Introductions and Conclusions

Have you ever read something that you couldn’t put down and then continued to think about it long after you finished? Good writing has that effect in general, but a strong introduction and conclusion are essential to engaging the reader from start to finish.

The introduction of a paper introduces the topic and scope of the discussion to prepare the reader for what follows, and the conclusion offers thoughtful analytic commentary or a synopsis that wraps up the discussion with final thoughts. In other words, the introduction and conclusion depend on everything that comes between them. With this in mind, an effective strategy for composing an introduction and a conclusion is to write everything that comes between them first. With the body of the paper drafted, you will know the topic well enough to introduce it effectively and you can also more readily determine where and how the discussion should end.

Consider the following characteristics of effective introductions and conclusions:

Characteristics of Effective Introductions

Provides relevant background information: Regardless of the topic, readers need a context to understand your remarks. A good introduction will include necessary background information about the topic that enables readers to understand the topic’s importance and why what you have to say about it matters. Providing context such as background information helps the reader feel grounded so that they can easily follow the development of the discussion.

Engages the reader: A good introduction will capture the attention of readers so that they want to read the paragraphs beyond the introduction. Enough specific information is presented so that readers are interested in the topic and what the writer plans to do with it. An engaging introduction invites readers into the world of the writing.

Sets the appropriate tone: The opening paragraph establishes the tone – the spirit and attitude behind the words – that the writer will use in a piece of writing. The tone should be a conscious choice as it reflects how the writer feels about the subject and about the audience, as well as the degree of formality of the writing. In most academic writing, the general tone is formal, but it may be more or less formal depending on the exact purpose of the writing. For example, a piece of writing with the purpose of introducing a new employee will probably be less formal and more personable than, say, a persuasive essay.

Establishes the focus and purpose: The introduction must make the focus and purpose of the paper clear to readers. Many writers include a thesis statement that establishes the focus and purpose and forecasts the main points. Even without an explicit thesis statement, the focus and purpose of the paper need to be just as clear. If readers do not understand the focus or what the writer hopes to accomplish, subsequent paragraphs may not make sense to readers.

Options for Introductions

The following is collection of some rhetorical strategies for writing introductions. Oftentimes an introduction will have characteristics of more than one strategy, so you should treat this list as a compilation of possibilities, not as a prescription of how certain types of beginnings must look. Try out a number of options to get a sense of the possibilities and then determine which would work best for your topic, purpose, and audience. The more you work on your introduction and think about what you are trying to say in your paper as a whole, the easier it will be to write an effective introduction.

Establish the Issue

Use the introduction to help make the case that the topic you are writing about is important and relevant and to provide context for your readers.

In the last decade or so, American culture has become increasingly tolerant of teenage sexuality. Many parents, too busy in their lives, are not proactive in educating their teens on issues related to sexuality. Educators are often left with the role of providing basic information about the subject even as more and more sexual education classes are cut from the curriculum. Where does this leave curious teens? Statistics show that 75 percent of teens have had sex by the time they are nineteen years old. The teenage birth rate continues to climb as do reported cases of sexually transmitted diseases (Healy, 2008). Cleary, it is imperative to develop intervention programs that teach adolescents the effective skills in delaying early sexual behaviors. Early education on delaying sexual activity for teens can drastically decrease teenage pregnancies, prevent the spread of STDs, and help teens to make the right choices that can impact the rest of their lives.

Asking relevant questions can be an excellent way to engage readers and get their attention. In the example below, the writer begins with a universal question that most readers can relate to.

Did you ever think that your life would change dramatically in a matter of twenty-four hours? One day you have a certain kind of life – a home, nearby schools for your kids, a wonderful neighborhood, good job, friends – and the next day it is all gone, irreversibly changed. As a resident of New Orleans, Louisiana, I had always known that a major hurricane could strike, but even knowing this fact could not prepare me for what happened in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. Hurricane Katrina demonstrated the need for residents to evacuate when mandated, for local and state authorities to work more efficiently together, and for the federal government to respond in a timely and responsible manner.

Use a narrative Most people enjoy reading a good story, so beginning with a narrative can be an effective way to connect with your readers.

It was a dark and stormy night. The wind whipped through the trees while lightening flashed and thunder boomed. Up ahead on a hill, a rickety old house stood. In an upstairs window, a single, solitary light shone, casting an eerie shadow across the yard. I was in Chattanooga, Tennessee, on business, and was driving to the outskirts of the city to visit my aunt, an old woman I hadn’t seen in nearly twenty years. According to my directions, that rickety old house was my aunt’s house, but I didn’t know if I had the nerve to knock on the door. In fact, I couldn’t remember a time I had been more scared. Everyone experiences fear just as everyone experiences happiness or sadness. Fear is a natural human emotion to the unknown and is characterized by physical changes to the body, an innate need to escape, and acute awareness of one’s surroundings.

Use an Attention Getter

Begin with a statement that will catch your readers’ attention and makes them want to continue reading.

