How to write a captivating essay conclusion
(Last updated: 3 April 2020)
You may be surprised when we say that an essay conclusion is, in some ways, comparable to a piece of text as emotive as say, Martin Luther King's "I Have a Dream" speech. Sounds ridiculous? Perhaps. But, extravagant comparisons aside, what we mean here is that the core purpose of an essay conclusion can be compared to the end of any great speech, monologue or presentation that leaves you feeling something. Ultimately, when you conclude an essay, you want to engage the reader's emotions, whether they be excitement, surprise, contemplation, or a mix of these and more. And you want to do this in much the same way that Martin Luther King would have done with his captivated audience on that memorable day in 1963.
Conclusions are among the hardest parts of an essay to write well. You need to round off your essay effectively. You need to leave your reader with the best possible impression of your work. And, you need to somehow recap all your central points without simply repeating yourself. Sound like a tricky balancing act? We explain it all in more depth below – read on for our tips on how to conclude an essay effectively.
How do I conclude an essay?
What is a conclusion? It’s a question that seems, on the face of it, to have a perfectly simple answer. It’s the paragraph (or so) at the end of your essay where you bring your essay to a stop by recapping your central arguments, right? Easy.
If we asked you to list a few synonyms for an essay conclusion, we’re willing to bet you’d come up with a few words or phrases like “recap”, “summary”, “restatement of your thesis”, and so on. And it’s true you’re likely to find all of these somewhere in the conclusion of an essay.
"Words and phrases like 'recap', 'summary' and 'restatement of your thesis' don't accurately describe what an essay conclusion is. A conclusion is so much more, and a lot hinges on how well it is done."
But none of the phrases above fully grasp the function of an essay conclusion. In fact, taking any one of them to be entirely synonymous with an essay conclusion is likely to lead you down the path towards writing bad essay conclusions, or at least missed-opportunity conclusions – conclusions that don’t take full advantage of their place at the end of the essay to fulfil their rhetorical potential.
OK then, how do I avoid concluding an essay badly?
Before we get to answering the question of what an essay conclusion is, it’s useful to spend a moment thinking about some of the things an essay conclusion isn’t.
- It’s not a repeat of your introduction.
Every university instructor has encountered an essay where a student has copied and pasted, almost word-for-word, their introduction at the bottom of their essay. It should be obvious that there’s no point in doing this. You're just eating up words by repeating the same information over again. And if a conclusion were simply a rehash of the introduction, there wouldn’t be any point in ending the essay with it. You could just end with your final body paragraph argument. Or, if you really wanted your reader to read the introduction again and remind themselves of your central arguments, you could simply say something like, “See introduction”!
OK, so copying and pasting the introduction is an extreme example, and you’re probably thinking “there’s no way I’d do something like that.” But it’s fairly common for students to conclude an essay by simply rephrasing their introduction. Just paraphrasing yourself while retaining all the content of your introduction isn’t a whole lot different from the copy-paste job. You’re still just going through the motions and repeating the same information without really getting to grips with the dedicated function a conclusion is supposed to fulfil.
- It’s not just a summary of your body paragraphs.
Another common trap students fall into is to view the essay conclusion simply as a recap. They conclude an essay by providing a concise summary of each of the arguments they’ve made. This kind of recap can form an important part of your conclusion, especially in longer essays where you’ve made a series of complex arguments. But, as with repeating your introduction, eating up valuable word count simply to rehash stuff you’ve already said is redundant and doesn’t fulfil any sort of rhetorical or persuasive function.
- It’s not a place to add new content or make new arguments.
Yes, your essay conclusion shouldn’t be simply a recap, a summary, or a repeat of what you’ve already written in your essay. But it is a place where you reflect on the arguments you’ve made rather than starting to introduce anything new.
And here’s where the whole business of how to conclude an essay starts to get a bit complicated. If a conclusion is neither simply a recap of old information nor a place for new information, what is it, exactly?
A conclusion is a sales pitch!
If you’ve been paying attention you may have seen that we’ve already mentioned “rhetoric” a couple of times so far in this post – and this is no accident. You can’t really talk about essay conclusions without talking about rhetoric. The conclusion to an essay is the most purely rhetorical part of the entire piece.
