We tend to underestimate a conclusion in research papers. As the name suggests, we believe it is best left until the final writing stage.
The task of drafting a conclusion is quite daunting. I used to feel overwhelmed by having to recap all the causes and effects of my research into a mere few paragraphs.
Didn’t you already explain your ideas to the reader? Do focused readers really need your advice? Can the reader not figure out the obvious implications of your research – without a boring conclusion?
But the reader expects to see a conclusion. And writing conventions prescribe it. So you do need to come up with a darn good one.
What about its length? Just how many paragraphs does it take to completely mystify your readers with your final insights? If your conclusion is too short, your readers might feel like passengers of a driver who unexpectedly applies both brake and handbrake. Then again, a few rambling final paragraphs make you look like an aimless driver insisting on taking a long winding road.
A conclusion is not a summary.
Have you ever written without a clear focus? Did you discover what you were trying to say only by the time you arrive at your conclusion? Then you probably made this mistake: you added new material to your conclusion. That was, after all, less troublesome than going back to rewrite your literature review or findings section.
Poor writers introduce their main arguments in the conclusion, making their conclusion sound more like an introduction.
They fail to see an all-important distinction. An introduction must lead the reader from his comfortable chair into the subject of the paper. A conclusion should guide that reader back to his chair again.
How to produce something resembling a ‘good’ conclusion?
Restate the main argument
In case you wrote a long paper, your readers risk losing track of your main argument. So start your conclusion with your argument, but with words different from your paper’s main hypothesis. That way, your readers are reminded of why you wrote the paper in the first place.
Answer the “So what?” question
Show your readers why they should care about your paper. You might think that the answer is obvious after having labored over your twenty-or-so pages, but you need to repeat it anyhow. Keep in mind that readers might want to cut to the chase by only reading your conclusion (and, possibly, your abstract). How do you manage to do that? By adopting the following writer’s voice in your conclusion:
- “My topic always seemed simple, but in reality is quite complicated (…)”
- “I challenge you, the reader, in your deeply held belief about my topic”
- “My topic shows a paradox or problem that I have tried to solve”
- “My topic, while small, shows how to understand better a larger process or phenomenon”
Regardless of how you answer the “So what?” question, a good conclusion will show your readers why your topic matters. Not to you, but to them.
Connect the conclusion with the introduction
If you can do this, you prove yourself to be an effective writer. Did you answer any questions raised in your introduction? Did you address major problems mentioned in the introduction? Let your conclusion lead the reader back to the starting point.
You need to point to a broader practice
Let’s say your research focuses on a specific topic for a (very) limited audience. So how, then, is your topic relevant to a larger issue in your field of study? How should readers apply your research findings to help them? Does your work add to a larger public debate on your topic? If so, mention this in your conclusion.
You need to make recommendations or propose solutions
If your main topic presented a problem, you have to offer ideas to solve it. This way, your readers will also be encouraged to think of ways of solving that problem. You should also suggest directions for future research. This shows you’re confident, while also admitting that you’ve left parts of your research unfinished – which we all do.
Link your research to a current ‘hot’ event or topic
If you manage to refer to contemporary real-world examples, your readers will better understand and accept the practical application of your topic. Try, therefore, to link your research conclusions to a current event. This will encourage readers to re-evaluate the traditional views on your topic.
Find a good model for your conclusion
The last thing you want the reader to think after reading your conclusion is “Huh?” So structure your paper’s last paragraphs carefully. Re-visit an effective and powerful conclusion you’ve come across during your literature review. Analyze it and take notes to reproduce those elements in your own conclusion. And no, doing so does not equal plagiarism.
Use strong language
Don’t use modest or weak language. Even if you fear your concluding remarks might be proven wrong. Avoid using phrases like “we suggest”, “this might”, “this seems”, “probably”, “possibly”, etc. Also, if you use the passive voice, this will further weaken the power of your conclusions. You want to be daring and make your concluding statements strong.
Good conclusions attract readers and go a long way in getting your article published. Weak conclusions show you’re unsure, letting uncommitted readers merely glance at your paper without taking it seriously.
Recommended reading: Pat Thomson’s take on research paper conclusions: