A conclusion offers the final word on a paper: the insight you hope to have imparted to your reader, your paper's moral or lesson.
As such, it is important that your conclusion do more than merely summarize the contents of your paper. Too often, a student begins the last paragraph of a paper with the words, "In conclusion...," then re-caps the contents of the entire essay, point for point, and simply leaves it at that.
A real conclusion, however, does more. Revisiting the main points of your paper in your final paragraph is a good idea, yes. But then, take things to the next level. Remember the question or claim you articulated in your thesis, whose resolution has been the main objective of your paper? That question now needs to be re-invoked and, this time, definitively answered. More still, you need to leave your reader with a higher level of insight into your topic, and an understanding of how your specific topic illuminates larger issues in history. If you can articulate what it is that has made you topic worthy of historical inquiry in the first place, and what its larger lessons are - then you have a strong conclusion indeed.
For an example, click here.
How can a conclusion do more than just summarize the contents of a paper's main body, or re-iterate its thesis? How can a conclusion illuminate, in closing, that its paper's topic is relevant to larger issues in history? An example:
Recall the central issue of our sample topic on "The Austrian Catholic Church and the Anschluss," as we articulated it in our thesis:
The story of Austrian Catholics under Nazi rule from 1938 - 1945, though marked by considerable heroism among the lower-ranking clergy and laypeople, is ultimately one of failed leadership. By reviewing the Anschluss and the years that followed, and by contrasting local acts of Catholic resistance with repeated acts of official collaboration at the highest level, this paper will show how Austria's Catholic Church, as an institution, lost not only its dominant social position during the years 1938 - 1945, but also much of its claim to moral authority.
Now consider our conclusion:
While rural Catholic priests suffered punishment, incarceration, and even death for local acts of resistance, the collaborating leadership remained largely silent. Yet it is evident that [Austrian Cardinal] Innitzer too was capable of an individual act of courage; it is as the guardian of an institution, whose preservation was more important to him than its moral integrity, that he ultimately failed. The Austrian experience during the years of the Anschluss reminds us once again that ordinary men and women can display enormous courage even when confronted by heinous authoritarian regimes, but that without dedicated leadership, such local acts of resistance remain doomed.
What do you think? Has the final sentence given the conclusion a dimension that helps it transcend the immediate scope of the paper's topic, makes it a useful question to apply to other events and issues in history, whether they be national liberation movements, civil rights movements, gender equality movements, or the like?
The introduction and conclusion serve important roles in a history paper. They are not simply perfunctory additions in academic writing, but are critical to your task of making a persuasive argument.
A successful introduction will:
- draw your readers in
- culminate in a thesis statement that clearly states your argument
- orient your readers to the key facts they need to know in order to understand your thesis
- lay out a roadmap for the rest of your paper
A successful conclusion will:
- draw your paper together
- reiterate your argument clearly and forcefully
- leave your readers with a lasting impression of why your argument matters or what it brings to light
How to write an effective introduction:
Often students get slowed down in paper-writing because they are not sure how to write the introduction. Do not feel like you have to write your introduction first simply because it is the first section of your paper. You can always come back to it after you write the body of your essay. Whenever you approach your introduction, think of it as having three key parts:
1. The opening line
2. The middle "stage-setting" section
3. The thesis statement
To see how to navigate these three parts in practice, look at the below examples of a weak and strong introduction. Suppose you are taking a Near Eastern history class and your professor has distributed the following paper prompt:
“In a 4-5 page paper, describe the process of nation-building in one Middle Eastern state. What were the particular goals of nation-building? What kinds of strategies did the state employ? What were the results? Be specific in your analysis, and draw on at least one of the scholars of nationalism that we discussed in class.”
Here is an example of a WEAK introduction for this prompt:
“One of the most important tasks the leader of any country faces is how to build a united and strong nation. This has been especially true in the Middle East, where the country of Jordan offers one example of how states in the region approached nation-building. Founded after World War I by the British, Jordan has since been ruled by members of the Hashemite family. To help them face the difficult challenges of founding a new state, they employed various strategies of nation-building.”
Now, here is a REVISED version of that same introduction:
“Since 1921, when the British first created the mandate of Transjordan and installed Abdullah I as its emir, the Hashemite rulers have faced a dual task in nation-building. First, as foreigners to the region, the Hashemites had to establish their legitimacy as Jordan’s rightful leaders. Second, given the arbitrary boundaries of the new nation, the Hashemites had to establish the legitimacy of Jordan itself, binding together the people now called ‘Jordanians.’ To help them address both challenges, the Hashemite leaders crafted a particular narrative of history, what Anthony Smith calls a ‘nationalist mythology.’ By presenting themselves as descendants of the Prophet Muhammad, as leaders of the Arab Revolt, and as the fathers of Jordan’s different tribal groups, they established the authority of their own regime and the authority of the new nation, creating one of the most stable states in the modern Middle East.”
The first draft of the introduction, while a good initial step, is not strong enough to set up a solid, argument-based paper. Here are the key issues:
1. Opening line: “One of the most important tasks the leader of any country faces is how to build a united and strong nation.”
- This first sentence is too general. From the beginning of your paper, you want to invite your reader into your specific topic, rather than make generalizations that could apply to any nation in any time or place. Students often run into the problem of writing general or vague opening lines, such as, “War has always been one of the greatest tragedies to befall society.” Or, “The Great Depression was one of the most important events in American history.” Avoid statements that are too sweeping or imprecise. Ask yourself if the sentence you have written can apply in any time or place or could apply to any event or person. If the answer is yes, then you need to make your opening line more specific.