By “rhetorical”, we mean a conclusion’s (and indeed the entire essay’s) ability to convince or persuade the reader of certain outlooks or arguments. An essay conclusion needs to use rhetoric to emotionally connect with the reader in some way. And this is done through the use of certain language and the way the information is presented.
If alarm bells are starting to ring at the mention of rhetoric, quiet them. Rhetoric gets a bad name in public discourse. Phrases like “pure rhetoric” or “empty rhetoric” are often used to suggest that an utterance lacks substance or integrity, or is somehow dishonest or insincere. And those are the last things you want your reader to take away from reading your essay! But rhetoric is one of the oldest scholarly disciplines in the world. In Classical societies – and in fact right up to the beginning of the twentieth century – it was considered one of the most important disciplines throughout Western society. The fact that it’s acquired something of a bad name over the last hundred years or so doesn’t mean it’s not still the foundation of good writing.
More importantly, your rhetorical skills can make a huge difference to whether your reader actually buys your argument. Let’s say we have two writers. One is skilled in rhetoric; the other less so. Both could make an identical set of arguments with the same supporting evidence and elicit entirely different responses in their readers. It’s true that the excessive use of rhetorical flourishes can rub your reader up the wrong way. It could cause them to think your essay is more about style than substance. But the subtler cues – in the way you phrase, structure, and present your arguments – can unquestionably make the difference between winning over a sceptical audience and leaving them unmoved.
"How you phrase, structure, and present arguments in your essay conclusion can make the difference between winning over a sceptical audience and leaving them unmoved – which could easily make a difference to your overall grade."
So what does all this have to do with how you conclude an essay? This can all seem a bit abstract when we’re dealing with essay writing, so let’s try an analogy. Let’s imagine you’re delivering a sales pitch for a property company. That company is trying to sell waterfront properties in a desirable holiday location – the Caribbean, say. Your audience is a set of moderately well-off individuals who regularly take expensive holidays. But, they’re not sure they can afford to buy a second home in the Caribbean. Even if they can afford it, they’re unclear if it would be a good investment.
To convince the members of your audience that they want to buy one of your properties, you’re going to have to conduct quite a detailed pitch. It could easily take a couple of hours or more to list the features of the property, the merits of the location, and the financial arrangements that will allow buyers to fund their purchase. You’ll make many arguments throughout your pitch, not all of which will be equally exciting. Sure, you’ll tell your potential customers about the balcony that leads off the master bedroom, the distance to the beach, and the amenities of the town in which the properties are located.
But your customers will also want to know other details: can they let the property while they’re not using it, for example? What kind of returns will that bring, and will these be enough to offset the purchase price? How are properties taxed in the area? And how about the facilities the local authority will provide? What kind of sanitation and waste facilities does the property have? Is it connected to a sewer or does it use a septic tank?
If the buyer is going to sign on the dotted line when it’s all done, you’re going to have to provide convincing answers to all of these questions. But simply recapping your arguments in order isn’t going to end the presentation effectively. You don’t want the lingering thought in your audience’s mind to be taxes or sewage. And you certainly don’t want to hit them with any new detail in your closing few slides. In fact, you don’t really want them to leave the presentation with any of the details you’ve discussed uppermost in their mind. Dwelling on any of the details is likely to remind them that buying and owning property is time-consuming, expensive, and stressful.
The impression you want to leave them with is that of having their very own place in the sun. An island paradise that’s theirs to return to any time they want to. You don’t want them leaving the building still musing over any of the specific points of your sales pitch. They need to be moved by the overall effect – and the promise – of what you’ve offered them. Sun on their backs, sand between their toes, and a crystal-clear blue ocean stretching out ahead of them.
So how does this help me conclude an essay?
OK, we get it. You’re not selling anybody a beach getaway when you conclude an essay. But what the above analogy describes is rhetoric. In an essay, you are making a pitch. And the same principles as the property sales example above apply.
