joshua Schimel’s Writing Science (part 1), I will unpack how to write a strong conclusion—according to Schimel anyway and adding a few experiences of mine. But honestly, trust him, not me. I don’t know how to write conclusions either 😉

The resolution can make or break your paper

In the section on resolution, Joshua Schimel talks about how you conclude your paper and how that can make or break it. Ending a paper or grant proposal with a strong conclusion is crucial because it is a power position within the narrative structure.

For example, surprise endings are a disaster for your paper, as they destroy the integrity of the overall message and may not be properly understood. This is often the result of changing directions mid-writing but not going back to fix the intro part accordingly.

Your ending should state clear conclusions, not actively weaken the paper by overly emphasising what your paper didn’t accomplish. However, this is a common thing to discuss in conclusions. Be that deliminating your paper’s limitations or with the goal to open it up for the future work section. However, done incorrectly, this can weaken your paper’s overall impact. Don’t end with what you didn’t accomplish. This approach ensures that the paper provide a clear and concise summary of its contributions to the field. Again, making your work citable.

Explain what the results mean

Furthermore, it’s essential that when argue with data, you actually explain what that data means. Even though that may seems clear to you. If you want your paper to be read by people who are not directly in your area of expertise, i.e. you want to get widely cited, then you need to explain what those data points (or seemingly random historical facts or evidence you produced) actually mean.

Since Schimel comes from the sciences, he talks about certain values exceeding a threshold. But, for example, if that is the case in a science paper, then you also need to situate that within the context. That means, for example, what’s a big number for that value? Or what threshold will cause what in nature? And why is that significant? Even though that may seem overly clear to you, it’s probably not clear to lots of your readers. And if you don’t explain that, you could totally bury the lead and that will not get you lots of citations.

Don’t undersell your paper through listing limitations

You can weaken your paper by overstating things like, “this highlights that much more work needs to be done,” “these are the open questions,” or “we failed to find a solution to X.” Even if true, such statements don’t strengthen your paper.

First of all, it’s not a great conclusion, and nobody will cite your paper, because it just seems like it doesn’t have any conclusions. Moreover, merely stating unresolved issues isn’t a conclusion. Often, identifying non-solutions to a problem does yield insights. Thus, it’s crucial to articulate what was discovered and what your “non-solution” contributes (because everything contributes something, you just need to sell it right). You need to state what you found out and that’s the conclusion.

And you can do that while remaining objective, without overstating what you actually found. You can state that in a neutral way and still have a strong conclusion, even though you didn’t have results or you didn’t have the results that you wanted. Also, people don’t necessarily know exactly what you were going for in the beginning, so if you find out something new other than what you were initially setting out to find, you just need to make sure you rewrite your paper accordingly, especially the introduction and the conclusion.

Beware of surprise endings

Many papers have new content in the conclusion (which Schimel calls the surprise ending), which means that they found something along the way, which is great. That’s what research is for. But it’s no good introducing something new in the conclusion. It will just confuse the readers and nobody will understand what the outcome is. So you need to integrate that into the introduction, even if you found it after writing the paper.

Introducing new content in the conclusion without any prior mention will confuse readers (admittedly, I tend to do that). Therefore, any significant elements should be incorporated into the paper’s narrative from the beginning to maintain clarity and coherence throughout. This approach not only strengthens the paper’s structure but also its potential impact and citability.

Formulate your results in easily understandable terms by leveraging widespread mental models

Schimel discusses this one particular paper that was asking basically what triggers cancer cells (or something like that) and in the conclusion they were not only able to answer the question they initially asked but put it in commonly understandable words, even a metaphor that people understand, stating that there are two different mechanisms that act like a switch that decides whether the cell gets activated or not.

The switch metaphor makes the results understandable, maybe even for a lay audience. The conclusion successfully translates complex biological mechanisms into the easily understood metaphor of a “switch” that activates cells.

Use the power position

You need to end strong. That’s what people are going to remember. Because the last words are such a power position, they need to be the take-home message and the conclusion should leverage your most memorable words.

Even in grant proposals, even though that may seem to take away precious time and space, you need to reiterate the problem and how you will solve it. Like the initial construction of the argument, you need to reiterate in the end, even if you’re already close to the page limit.

You absolutely need to make space for this, because often reviewers aren’t decided until the very end and this will just help them jog their memory. Only because it’s obvious to you doesn’t mean it’s obvious to them what’s going to be the great outcome that you’re going to achieve (or have already achieved and written about in the case of a paper).

That’s it for today (trying to writer shorter, more readable blogposts^^).
I will follow up with a post on how to open the hourglass structure back up in the conclusion.


OpenEdition suggests that you cite this post as follows:
Sarah Lang (June 7, 2024). Endings are hard: How to write a strong conclusion [Book Review]. Epigrammetry. Retrieved July 17, 2024 from https://doi.org/10.58079/11sar

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