Wednesday, August 12, 2009

How (not) to write your conclusion

I have, against all odds and expectations, written a book that is over 90,000 words long, including notes and bibliography. For me, that's something, considering that I've yet to have an article crack 20 pages in print. In fact, the bibliography alone for this book project is longer than any paper I ever wrote in grad school. I write short.

But one part of this whole project has been eluding me: the conclusion. I hated writing the conclusion to my dissertation, and it was only there because it had to be. Same thing with the conclusion to the manuscript I submitted to Press back in September: I wrote the conclusion-shaped object at the end in a 36-hour period, desperate to get it out the door 48 hours before my tenure file was due. As one of my readers said: "This is a strong book with a very weak conclusion." Well, yeah.

But now, with my deadline approaching,** I need a conclusion. A real one. I've known that since September. But here's how I managed not to write one:

1. September - April: Tell self that conclusion can't be written until I hear back from readers

2. April - May: I have readers' reports, but now need to write revisions. Once those are done, I'll know what it is I'm concluding about. But I can't begin the revisions until I get through this semester then get back from all my summer travel.

3. June - mid-July: Summer travel.

4. Mid-July - mid-August: Revisions. Chapter conclusions. Rewrites.

About a week ago, I decided that, with the deadline close enough to touch, I really couldn't put it off any longer. Still, "outline conclusion" remained on my "Three things" list for a couple of days. Yesterday, in the final hour before putting myself to bed, I managed to toss of a desultory couple of bullet points.

But this morning was different. This morning, I got up, took my computer to the coffee shop at 7:15, sat down, and asked myself, "What do I know about this project right now?" No peeking at last night's notes, or the manuscript as a whole. What do I know?

And I started to write. And 90 minutes later, I had 700 words. Then I added 700 of the best words from the conclusion-shaped object, and 200 from last night's bullet points. And all of a sudden, unexpectedly, I have a draft. It will need revision, of course, but it's going to be a fine place to start. Ten months of dread, procrastination, and avoidance, all taken care of in under two hours. So here's this blog entry's thesis statement:


**Oh, for those of you who may have been wondering, I did indeed ask my editor for a one-week extension, and he granted it, no problem. So my conclusion and I have a bit of breathing room.


clio's disciple said...

Go you! Go go go! (Imagine me cheering you on with pompoms...that should be good for a laugh.)

Seamyst said...

Considering that I'm kind of avoiding writing the intro and conclusion to my thesis (mainly because chapter 3 is still kicking my butt), this is very timely.

Anonymous said...

It all comes back to "apply butt to chair!"

Susan said...

My first drafts of conclusions tend to be "So truth and beauty triumph" or "Evil people do evil things" or something else completely platitudinous. It takes a long time for me to say HOW truth and beauty triumph, or whatever, and why it matters, and what difference it makes to how we understand blah blah blah.
But I think most of us hate conclusions.

Anonymous said...

I used to get comments on my essays like "you seem to be saying this, Jon: why not add a paragraph at the end that says so?" so this is something to which I can relate. But as with your experience mine has been: do, yes, gather the whole project into your mind as far as you can. Then, go away from it, imagine an unconvinced audience and write them an answer to the question. As a result I think the conclusion to my eventual book is the bit I'm most pleased with, because it's comparatively well-written and makes my work sound important. I can read it back and enjoy it. This is an excellent way to feel good about yourself and I recommend it :-) Glad you are getting similar results.

Anonymous said...

Yea, I hate writing conclusions too. I always feel like "if you haven't been paying attention all along, why should I now tell you what you should have been reading.?"
So what happened to jury duty?

Historiann said...

I'm glad you have a good start on a conclusion you like, but take heart: most of us only skim the conclusion. (Most of us who read the entire rest of the book, that is--grad students looking to skim a book for their reading lists might lean more heavily on your conclusion.)

For my conclusions, I go for the brief and largely symbolic.

Bookbag said...

I don't like writing conclusions, either, and I feel about the same about introductions. Bleh. But I think your writing advice is right on.

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