Your essay conclusion is your parting shot. It’s your opportunity to leave your reader with a favourable impression of the arguments you’ve just made. You want them, at minimum, to be convinced that you’ve achieved what you set out to achieve; that you’ve proved your points. Better yet, you want them to feel satisfied that you’ve taken them on an intellectual journey that was interesting and rewarding.
Best of all, though, is if you leave them with a feeling of excitement. Excitement that your essay promises a new way of thinking about a topic, or a promising line of intellectual inquiry. The scholarly equivalent of feeling sand between their toes, in other words.
My five-paragraph essay has to be exciting? How do you propose I manage that?
It’s true that not all essays are equally rewarding to read. But academia is all about the collaborative generation of knowledge. And even first-year undergraduate students can offer an original take on a subject that causes their instructors to think about a topic in a new way. Maybe they’ll even incorporate that new angle into their class teachings, or the next paper they write. Don’t underestimate how exciting that can be for instructors. And don’t underestimate how much your instructor – with a pile of fifty or a hundred essays to sift through – will appreciate a well-written, animated essay that reads satisfyingly from start to finish. And if there’s even a germ of an original idea in the essay, it’s your job to sell it. It’s your job to highlight what’s new and innovative about your argument, and to excite your reader. That’s what a good essay conclusion does.
Here's a note if you’re writing an essay using a formulaic structure like the five-paragraph, three-argument essay. With these formulaic essays it’s even more important that you don’t simply regurgitate your introduction in your conclusion. The key to concluding an essay of any length or complexity is persuading your reader that there’s been development between the start and end of the essay. They must end knowing more than they did at the start. The same applies for five-paragraph essays.
Let’s consider an example where you’re writing a five-paragraph essay about Shakespeare’s famous Sonnet 18, and you’ve been asked to examine some of the formal features of the sonnet. We’ll take a look at a sample introduction that concisely outlines the thesis of the essay, and then think about how we might conclude such an essay effectively. (Note: this example contains some fairly detailed literary-critical terminology, but you don’t need to understand this to be able to follow along.)
William Shakespeare’s Sonnet 18 (“Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?”) is one of his best-known sonnets and deals with themes of eternal love, ageing, and the nature of art. This essay explores how Shakespeare uses the formal structure of the sonnet, together with small but significant variations in the meter, and the conceit of the changing seasons, to explore these themes.
[Body paragraph 1: the structure of an English sonnet, the use of the “turn” at the start of the third quatrain, and the couplet at the end that presents a neat summary of the poem’s message about the timelessness of art in the face of human ageing.]
[Body paragraph 2: the generally regular use of iambic pentameter in the sonnet, and the effects of strategic substitutions, in particular the replacement of the first iambic foot in line 3 with a spondaic foot, and its introduction of a note of restlessness and discord after the harmonious opening two lines.]
[Body paragraph 3: the conceit of the changing seasons that runs through the entire poem, and the ways in which Shakespeare uses the sonnet structure to explore different aspects of this theme.]
Bad essay conclusion (rephrasing of the thesis statement, lacking any development):
Sonnet 18 explores the themes of love, ageing, and art through the extended metaphor of the changing seasons. Shakespeare uses the sonnet’s formal structure, variations in the iambic pentameter meter, and the conceit of summer changing into winter, to explore these eternal themes.
Better essay conclusion (recaps on central points and makes some attempt to draw them together):
In Sonnet 18, Shakespeare explores the themes of love, ageing, and art through the extended metaphor of the changing seasons. Shakespeare uses both the meter and structure of the sonnet to maximise the effectiveness of this metaphor. Metrical variations like the spondaic substitution at the start of the third line maximise the drama of this metaphor. By making use of the formal structure of the sonnet – especially the “turn” at the start of the third quatrain – Shakespeare is able to explore different facets of his central conceit of summer changing into winter.
