How to … write a conclusion

“Goodbye (sniff): I loved your essay so much I read it twice!”

If beginnings feel tricky (until you read this, naturally), then signing off an essay can feel just as daunting, and it’s equally important.  Faced with the time pressure of writing an additional half paragraph of analysis only to finish mid-


-sentence, or writing a strong conclusion, I know which one I’d choose every time.

Why should I write a conclusion?

Again, I might be flying in the face of advice you’ve already received.

As we did for introductions, put yourself in the shoes of the examiner: a stranger, with no investment in you.  Harsh – scary perhaps, but true … They’ve probably got a good idea, from quite early on in the essay, of roughly how many marks to give you.  CRUCIALLY, your examiner only makes the final, binding decision (including whether to give you the benefit of the doubt on borderline Assessment Objectives) when they stop reading …

So, do you want them to be thinking ‘chaos‘ or ‘controlled‘ as your last words echo in their minds?  Revisiting my interview analogy, would you rather smile, thank people for their time and stride purposefully out of the room – or remember that you were the one who left without making eye contact and tried to exit via the stationary cupboard?

Parting ought to be ‘such sweet sorrow’ for the examiner, right?

r and j balcony.jpg
Just.One.More.Paragraph … ?

OK, what should I put in it?

Like your introduction, an effective conclusion doesn’t need to be lengthy – in fact the longer it is, the more likely it is to be waffly.  The good news is, therefore, that you don’t need to waste too much time on it.

Here are my ten tips for success:

  1. DO signal to the reader that you are summing up.  Using ‘to conclude‘ or ‘in conclusion‘ feels clumsy when there are so many other ways: ‘ultimately‘, ‘overall‘, etc;
  2. DO answer the question, expressing an opinion – especially if you haven’t until now.  Again, evaluative adverbs are useful;
  3. DO take the opportunity to discuss the effect on the audience.  Discuss the take-home message, or the thought and/or feelings the text (or this part of it) have created;
  4. DO use key words from the question text: example – if the question is about the supernatural, use that word;
  5. DO – if you have been provided with a quotation as part of your question – respond directly to that quotation;
  6. DON’T waffle on for more than 3 sentences or so;
  7. DON’T repeat what you said at the opening, unless you are doing this deliberately [bookending] to strengthen a point made;
  8. DON’T introduce any new material or ideas that you haven’t already made plausible in the body of your essay;
  9. DON’T let relief at finishing seduce you into a literary flourish. Ending with elaborate similes, metaphors or (please don’t) rhetorical questions could destroy the academic voice you’ve so carefully built up; and
  10. DON’T DON’T DON’T be tempted to finish with the twee note you might have written your teacher: ‘Sorry, this was awful‘ isn’t going to get you any sympathy marks.

EXAMPLES (the introductions to these answers can be viewed here)

GCSE: Macbeth: using the opening scene (the witches on the heath) as the extract given

Question:  Starting with this moment in the play, explore how Shakespeare presents attitudes towards the supernatural.

Answer:  As the extract ends, therefore, even a modern audience suspends their disbelief in the supernatural.  The witches have real authority in the play, and we look forward to their meeting with Macbeth with a mixture of dread and anticipation.

A Level extract:  Richard III: using Richard’s soliloquy after his final, pre-Bosworth dream as the extract given

Question:  Discuss the following passage, exploring Shakespeare’s use of language and its dramatic effect.

Answer:  These techniques combine to reinforce our growing suspicion that Richard’s will to power is eroding under the influence of Margaret’s curses.  But the glimpses of weakness, guilt and sorrow that Shakespeare has provided also subtly remind us of the doomed and frightened human being at the centre of these events, clouding our sense of how to react to Richard’s imminent death.

A Level whole-text question:  Richard III

Question:  ‘Man is not truly one, but truly two‘ – RL Stevenson.  Using your knowledge of the play as a whole, show how far you agree with this view of Richard.

Answer:  Stevenson, ultimately, is right when it comes to Richard as Shakespeare wrote him: ‘truly two’ characters in one body.  This is most clearly evident in Cooke’s portrayal, where as we have seen, techniques such as overt disability work to preserve intimacy and a kind of empathy with all Richard’s moods.  Olivier and Loncraine’s focus on tyranny, and the common influence of Hitler, are less satisfying because they result in more one-dimensional characters that we can only fear, never respect.

OVER TO YOU … are there any killer tips I’ve missed?

Author: Boar's Head, Eastcheap

Hyperactive English Teacher and Tutor; Shakespeare-obsessed 'Villainous abominable misleader of youth'; 'old white-bearded Satan'; Friend of the Orangutan

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