- Here is the revised opening line: “Since 1921, when the British first created the mandate of Transjordan and installed Abdullah I as its emir, the Hashemite rulers have faced a dual task in nation-building.”
- This is a stronger opening line because it speaks precisely to the topic at hand. The paper prompt is not asking you to talk about nation-building in general, but nation-building in one specific place.
2. Stage-setting: “This has been especially true in the Middle East, where the country of Jordan offers one example of how states in the region approached nation-building. Founded after World War I by the British, Jordan has since been ruled by members of the Hashemite family.”
- This stage-setting section is also too general. Certainly, such background information is critical for the reader to know, but notice that it simply restates much of the information already in the prompt. The question already asks you to pick one example, so your job is not simply to reiterate that information, but to explain what kind of example Jordan presents. You also need to tell your reader why the context you are providing matters.
- Revised stage-setting: “First, as foreigners to the region, the Hashemites had to establish their legitimacy as Jordan’s rightful leaders. Second, given the arbitrary boundaries of the new nation, the Hashemites had to establish the legitimacy of Jordan itself, binding together the people now called ‘Jordanians.’ To help them address both challenges, the Hashemite rulers crafted a particular narrative of history, what Anthony Smith calls a ‘nationalist mythology.’”
- This stage-setting is stronger because it introduces the reader to the problem at hand. Instead of simply saying when and why Jordan was created, the author explains why the manner of Jordan’s creation posed particular challenges to nation-building. It also sets the writer up to address the questions in the prompt, getting at both the purposes of nation-building in Jordan and referencing the scholar of nationalism s/he will be drawing on from class: Anthony Smith.
3. Thesis statement: “To help them face the difficult challenges of founding a new state, they employed various strategies of nation-building.”
- This thesis statement restates the prompt rather than answers the question. You need to be specific about what strategies of nation-building Jordan’s leaders used. You also need to assess those strategies, so that you can answer the part of the prompt that asks about the results of nation-building.
- Revised thesis statement: “By presenting themselves as descendants of the Prophet Muhammad, as leaders of the Arab Revolt, and as the fathers of Jordan’s different tribal groups, they established the authority of their regime and the authority of the new nation, creating one of the most stable states in the modern Middle East.”
- This thesis statement is stronger because:
1. It directly answers the question in the prompt. Even though you will be persuading readers of your argument through the evidence you present in the body of your paper, you want to tell them at the outset exactly what you are arguing.
2. It discusses the significance of the argument, saying that Jordan created an especially stable state. This helps you answer the question about the results of Jordan’s nation-building project.
3. It offers a roadmap for the rest of the paper. The writer knows how to proceed and the reader knows what to expect. The body of the paper will discuss the Hashemite claims “as descendants from the Prophet Muhammad, as leaders of the Arab Revolt, and as the fathers of Jordan’s different tribal groups.”
If you write your introduction first, be sure to revisit it after you have written your entire essay. Because your paper will evolve as you write, you need to go back and make sure that the introduction still sets up your argument and still fits your organizational structure.
How to write an effective conclusion:
Your conclusion serves two main purposes. First, it reiterates your argument in different language than you used in the thesis and body of your paper. Second, it tells your reader why your argument matters. In your conclusion, you want to take a step back and consider briefly the historical implications or significance of your topic. You will not be introducing new information that requires lengthy analysis, but you will be telling your readers what your paper helps bring to light. Perhaps you can connect your paper to a larger theme you have discussed in class, or perhaps you want to pose a new sort of question that your paper elicits. There is no right or wrong “answer” to this part of the conclusion: you are now the “expert” on your topic, and this is your chance to leave your reader with a lasting impression based on what you have learned.
Here is an example of an effective conclusion for the same essay prompt:
“To speak of the nationalist mythology the Hashemites created, however, is not to say that it has gone uncontested. In the 1950s, the Jordanian National Movement unleashed fierce internal opposition to Hashemite rule, crafting an alternative narrative of history in which the Hashemites were mere puppets to Western powers. Various tribes have also reasserted their role in the region’s past, refusing to play the part of “sons” to Hashemite “fathers.” For the Hashemites, maintaining their mythology depends on the same dialectical process that John R. Gillis identified in his investigation of commemorations: a process of both remembering and forgetting. Their myth remembers their descent from the Prophet, their leadership of the Arab Revolt, and the tribes’ shared Arab and Islamic heritage. It forgets, however, the many different histories that Jordanians champion, histories that the Hashemite mythology has never been able to fully reconcile.”
This is an effective conclusion because it moves from the specific argument addressed in the body of the paper to the question of why that argument matters. The writer rephrases the argument by saying, “Their myth remembers their descent from the Prophet, their leadership of the Arab Revolt, and the tribes’ shared Arab and Islamic heritage.” Then, the writer reflects briefly on the larger implications of the argument, showing how Jordan’s nationalist mythology depended on the suppression of other narratives.
Introduction and Conclusion checklist
When revising your introduction and conclusion, check them against the following guidelines:
Does my introduction:
1. draw my readers in?
2. culminate in a thesis statement that clearly states my argument?
3. orient my readers to the key facts they need to know in order to understand my thesis?
4. lay out a roadmap for the rest of my paper?
Does my conclusion:
1. draw my paper together?
2. reiterate my argument clearly and forcefully?
3. leave my readers with a lasting impression of why my argument matters or what it brings to light?
Download as PDF