Writing in College
by Joseph M. Williams and Lawrence McEnerney
4. Revising the introduction and conclusion, and polishing the draft
If you are satisfied that you have made a claim, supported and qualified it; that the parts of your paper hang together, you are probably ready to write your last draft introduction and conclusion. These are important, because the first thing your reader reads creates a "frame" through which your reader readers, understands, and interprets everything that follows. Your conclusion is your last opportunity to shape your reader's memory of your paper.
We"ve already touched on your decision whether to state your point at the end of your introduction and in your conclusion, or whether to end your introduction with a kind of "anticipatory, jumping-off" point that only launches the reader into the body of the paper but does not reveal the full contours of your claim. There are advantages and disadvantages to both, as we have indicated in the section on drafting introductions. Whichever strategy you choose, you have to use your introduction to lead up to either your main point sentence or to that launching-point sentence.
The most important role of your introduction is to give a brief statement about the question or problem that you are answering or solving. You do this by suggesting something that is puzzling, not entirely understood, perhaps overlooked, not noticed, undervalued. The intention is to make your reader feel that you have answered a question that is worth asking, that you have seen something that helps make sense out of a reading. Here are two introductions the first typical, the second not. They both respond to an assignment asking students to discuss ways in which Tolstoy used the French language to critique social and cultural values in War and Peace.
a. In War and Peace, Tolstoy portrays many aspects of Russian society. One of the most important and interesting of these is the role of the French language. Throughout the book, many characters speak French, although this is the language of their enemy. Later on in the book, the Russians are concerned about using French and begin to learn and use Russian. This very significant shift in the language of the characters indicates some of Tolstoy's views about the values contained in Russian culture. By comparing the use of the French language throughout War and Peace, Tolstoy's views of culture can be examined.
b. Throughout War and Peace, the French language is linked to a range of negative themes. In the opening scene, superficial characters at the soiree reveal their artificiality and insincerity through their ostentatious use of French. Those characters who are the most adept at French tend to be the most concerned with social appearances, those who speak Russian are usually associated with honesty and unselfishness. It is notable that those Russians who speak French incorrectly are good, straightforward, kindhearted souls while those who smirk at their virtues speak flawless French. It is misleading, however, to conclude that there is a simple association between negative values and the French language. Although it may seem that French itself reveals a character's superficiality or viciousness, this is not always the case. Very often, Tolstoy uses French in conjunction with irony, paradox or other literary techniques. The French language is not the main vehicle of Tolstoy's cultural criticism, rather, it is more of a parasite that lives off of other devices, a virus that intensifies their effect.
The tone to avoid at all costs is the tone of that first one: "Well," it says, "you asked me to write about French in War and Peace, so I will. You said that Tolstoy uses French to criticize certain values, so I'll repeat that. You seem to think this matters, so I'll say that it is 'important,' 'interesting,' and 'very significant.' Then I'll cite lots of places in the text where Tolstoy uses French to criticize values. Isn't that what you want?" No. Mostly, this is not what they want. The first introduction makes the paper seem merely a report on a topic: the paper will report on the places where the writer found Tolstoy using French to criticize values. There is no sense of the writer having thought much about War and Peace because the paper seems to answer no question, resolve no puzzle, solve no problem. In the second introduction, the writer suggests that there is something difficult to understand about the way Tolstoy uses French in War and Peace. This writer suggests that what appears to be true about the link between French and values may be a misunderstanding of the text. Where the first writer positions her paper as a list of citations from the text, the second writer positions her paper as an effort to enhance our understanding.
As the very first sentences in your introduction, you might try to find a quotation in the text that you can say inspired your question or raises your problem, a quotation that you can balance with one at the end of your conclusion.
Your conclusion is the easiest to revise, because you will probably have already written a conclusion that makes a good point. Most of us write to discover, and it is at the end where we discover our most interesting ideas. We have to make sure our introductions cohere with our conclusions, but for the most part, our conclusions will be the richest, most complex part of our paper, because that is where we are prepared to do our richest and most complex thinking.
