Titles should be specific and clear, and the quickest path to this is composing a title that states your exact subject. If you can also hint at your thesis in the title, it becomes that much more effective. Examples:
- The Extinction of Bees
- Peer Review in Writing Classes
- Why We Need Fantasy Literature
- Video Games and Art
- Video Games Can Never Be Art
In academic writing, it is also common to have a two-part title that consists of (1) a vivid or curious glimpse of some aspect of the subject and (2) a straightforward statement of the subject. This is generally used for longer essays, such as those comprising more than 2,000 words. Examples:
- Hashtag I’m Fired: Employment in the Era of Social Media
- Sanity in the Eye of the Beholder: The Dynamics of the Unreliable Narrator in “The Tell-Tale Heart”
Remember that titles are an opportunity to control interpretation of your essay. Consider how the titles of films do this: What is the film Forrest Gump about? Most would agree it’s about the life of Forrest Gump. But what would the common answers be if the title had been Me and Jenny? It would probably be called a love story, which it kind of is given that title. Or what if it had been titled Me and Lieutenant Dan? Then it would probably be a buddy picture about friendship, which it would be given that title. Use this quality of titles to guide your readers’ interpretations.
Audiences want a clear idea of what they’re about to get into, what to expect, and what is so interesting about it, so use the introduction to give all of this to them. Brief introductions are typically the best, which means the first paragraph will often be the shortest in the essay.
The most common strategy in an introduction is to move from the general context to a specific point. This often feels natural for writers and readers, so much so that we even see this kind of strategy in movies and shows: visuals of the whole city first, then of the one building, then of the specific room with the focal characters. In an essay, this works by first stating general facts or ideas about the subject. Then, as you move deeper into your introduction, you gradually narrow the focus, moving closer to your thesis. Moving smoothly and logically from your introductory remarks to your thesis statement can be visualized as a funnel-like structure, as illustrated in the diagram below:
Watch closely for the excellent use of this strategy in this example:
J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings has sold around 150 million copies worldwide, which makes it one of the bestselling fiction novels of all time. Some even claim it is the greatest book of the twentieth century. While Tolkien’s Middle-earth novels continue to grow in popularity, many scholars still refuse to take them seriously. Most critics not only disregard, but despise them with a fiery passion. Critics of the younger generation focus on the supposed social problems in Middle-earth, such as racism or sexism. But the most astounding criticisms come mostly from the older generation of literary critics, who claim that Tolkien’s writing is just awful. Edmund Wilson argues in “Oo, Those Awful Orcs” that The Lord of the Rings is nothing but “juvenile trash.” In the introduction to Bloom’s Critical Modern Interpretations: J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, Harold Bloom claims that Tolkien’s writing style is “stiff, false archaic, and overwrought.” Bloom is “not able to understand how a skilled and mature reader can absorb about fifteen hundred pages of this quaint stuff.” These criticisms are as absurd are they are comical. If anything, The Lord of the Rings is anti-racist and anti-sexist and beautifully written. Of course, the merit of any work is, in essence, subjective and tastes differ. But what is the cause of both the contemptuous criticisms and unwarranted indifference toward The Lord of the Rings?
–Lauren Stengel, “Why We Need Fantasy Literature”
Notice that the first sentence isn’t about Stengel’s point directly but is instead a way to generally contextualize what she is about to say. Then each sentence gets more and more specific until we are left with an exact notion of what her position is and what she plans to explore about it.
Another strategy is to add something of specific and immediate interest right before this general context. This is done by employing the Classical advice of beginning in medias res, which means to start in the middle of things. Immediately offer a glimpse at a specific idea, example, or scenario that delves deep into a fascinating aspect of your subject, even if the meaning of it is not yet clear. In choosing this glimpse, consider that which is surprising, counter-intuitive, or vivid. This is often called “the attention grabber,” but that phrase is often misunderstood, for multitudes of student writers have written statements and questions that they find extremely boring yet have told themselves they are doing so for the benefit of readers in order to “grab their attention.” The problem stems from assuming that readers are boring. They aren’t; they’re interesting, and they want to read interesting ideas. So bring up the ideas that are actually interesting. Don’t use false questions, such as those about the reader’s personal experience, those that have obvious answers, and those for which you won’t attempt specific or compelling answers.