Some children cannot sit still. They appear distracted by every little thing and do not seem to learn from their mistakes. These children disregard rules, even when they are punished repeatedly. It’s simple—their parents must not know how to control them. The truth is that attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder or ADHD is not understood appropriately. In fact, ADHD is a growing problem that requires more research to understand the issue, better intervention programs to help afflicted children, and improved training and support programs to help parents and educators.

Use an Extended Example or Series of Examples

Providing anecdotal examples can be a very effective way to capture your readers’ attention. Choose relevant, memorable examples.

According to the Federal Highway and Transportation Agency (2008), the majority of Americans, some 57%, do not regularly wear seat belts. Teddy Biro didn’t wear one when the car he was driving skidded on an icy road and hit a utility pole; Biro was catapulted through his front windshield and died of blood loss from a severed jugular vein. The coroner reported he had no other injuries besides minor abrasions. Bob Nettleblatt wasn’t wearing a seat belt when a car rear-ended him at a stop sign. Nettleblatt slammed his head into his front windshield and required 137 stitches to close up the laceration; investigators at the scene said if he had been wearing a seat belt, he would have been virtually unhurt from the 2 mph rear end collision (Fischer, 2007). Despite what is known about the safety of wearing seatbelts, too many Americans still do not buckle up, resulting in enormous emergency medical costs and fatalities that could be avoided. Despite what some people think, wearing a seatbelt is not a choice nor does it violate one’s personal rights. Wearing a seatbelt is the law and more needs to be done to enforce the law, punish those who break it, and educate young drivers to the dangers of not buckling up.

Define an Essential Term

To use this strategy, choose a term that is central to your paper and define it. This will help to engage your readers and make them want to continue reading. In the example below, the writer uses an extended example to define the term “collect.”

My friend George is a record fiend. Every room of his house contains floor-to-ceiling shelves filled entirely with record albums organized alphabetically regardless of genre. Stack after stack of record albums are piled high in the center of rooms, in corners, and in hallways. They are stacked under tables and in cupboards. One entire closet contains by George’s estimation over twenty-five hundred unsorted albums he purchased at flea markets, estate sales, and record shows. The parts of walls exposed contain framed original album covers—the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, Muddy Waters’ Electric Mud, John Coltrane’s Giant Steps. He owns commercially released albums, limited edition releases, reviewer copies, test pressings, and bootlegs. On most weekends, George travels to record shows and collectors conventions. He writes a weekly blog devoted to obscure records and another on the art of record collecting. His obsession with record collecting has cost him jobs, friends, and a wife. And still he collects.

Dramatize a Scene

Crafting a dramatic scene can go a long way toward making your readers want to read your work!

4 AM, March 28, 1979 and the floor of the control room at Three Mile Island nuclear power station jumps to life. The two control room operators are jolted from their mid-shift doldrums as alarms begin to sound, and the pounding in the auxiliary room is deafening. What those at the station did not know was that the “worst crisis yet experienced by the nation’s nuclear power industry” (Kemeny, 1979, p. 37) had just begun, and its impact wouldn’t be realized for years to come, if ever.

Three Mile Island nuclear power station was located on an island in the middle of the Susquehanna River near Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. It contained two separate nuclear power plants, TMI 1 and TMI 2. TMI 1 had been shut down for maintenance, but TMI 2 was operating at 97% of rated power providing electricity to the area (Carraway, 2000). Within seconds of the first alarm, a chain of events would commence to destroy the nuclear reactor and with it, the future of the nuclear power industry in this country.

Use a Quote

Using a relevant quotation, whether it is direct or indirect, can also help engage your reader.

An observer once said that New Orleanians are either having a party, recuperating from a party, or planning a party. The biggest and best party of all and the city’s most famous celebration is Mardi Gras, the greatest free show on earth. Despite the image the popular media displays to outsiders, Mardi Gras is a yearly celebration that is much tamer than most realize, brings family and friends together, and promotes unity among diverse groups of people.

Shocking but true statements or statistics can help draw your readers in.

McDonald’s has sold over 100 billion burgers. One hundred billion burgers with bun, stacked on top of one another would extend over 2.9 million miles into space–twelve times as far as the moon (Grimes, 2007). What is the secret of McDonald’s incredible success? To use the words of Ray Kroc, McDonald’s founder, the secret to McDonald’s success is that the fast-food giant produces “consistently mediocre food” (as cited in Thomas, 2001). The McDonald’s corporation has become a model of success due to its understanding of its market niche, its ability to redefine its image over time, and its ability to remain stable and produce a profit even in difficult economic times.

Characteristics of an Effective Conclusion

Brings the writing to a logical close: A conclusion provides the necessary signal to readers that the business of the essay is winding down, and the reader is being returned to the world outside of the essay. This transition should be fluid and the parting content thoughtful so that readers are prepared for and satisfied with the ending.

