Ivory Tower Writing #11: Writing a conclusive conclusion

This post covers some practices on how to write a conclusion that’s conclusive.

At this point, we’re almost done with the paper. You’ve fleshed out your ideas in paragraph after paragraph and you don’t have anything more to say. But wait, there’s still one part left: the conclusion.

Cue the groans.

“But I’ve already made my point! Why do I have to write more?”

Well, as I’ve said before, academic writing is a circular process. Like it or not, you have to write a conclusion. So, let’s get down to business.

What’s a conclusion?

Like all good academics, we have to dabble in definitions first. Don’t worry, I won’t make it cumbersome.

A conclusion serves as your last attempt to deliver your point to the reader. To use a debating analogy, in the Asian Parliament system, it’s analogous to the function of a team’s Whip or third speaker. They do not deliver new arguments or ideas—you’ve done that already in your body. Instead, they reiterate and reinforce your existing arguments and show how your arguments make sense.

Now you may be asking, “How do I do that?”

Patience, we’ll get to that.

What makes a good conclusion?

Before we know what makes a good conclusion, we need to know what bad conclusions look like. And what better way to do that than uncovering my own early works.

When I was in my freshman years and had little experience writing, I thought of conclusions as the easiest thing to write (Oh boy was I wrong). I mean, all I had to do was restate my arguments right? It turns out that’s not the case.

As you can see, that’s pretty much a basic conclusion. It summarizes and reiterates the main arguments that I’ve written. However, it lacks that ‘oomph’ factor and comes across as bland.

There’s a saying that circulates in the writing circle:

“If you don’t imagine yourself dropping the mic and walking gracefully off stage when you write your conclusion, it’s probably bad.”

How do you achieve such levels of awesomeness? In an academic sense, your conclusion ought to do more than simply repeat—it should reorient. As such,  here’s a rudimentary framework consisting of two elements for writing conclusions.

Reiteration and synthesis. Of course, you should restate your main arguments. But you may consider doing it in a non-repetitive manner. Make sure to highlight the main points and most importantly, synthesize. Don’t just repeat arguments, show how they’re interconnected with one another. Show how they make sense in the broader sense of things. If you remember the post on the literature review, positioning is an important element of a paper. You can re-emphasize your paper’s positioning in the conclusion, too!

For example of how a conclusion reiterates, synthesises, and positions one’s research, see Hwang’s [paywall] last paragraph in her study about the disengagement of Indonesian jihadis:

Is the Indonesian experience with disengagement unique? I would contend it is not. Long before JI ever faced dilemmas over Osama Bin Laden’s fatwa, Al Gamaah al Islamiyah decided to demobilize and disarm, publishing some 25 books and pamphlets reassessing their ideological principles regarding the use of violence. More recently, both Indonesian and British fighters with ISIS have sought to return home, disillusioned by attacks against Muslims. More broadly, the findings here echo studies of individual disengagement among Scandinavian neo-Nazi and skinhead gangs and fighters with the Irish Republican Army. That we can find similar narratives the world over is indicative that disillusionment, cost-benefit assessments, new relationships and social networks, and changing priorities are key factors in the disengagement process. What may possibly be unique is that one can be a JI member or a Tanah Runtuh member and be opposed to terror attacks against civilian targets. Thus, one’s identity as a JI member, while supportive of participation in legitimate jihads, is not tied to participating in, sanctioning, or excusing the use of violence against civilians. Those who participated in terror attacks both within JI and its affiliates (outside of conflict zones) were always factions within larger movements. This actuality may make the process of disengagement easier on the psyche.

Notice the passages that I’ve bolded. The first one reiterates Hwang’s thesis statement in the introduction (download the paper to read more). The second one kinda positions her research among others in the field. Notice how she highlights specifically which studies her findings are closely related to. At the same time, Hwang also highlights the uniqueness of her research—jihadis may host two radically different identities which may aid disengagement—in the third bolded sentence.

Redirection. Some of the better conclusions I’ve read try to point me in another direction or reorient my thinking of the subject. For example, read this quote from Laksmana’s conclusion in his article discussing Indonesia’s ‘strategic trinity’ [paywall]:

Furthermore, because geography as a determinant of foreign policy and national security system is permanent, understanding Indonesia’s geopolitical architecture could form the initial basis of any assessment—and in some cases, policy predictions—of the country’s future trajectory in the future. As a final word of caution, however, while this paper has arguably provided the initial skeleton and sketch of Indonesia’s geopolitical architecture, how and under what conditions that structure will be ‘filled’ to take the country forward would depend on the political will of the existing government.

As you can see, he doesn’t just reiterate, he also points out areas of potential research or interest. In this sense, he attempts to help out his readers—who are probably fellow academics—find new ground to cover. I’m pretty sure this counts as being awesome in the academic circle.

Conclusion

So, we’ve covered what good conclusions look like. They reiterate, synthesize, and possibly redirect the reader to new areas of interest. Now, hopefully you don’t just write conclusions that summarize without going the extra mile to assert yourself and maybe help other academics in your field.

Hope you enjoyed reading this and join me next week for more Ivory Tower Writing! If you have any comments or questions, feel free to write a comment below!

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