It’s not you. Academic book conclusions are difficult to write, a difficulty that can be traced to the writing process itself. By the time an author gets to a book’s conclusion, they may well be tired. Collecting data, synthesizing knowledge, and making an original argument is intellectually and physically taxing. They also lack a clear format, unlike an introduction, which has a familiar organizational scheme. For all these reasons, conclusions are where authors are most prone to relying on writing crutches. The conclusion is where anxieties can take hold of otherwise confident authors. Which is a shame, since conclusions are the most frequently read chapter in a book after an introduction. So what should you do in a conclusion, and how do good conclusions read?
Conclusions are places to rely on your own scholarship and voice. One first-time book author’s conclusion included a paragraph on Foucault, full of citations to Foucault (1977). I had to gently remind my client that they were the author of their own book. If a reader wished to read Foucault—1977 or otherwise—they could just do so. If the reader made it to the conclusion of a book, they wish to know what you have to say. Plus, introducing a new A-list scholar in the final act of a play is never a good idea. It’s unlikely to appease Foucauldians—who probably would prefer a more robust Foucaldian approach—and will confuse others. In the final revision, a single Foucault reference remained, nestled in a paragraph that showcased the author’s synthetic thinking—a way to tip your hat to a prominent scholar without coming off timid.
Conclusions should where new, high-level knowledge is generated, based on sub-arguments across the book. That is, they should consist of more than restating what the author wrote in the rest of the book. Conclusions are where authors think they should “sum up” by reminding the reader what they just read (assuming, charitably, they did). But resist rote repetition. Summarization should be confined to a single paragraph and not infect the whole chapter. If it helps, start off the second paragraph with “In this book I have shown” (maybe this is rephrased in a successive edit, which would be no great loss). Briefly revisit the high-level points of each chapter, then get on with the show.
Conclusions should be long-form writing, not to-do lists. Because conclusions are places where authors doubt themselves, otherwise confident writers are tempted to use overly explicit organizational strategies. Authors often translate otherwise rich and multi-dimensional arguments into “lessons” or “critical questions,” each anointed with its own header. Such an approach is serviceable enough from an editorial perspective; at least the author is consciously organizing their thoughts on the page! Still, such explicit organizational schemes make implicit ways of organizing ideas conform to explicit ones. Rather than enriching main points through what Eric Hayot calls implicit metalanguage—which can be lively and personal—authors package their ideas in listicle form. It’s not terrible, but not great either.
So what are examples of good conclusions that aren’t timid, repetitive, or stilted? When confronted with this question, I often present clients with what I feel are excellent conclusions that capture the soul of a book and the voice of its author. Let’s call the below examples “genres of good conclusions.” By approaching the conclusion as a sub-genre of academic book writing, we can move past viewing conclusions in the negative. So let’s consider a few genres of good conclusions! (I have not included the actual texts due to obvious copyright, but assume the curious can locate their own)
In his classic text Rules for Radicals (1971), Saul Alinsky offers lessons to activists about how to organize social movements. Its conclusion doesn’t list, since each book chapter features one lesson. Rather, he writes directly to the reader to make a specific request: radicalize the American middle class. Rather than restating lessons, he goes further by showing the reader how they can be applied. Hence, the conclusion’s title: “The Way Ahead.” We could call this genre of conclusion a “call to arms.”
Melissa Gregg is an unimpeachable synthetic thinker, so I pulled out my copy of Work’s Intimacy (2011) when looking for an example of a conclusion that speaks to multiple audiences and balances their perspectives. She starts by returning to her main analytic concept, intimacy, to situate why it is important to New Media scholarship. Then she returns to the words of her research participants—always an intellectually and stylistically generous move—before using a presentation by Steve Jobs and the movie Up in the Air as foils for her critique. She even includes a mini “call to arms” by writing “a labor politics of love must fight this corporatization of intimacy” (p. 172). These types of phrase use language to make her stance clear, and examples from popular culture broaden the scope of the world she’s charted. By synthesizing knowledge across sites, she’s able to write to researchers, practitioners, and the workers who find themselves bound to corporate environments by intimacy. Her inclusion is an example of the “big synthesis” genre that also draws a bit on the “call to arms.”
Authors can let themselves be vulnerable in their conclusions, as Kevin Driscoll does in Modem World (2022). He starts with a kind of mea culpa—a story about how students in a class he taught came to believe that the prehistory of Bulletin Board Systems (BBSs) was a utopian period. While incorrect, he is sympathetic to his students, and interprets the importance of his book through their eyes. “People aren’t the problem,” he writes, “the problem is the platforms” (p. 196). His conclusion is dialectical historiography at its very best. He applies the history he’s charted to argue that another internet is possible—enlivening his object of study and making it relevant, without regarding it with unnecessary nostalgia. I’d call this genre of conclusion the “personal reflection.”
Whether a call to arms, big synthesis, or personal reflection, conclusions can be more than just serviceable—they can showcase an author’s voice and represent the very soul of a book. Authors simply need to seize the opportunity to consciously shape them!
Dr. Aure / Andrew Schrock is the Senior Editor at Indelible Voice, an editing service for academic book proposals, book manuscripts, and journal article manuscripts. You can find them on Twitter at @aschrock.