Best essay conclusion (recaps central points but makes the key links between them explicit and gestures towards broader implications):
Shakespeare’s sonnets are among the most celebrated sequences of poems in the English language, and Sonnet 18 provides several important illustrations of why this is. The formal techniques Shakespeare uses to explore the poem’s central conceit of changing seasons are often very subtle, but demonstrate a mastery of the sonnet form that enhances his exploration of his central conceit of the changing seasons. We have seen, for example, how minor metrical variations have a powerful impact on the poem’s message, like the use of the spondaic foot “Rough winds” in place of an iambic foot at the start of the third line, which introduces a note of conflict into the seemingly harmonious simile with which he begins the sonnet. And the archetypal sonnet “turn” that Shakespeare deploys at the start of the third quatrain allows him to convey a profound message about the redemptive, eternal power of art, transforming a melancholy lament on the process of ageing into a triumphant celebration of the poem itself.
As you’ll see from these three examples, there are many different ways to conclude an essay and recap on its central points. Each of the above essay conclusions could apply to the same basic thesis statement and three body paragraphs, but they would have radically different effects on the overall way a reader interprets the value of these arguments.
Our first example simply restates the thesis without displaying any significant development. The points made in the three body paragraphs are simply presented in the conclusion as a list. This creates an overall effect of disjointedness (often a major problem for five-paragraph essays).
The second example demonstrates the bare minimum a reader should expect from a conclusion. It creates a sense of development through the essay by revisiting some of the detail of the body paragraphs and attempting to draw links between them.
However, the third example represents a much more convincing “sales pitch” for this kind of essay. It groups together the various body paragraph arguments into a single unifying theme. In this case, it’s the idea that Shakespeare’s greatness as a poet rests in his mastery of form and content, and his ability to weave the two subtly into a poem that first descents into a lament on the ravages of ageing and then abruptly turns into a celebration of art and poetry.
What makes this conclusion example really stand out from the other two is its sense of balance between recap and sales pitch. Although it doesn’t introduce any new content, it does gesture towards broader implications for the arguments presented in the essay. For example, it highlights Shakespeare’s greatness as a poet and a master of form. The effect on a mundane, humdrum five-paragraph essay is quite transformative. The essay conclusion takes the contents of a fairly bog-standard, elementary literary-critical argument and makes them seem exciting and relevant.
A conclusion can’t save a bad essay, of course. But if you conclude an essay with the right sales pitch you can make even fairly elementary arguments sparkle!
How (and how not) to conclude an essay – dos and don’ts
The examples above offer some good pointers to help you conclude an essay in the most persuasive possible way. Here’s a summary of what we’ve learned:
- Do sell it.
If your introduction and body paragraphs are where you lay the solid groundwork for your essay, your conclusion is where you convince your reader that what they’ve read represented a fun, insightful, intellectual journey that was worth their time. Don’t be afraid of rhetoric when you’re looking to conclude an essay – make the biggest, boldest pitch you can for the value of what you’ve argued.
- Do pull it all together.
When you conclude an essay, you’re not only trying to convince your reader of the merit of your individual points or body paragraphs. You’re also making the case that your essay represented a unified, coherent whole. If you include one new thing in your introduction, make it an explicit theme that unifies all of your points and convinces your reader that your essay is a single, flowing, logical unit.
- Do be speculative.
The conclusion to an essay is the one place where you get to bend the rules just a little bit. Throughout the rest of your essay you need to be scrupulously careful not to make assertions you can’t back up. But it’s expected that your conclusion gestures broadly – and slightly speculatively – towards the implications of your argument. Don’t go nuts and claim your argument will change the world, of course. That’s wholly unsupportable and comes across as ludicrous and overblown – the “bad” kind of rhetoric. But you should be aiming to excite your reader. You can often do this by suggesting that there’s an urgent need to change approach to a problem or view it in a new way.
- Don’t just rehash your thesis.
The absolute least effective way you can conclude an essay is to simply repeat what you’ve already said in your introduction. You’ll create a sense of stagnation which is the very opposite of the sense of progression and dynamism you’re trying to create. This is especially true if your essay is short.
- Don’t introduce whole new arguments.
It’s true, your essay conclusion should revisit your arguments in a fresh way, whether that’s by underlying a unifying theme or gesturing towards the implications of what you’ve written. But you still need to conclude your essay by reflecting on arguments you’ve already made, not by introducing new ones.