Thursday, November 17, 2011


Just this week, during one of my undergraduate workshops, I had something of an epiphany about the rhetoric of an academic article. I've long argued that the only difference between the introduction and conclusion is a rhetorical one. The two sections say the same thing, which is to say, the conclusion does not contain information that the introduction has not already presented; but they say it differently or, more precisely, they address different audiences. And the difference is a very small and precise one: the reader of your conclusion is the same reader as the reader of your introduction except that the reader of your introduction has not yet read your paper and the reader of your conclusion has just read it. Beyond that, I used to say, you're free to write the conclusion as you choose ... oh yes, except that you only have two paragraphs to accomplish what you did with three in your introduction.

But look what I discovered while workshopping a conclusion this week. We began by sharpening the introduction to give us the ideal form. The first paragraph provided a description of the world in which the paper is needed. "We live in an age of..." it might (too) typically begin. The second paragraph introduces the relevant science: "Scholars agree that..." (or, conversely, "Current scholarship is divided about...") It is only the third paragraph that introduces your thesis: "In this paper, I show that..." Notice that until the third paragraph, no mention is made of you or your thesis; you are positioning your thesis in a world of shared concern and a body of current scholarship.

And notice also that even in that third paragraph you don't actually state your thesis. The key sentence of that paragraph is not a claim about your object; it is a claim about your paper. This means that the relevant kind of support is provided by a description of your paper ("After recalling the recent history of efforts to ..., I will outline my theoretical framework. The analysis uses the method of ..., which gives access to ... On this basis, I conclude that ... and emphasize the importance of ... in rethinking best practices in this area.") It is not actually an argument for the truth of your thesis. It is a description or outline of such an argument.

I have said before that the first paragraph of your conclusion and the last paragraph of your introduction should mirror each other. In the introduction there should be a paragraph about what you will say, while in the conclusion the same paragraph should tell us what you have said. But this can be quite boring ("In this paper, I have shown that..." etc.) We now arrive at the epiphany.

 "In this paper, I show that..." will continue with some proposition. "In this paper, I show that organizational designs not market forces are to blame for the financial crisis." That proposition, of course, states the major thesis of the paper. Now, what your paper should be putting you in a position to do is precisely to state that thesis, plainly and straightforwardly. After reading your paper, the reader should be in a position to understand a simple, efficient, 6-sentence, 150-word argument for your thesis. Let, the penultimate paragraph of your paper, i.e., the first paragraph of your conclusion be that argument.

Its key sentence will be your thesis. "Organizational designs not market forces are to blame for the financial crisis." Leave out explicit mentions of method and instead state the major empirical claims that your method allowed you to discover. Also leave out any explicit mentions of theory, but use theoretical terms as though they are part of the vocabulary shared by you and your reader (if your paper is any good, by this point they are.) Three of the sentences will normally simply state the sub-theses that your analysis arrives at. However, you choose to do it, keep it simple. This is the moment when you show the reader that s/he's understood what you've been trying to say. Here's the simplest possible statement of your argument for the most informed possible reader.

There's one paragraph left. To write it, think about your "implications" section. What change (whether in theory or practice) in the mind of your reader does your paper suggest? How should the reader see or do things differently after granting the rightness of your conclusions? In a word, how have you changed the reader's world? Write the last paragraph as a description of this new world. The first and last paragraph, set side by side, should describe the "before" and "after" images of the world that your research pertains to—the world that needs your research. It is the world that needs to change in the way suggested by these images.

When I explained this to a group a faculty members recently something truly profound hit me: that last paragraph is also the first paragraph of your next paper.


Jonathan said...

Right. The conclusion actually draws out more implications that only make sense for a reader who has read the entire paper. It doesn't make a new point, but makes it in a wider context. The mistake people make is writing a conclusion that simply repeats to introduction using other words, rather than the anticipatory conclusion you propose here. Great post.

Anonymous said...

I would say: “Write the last paragraph as a description of this BRAVE new world.” If this last paragraph is intended to be the first of an interesting paper, the new image should be brave!