Reinforces the main idea in an engaging manner: Just as the introduction provides a first impression, the conclusion provides the last impression. The conclusion should reinforce the main idea of the work in a way that is fresh and not merely a perfunctory rehashing of what the essay discussed. Use the ending as your last chance to reach your audience and make sure the main point, its significance and/or its larger implications, are understood.

Leaves readers with something to think about: Ideally, a conclusion will bring the world of the essay to a close in such a way that even though the business of reading has ended, the audience does not stop thinking about what the essay said – its ideas. You don’t want an audience to end reading an essay, thinking “So what?” Provide some content that engages readers with what is important about the topic and your discussion of it so that the meaning of the writing stays with readers.

Options for Conclusions

What follows is a list of possible ways to conclude your writing. Depending on the purpose of the writing, some endings are more appropriate than others, so give careful thought to these techniques and try out a number of appropriate possibilities. Please also keep in mind that these options, like the offerings for introductions, can be combined so that a conclusion may have characteristics of more than one type of ending.

Most of the options for introductions can also be used for conclusions as well. Recall the introduction in which the writer was telling the story of the dark and stormy night he went to visit an aunt he hadn’t seen in decades. The conclusion could pick up where the introduction left off, or it could tell the story of another fearful situation the writer experienced, but the same general technique, a narrative in this case, could be used.

What follows is a list of additional ways in which you can compose a conclusion for your writing.

The Echo

The idea of the echo is to repeat key words or phrases to create an “echo” that gets at a particular meaning or emphasizes a certain idea important to the writing. In the example below, note how the repetition of “Too many drivers” emphasizes the idea and, in essence, creates an echo readers will hear.

Too many drivers act in inappropriate ways when they get behind the wheel of a motor vehicle. Too many drivers are unnecessarily aggressive, darting in and out of traffic, running stop lights, putting everyone else on the road in peril. Too many drivers are just plain inconsiderate as if they are the only ones on the road. And too many of those drivers are just like you and me – good, decent people until we get in our cars.

Audience Appeal

The writer shows or points out directly to the audience how things are or the likely consequences if certain conditions remain the same. The content is presented in such a way that the burden of responsibility lies with the audience. This approach is well suited for writing that has a persuasive purpose.

The current political culture allows for staggering sums of money to be spent on campaigns. The basic idea is not so much about content as it is about getting the word out and creating a buzz. The more one hears about a candidate, the greater the buzz. And, of course, creating a buzz costs money, but, as advertisers have known for a long time, it is money well spent. Getting elected is a lot like selling laundry detergent, and until American citizens let their governmental advertisers know that they’ve had enough, that spending millions of dollars – even if it’s a candidate’s own money – to hold an office is ludicrous, then they have no one but themselves to blame.

State the “So What?”

With this ending, the writer essentially states the deeper meaning of the piece of writing so that the idea is not only clear, but it is also emphasized.

Today, Maine is one of only ten states that has not passed public charter school legislation. Maine’s current public school choice offerings are slim at best. Current choices include only traditional public schools or private schools. Whether the reason for wanting other alternatives is personal or educational, Maine families should be afforded another choice in public education. It’s time for Maine to recognize that public charter schools are a valuable choice in free public education.

Clinching Statement

With this type of conclusion, the writer uses a thought-provoking final statement that communicates the essence of the piece of writing and stays with readers.

For most residents living in hurricane-prone New Orleans, the first of June simply marks the beginning of another local season—hurricane season. The media quickly saturate the airwaves with hurricane season predictions, hurricane preparedness reminders and checklists, evacuation routes and guidelines, mini-lessons on the benefits of super Doppler imagery, and, certainly up until Katrina, doomsday predictions of what could happen if a major hurricane hit New Orleans. The information delivered was such standard fare that few gave it much thought. Hurricane Katrina changed all that. Katrina taught New Orleanians to be mindful of hurricane season and to pay attention—really pay attention—to what was swirling out near or in the Gulf. And even though by meteorological standards, Katrina was not the Big One, the apocalyptic aftermath of the storm and the physical and psychological damage it caused added up to something far greater than anyone expected.

Back to the Beginning

This ending uses content that in some way refers back to the beginning of the essay, not in a redundant way but in a manner that makes an important connection.

While friends will drift in and out of our lives, disappearing and maybe reappearing, some will be as constant as the stars in the sky. These friends – the essence of true friends – we will keep forever. These few friends will always be around, will see us through thick and thin, good and bad, no matter what, because that is what true friends do.

While the tendency when writing a conclusion is to offer a summary of what came before, now you have options for a conclusion that will move beyond a mere summary and bring the writing to a thoughtful and graceful exit.

Ernest Hemingway, the great 20th century American writer, claimed to have written 256 different endings for his short novel The Old Man and the Sea. According to Hemingway, he needed to get it right. While you may not have the time to try so many different conclusions, do keep in mind what Hemingway clearly knew: For a conclusion to be successful, it needs to be satisfying. Good endings create a sense of closure, a sense that the business of the essay has come to a completion; the reader is not expecting more. Like an introduction that makes a good first impression, the conclusion makes the final impression, and you want it to be lasting.