Your Essay’s Argument Might Be Hiding in Your Conclusion

by Sonia Epstein

“a thesis statement shouldn’t be a teaser-trailer; it should be the ‘tl;dr’ of your paper”

I’m finishing up an essay about a 19th century British novel, a pretty typical “marriage plot” novel whose curtain closes on a headstrong female protagonist, now with a ring around her finger, ready to live out her happily-ever-after: she will not become destitute; she will enjoy a respectable social standing; she will have a husband who can provide for her. My thesis statement argues that although the novel traces the triumph of this marriage, as well as the marriage of the protagonist’s close female friend, it simultaneously traces the collapse of a different relationship—the friendship between the two young women.

I’m feeling good: writing teachers often say that a thesis statement—in any discipline—answers what, how, and why questions. In an essay about a literary text, for example, you might answer the question, “What is an author doing, and/or how?” (What language does the author use, what metaphors, what kinds of characters?) I know my essay is doing this—it’s describing what I think the author is doing (showing the dissolution of a friendship) and how (by juxtaposing it against successful marriage arrangements). But what I haven’t really done is explain why the author is doing this, or why it’s important to see these contrasting relationships together.

Because I’ve extensively re-chronicled the scenes in which the protagonist is manipulative of her friend—scenes that catalyze both the marriages’ success and the friendship’s decline—it’s hard for me to see that I’m only describing “what” is happening and not “why” it’s happening. But I’m six pages in, and it’s conclusion-time. I’m gleeful. I have that feeling you sometimes get when you know you’re approaching the end of your work, and you’re ready to sign off with an epic mic-drop. This whole marriage-plot-thing has honestly made me a little angry, so I try to channel that into my final paragraph, to end with a flourish. I write that maybe, if marriage at the time wasn’t so transactional, with women needing to evaluate whose wages and estate and family are most promising, then maybe there’d be more altruism; maybe the female relationships in the book wouldn’t be so doomed to fail. There—done!

In this final paragraph, almost unintentionally, I’ve actually answered a big “why” of my essay: I’ve convinced myself that by juxtaposing the marriage plot against the friendship, the book suggests how transactional both kinds of relationships were at risk of becoming in this era of the history of the British middle class. It was difficult to understand the broader implicationsof my initial, “factual claims” (“this is what’s happening in the book; this is how”) until I’d been sitting with them for several hours—and that’s why, time and time again, I’ve found compelling thesis statements hiding in the concluding paragraphs of others’ work and my own.

Sometimes, writers will feel obligated to keep those more-developed statements of their argument in the concluding paragraph: they worry that transplanting that argument to the introduction will “give away” everything they’re going to be talking about. But a thesis statement shouldn’t be a teaser-trailer; it should be the “tl;dr” of your paper.  Your body paragraphs are there to explain the logic behind the claims in your thesis of “what, how, and why,” and convince your reader of their validity, so that by the time the reader reaches your concluding paragraph(s), you will have the opportunity to restate that thesis with authority. Having done that, you can elaborate on the significance of that argument even further: how it might contribute to a broader understanding of a topic, field of inquiry, or existing body of scholarship. In my essay, for example, I might say that paying attention to the friendships in the book allows a reader to see that, in spite of the “happily-ever-after” ending, the author is actually presenting a critique of the types of relationships existing in this world, but uses the structures of the marriage plot to convey that message in a popular form.

Now that we’ve talked about how you might find a better version of your argument in your conclusion, here are a few main action-items for essay writers:

  • If you’ve finished a draft, copy and paste your intro and conclusion to a different document. To what extent do they match? Does the conclusion present a more specific, developed articulation of your thesis? If so, try to integrate that into your introduction, and put aside fears of “giving away the argument”—your reader doesn’t want to wait until the end of the piece to understand it.
  • Go back to your body paragraphs. If you’re describing what is happening (in a book, historical event, scientific study), are you also developing that into a discussion of why it’s happening and why it’s important? Rework sentences and paragraphs to make sure that you discuss the significance of your argument with specificity and clarity.
  • If you’ve identified that your argument isn’t fully developed in the ways described above, but you’re still working on the essay and don’t have a concluding paragraph to peak at, fear not! Have faith that the writing process can bring you toward a place of greater understanding. It may sound ridiculous, but try writing what you might imagine an impassioned conclusion to your essay could be. Go overboard; wax poetic. It’s just an exercise, and it may help you take a step back from your paper to consider its overall significance. Lastly, come visit us at the Writing Center! We’ll ask you why you felt compelled to write about the topic in the first place, and revisiting that question can help you forge your path forward.

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