This brings up a point that demands more explanation, which means it demands the continued interest of the audience. Most audiences would like to hear what is not in the Bible that they had thought was in there. And the follow-up sentence offers some clear expectations of points to come.
After that beginning (whether or not you added the glimpse of beginning in medias res before your general context), state the main claim of your entire essay in a single sentence, which is also called your thesis. Your claim should take a position or make a point about the subject, often by confirming or denying a proposition. Remember not to use a question or a fragment as a thesis, for those do not state points. Also make sure to state your exact position on the subject, which is what a claim or thesis is, rather than simply stating the subject. See the section Thesis for more information.
After you have made your claim or thesis clear, offer an essay map. This is the strategy of briefly naming the main points of the paragraphs to come, stating them in the same order that they will use in the body of the essay. Avoid referencing your own essay or your own assignment, as with phrases such as, “in this essay,” or, “for my assignment,” or, “I will discuss.” Instead, state your main points by discussing the subject itself rather than by discussing yourself writing it or the essay that contains it. Remember not to get detailed here either; save the details for the body paragraphs.
Conclusions can be just as vital as any other part of an essay, and often the most vital part, so avoid the natural temptations to short-cut at the end. Two common short-cuts to avoid are mere stopping, and merely repeating. The conclusion that simply stops discussing the ideas at some point has failed to conclude them, as has the conclusion that simply re-states what has already been said in the essay.
The best way to conclude is through emphasis: find a new way to encapsulate the most important ideas that have been conveyed in the essay. This does not mean introducing new ideas, which would add confusion, but instead to help readers see what is most important in all that has been discussed, or what is the most important way to understand it all.
One good strategy for this is to use a brief and poignant phrase or quotation. Another good strategy is to use a metaphor: description of an interesting image that stands for an important idea.
As you work through your conclusion, note that this is the best place for humility. Be honest in admitting short-comings in your ideas, explanations, or comprehensiveness. This approach in an introduction can leave the impression of an unsure or unfocused writer, but after a succession of clear ideas throughout an essay, humility in the conclusion shows a writer who is honest and thoughtful. This is not to be confused with contradiction, false humility, self-deprecation, or un-rebutted opposition. Instead, the humility of honesty is the aim here.
Finally, try using the tone of elevation: hint at higher, nobler possibilities relating to your subject. Some of the greatest writers and speakers in history have used this strategy in their conclusions, as can be seen in many of the readings in this textbook and beyond. For some technical information on how to achieve this tone, see the section Rhythm of Threes.
Common errors in conclusions include the following:
- Ending on a minor point or detail
- Introducing new material
- Contradicting your thesis
- Changing your thesis
- Issuing commands, getting aggressive, or sounding exclamatory
Ending on a minor point or detail drives the entire essay off-topic because it suggests something other than the main idea as the most important. Move minor points and details to the appropriate body paragraph.
Introducing new material in your conclusion has an unsettling effect on your reader. When you raise new points, you make your reader want more information, which you could not possibly provide in the limited space of your final paragraph.
Contradicting or changing your thesis statement causes your readers to think that you do not actually have a conviction about your subject. After all, you have spent several paragraphs adhering to a singular point of view. When you change sides or open up your point of view in the conclusion, your reader becomes less inclined to believe your original argument.
Issuing commands, getting aggressive, or sounding exclamatory works against the aims and expectations of academic argument, for it shows the writer’s failure to trust the points and support the essay has offered, as well as the failure to trust in the capability of the audience to use their own minds appropriately.