Six: Introductions and Conclusions

At the beginning of every semester, I had a little exercise we always did in class to identify our biggest writing weaknesses.

We went around the classroom and each student took turns naming what he or she believed were the top two or three most difficult parts about writing.

This exercise is helpful for a couple of reasons. For one, it allows students to begin the process of self-reflection that all successful writers must engage in. In order to get better, we need to be able to identify our weaknesses.

Another advantage of this writing exercise is it helps students see that the issues they struggle with are not unique to their own writing. During the course of the exercise, we realize as a class that the vast majority of students all struggle with the same four or five different problems.

Finally, as a teacher, I found this practice of vocalizing writing weaknesses helpful because it allowed me to identify places to focus instruction as we proceeded through the syllabus. I learned what topics students wanted help with, and the students themselves became cognizant of their blind spots by calling them out in front of their peers.

Like I said, inevitably the same four or five issues surfaced in every class. And, based on the title of this lesson, I bet you can guess the most commonly mentioned writing weakness for my students. Yep. Introductions and Conclusions.

It seems almost every student I taught struggled to write strong introductions and conclusions for their papers. In our one-on-one consultations, time and time again we talked about how to revise an introduction or we’d try to come up with a good way to end the paper. The fact of the matter is, these two important paragraphs are just hard to write.

In this lesson, we will examine the concept of introductory and concluding paragraphs. We will look at why they’re so difficult to write. And we’ll focus on some helpful strategies for crafting good introductions and conclusions on your own.

How to Write a Good Introduction

The best tip I can give on writing good introductions is to not write introductions at all. Period. End of lesson. Now let’s go home.

I’m joking, but only a little.

So many times I have seen students sit in front of a word processor with a flashing cursor waiting for the perfect opening line to come. I’ve done it myself even.

It’s so easy to get paralyzed by the anxiety-inducing blank screen. How will we ever come up with some clever way of introducing this topic when we haven’t even fully formed our thoughts on it? The answer is you won’t.

The only way to overcome this writing paralysis is to skip the introduction entirely. Start writing a body paragraph. Don’t even bother introducing the topic first.

Later, you can go back and write an introduction once you have a first draft written. This will make the introduction much easier because you will actually know what it is you are introducing.

Writing the introduction first often leads to sweeping opening sentences and broad generalizations that say absolutely nothing.

Ever since the beginning of time, we humans have been social creatures.

This opening sentence begins much too broadly and frankly, it’s kind of a foolish statement when you think about it. But I’ve certainly seen my share of student papers that begin this way.

Another common mistake in paper introductions is the use of a cliché like a dictionary definition.

According to Webster’s Dictionary, protest is defined as…

This is another symptom of a writer who attempts to introduce a topic before he fully understands the point he is making. So he falls back on a cliché and an oversimplification of the argument. Suffice it to say, do not use a dictionary definition in your introduction.

It is important for students to have some idea of the argument they are attempting to make before they begin writing. This is where the “working thesis” comes into play. But do not attempt to introduce the topic until you have some context for that introduction.

Once the draft is in place, then return to the beginning of the paper and work on that introduction. Nine times out of ten, my students and I found that they could scrap the first paragraph of the rough draft altogether. It’s usually just a crutch we use until we actually start walking.

How to Write a Good Conclusion

One reason it’s so difficult to write good conclusions is because of the way they are often taught in high school. If you’ve ever learned the five-paragraph format for writing essays, then you know what I mean.

I. Introduction
– Thesis Statement
II. Supporting Point A
III. Supporting Point B
IV. Supporting Point C
V. Conclusion

The structure is so basic and easily teachable that it often becomes the default strategy for teaching high school composition. While it’s a helpful way to organize your thoughts, it’s not exactly the most interesting or creative way to write. And the conclusion gets the worst treatment of all in this simplistic structure.

The five-paragraph essay template teaches students to use the conclusion to “restate the main arguments” of the paper. Those points you just made a few sentences ago? Yeah, go ahead and say them again, but in slightly different words.

So boring!

No wonder student writers struggle with this strictly-formatted paper conclusion. We all know it’s boring and it feels like a cheap way out. It’s not fair to our readers and we know it’s not interesting, so our brains resist it.

If we were talking to our friends at a party, would we recap everything we covered before walking away? No way. Because it would be weird as heck. We don’t speak like robots and we shouldn’t write that way either.

The conclusion is the last thing your reader will see. You want to leave a good impression that sticks in her mind. You want her to still be thinking about your argument hours later. A boring restatement of the facts will not do that. It feels inauthentic and forced. It’s okay to do a little reinforcing of your main argument, but don’t belabor the point.

Instead, try concluding with an interesting thought about the discussion you’ve just laid out in the paper. Ask your reader a question. Use some humor. Make a prediction. Drop a mind-blowing statistic. Anything that will stand out.

The tricky part is you need to find a natural break in the action so it doesn’t feel like you fell asleep mid-sentence. Finding the right place to stop writing can take practice. It’s not always clear when you have made your point. Unfortunately, not every paper ends with a mic drop.

My advice to students is to pay attention to how other writers use conclusions. Look at magazine articles or newspapers. They usually do a pretty good job of ending exactly at the point where they’ve given all of the information but haven’t overloaded us. Studying the best practices of others is a great way to improve our own craft.

Final Thoughts on Introductions and Conclusions

If you struggle to write good introductions and conclusions, then rest assured you are not alone. Of all the issues college composition students face, the first and last paragraphs of the paper seem to be the most difficult to master.

The best introductions and conclusions are creative and do not adhere to strict guidelines. Study the writing of others and do your best to emulate the styles you personally enjoy. Above all, good writing is interesting.

When you’re ready, move on to Lesson Seven:  Picking Good Quotes, or check out our Resource page.