As most of you know, I am currently wrestling with revising a book manuscript. This involves a good deal of looking at conclusions, and as such is making me remember just how much I dislike the blessed things.
There’s a lot to be said for the elegant conclusion – it distils the wisdom of a chapter or article into one or two crystal clear sentences that provide the icing, as it were, on the argumentative cake. But the bad conclusion is far easier to write – one which just recaps what has been said throughout the piece without really taking it through that rhetorical transmutation that creates a satisfying conclusion. The irony, of course, is that while I may chastise students in my marking feedback for offering conclusions which rehash the points they have already made, my first (and second and third and fourth) drafts of scholarly work often contain conclusions which do exactly the same – even when I think I’ve managed the requisite compositional alchemy.
This is something I’m particularly aware of at the moment because I’m trying to rewrite the conclusion to the whole book – not just offering a neat summary for a chapter, but a neat tie-up for over 100,000 words’ worth of point. Despite my best efforts, I’m still offering a rehash of previous points in quite a procedural manner (albeit less so than the original PhD conclusion, of which frankly the less said, the better). Finding the right words to be the last words of the book is also phenomenally difficult. My current strategy is to move into the personal voice, but I would be the first to admit that this is a strategy born out of desperation rather than of conviction. It’s also not quite coming out right just yet – there’s something too colloquial and apologetic about it, which is another risk of conclusions. While you think you have stated your case firmly and authoritatively, it often turns out that you’ve actually underplayed your own original contribution to a debate or the most significant consequence of your own argument.
I don’t think I have any tips for writing conclusions, other than being prepared to write, rewrite and rewrite again, and getting as many pairs of eyes on a conclusion as possible to tell you if you are doing yourself justice. But I am rather surprised at the difficulty of writing the conclusion for a book, if only because I had rather assumed it would be like writing a mini-chapter or article rather than concentrated last-blessed-paragraph syndrome. But maybe I’m unusual in finding conclusions such a particular bugbear. If anyone has any great ideas for avoiding the pitfalls and putting together that glittering wit and glitz that is the hallmark of a fine conclusion, I’m all ears.