In addition to stating--or restating--the main point, usually as the first or second sentence of the conclusion, most writers want to go beyond it. You can do that in three ways:
1. You can suggest the significance of your conclusion. You do that by suggesting the consequences of answering the question you asked, solving the problem you posed. In effect, you answer the question "So what?" Try that as a strategy of revision: State your main point, and then have someone ask, "So what?" If you can answer that question, you have identified the significance of your point.
The following is a conclusion from a paper whose main point was that the character Kurtz in Heart of Darkness did not accomplish a "moral victory." But as you'll see, the writer ended the essay not only by restating this point but also by suggesting that this problem of Kurtz's morality has implications for another problem: the problem of whether Heart of Darkness is a racist text.
The contrast between Kurtz and Nietzsche's Superman has shown that Kurtz did not achieve any kind of 'moral victory' by being true to his nature. On the contrary, Conrad has shown in Kurtz the moral defeat not only of one individual but of European civilization in general. One implication of this defeat stems from the fact that it is highlighted by the contrast between the hypocrisy of the Europeans and utter honesty of the savages. Those who have denounced Heart of Darkness as racist seem to assume that Conrad denigrates the native Africans. The question of Conrad's racism becomes much more complicated if we understand that the savages of the novel stand in contrast to the object of the book's true condemnation. The honesty of the savages only intensifies Conrad's moral condemnation of his own European culture.
2. Another way of thinking about your conclusion is to try to say what further questions your paper raises--what would you like to know more about, what puzzle remains--better yet, what bigger puzzle do you now have?
3. The last thing you might add to your conclusion is a quotation from the text that brings your paper to a graceful close. The quotation should be striking, gnomic, epigrammatic--a quotation that is especially graceful or figurative.
An effective title: previewing your key concepts
After you've revised the text and, especially, after you've reworked both your introduction and your conclusion, you're ready to write (or revise) your title. The least useful kind of title is one that anyone knowing your assignment could predict from the language of the assignment. If the assignment is, "Discuss the logical structure of the Declaration of Independence, particularly those assumptions on which Jefferson based his argument," do not create the title:
The Assumptions behind the Logic
of The Declaration of Independence
A useful title tells the reader what the central conceptual elements in your paper are. Those elements are most likely to appear in your conclusion. So go to your conclusion, particularly to the main point sentence in your conclusion, and circle six or seven key words, particularly words that did not appear in the assignment. Now out of those words, construct a two-part title on the model of
Logic in the Declaration:
Timeless Ideals and Immediate Realities
The first line ends in a colon, the second line can be longer or shorter than the first. The reason for writing a two-part title is that if you don"t get it right in the first part, you might get it right in the second. Avoid using words in your title if those words are not prominent in your paper. The point of a title is to anticipate key concepts, not to be clever.
The last tasks: proofreading and formatting
Your last task may seem trivial, but for a good many of your teachers, it will determine whether they judge you to be careful, thoughtful, and mature writer, or sloppy, careless, and thoughtless: You have to proofread your paper to be certain that you have no spelling errors, your grammar is acceptable, the sentences are reasonably punctuated, and your paper is in the right format.
At least run your spell-checker. (Beware of grammar checkers; all those we've tested to date  have proved unreliable.) Better yet, put your paper aside for an hour, then return to it to catch the kinds of errors that spell-checkers can"t find: wrong words, sentence fragments, mish-mashes of sentences and paragraphs that you created when you were deleting, cutting, and pasting. Do your subjects and verbs agree? If you are working on a computer, do global searches for these words to be certain that you are using them correctly: there, their, they're; its, it's; your, you're.
Have your roommate read your paper. It is not dishonest to ask a friend to read over a paper to catch typos and so on. We all do it.
Before you run off your last draft, make sure of all this:
1. Pick a standard type font, preferably a "serif" type. On paper and on screen, serif fonts like Times or Cambria are easier to read over long stretches than sans serif fonts like Verdana, Helvetica or Ariel. Unless you're willing to bear unpleasant consequences, you shouldn't choose this moment to express your creativity by using one of the ornate, annoying, or bizarre fonts on your computer. Pick a standard font like Times, Cambria, or Garamond.
2. Use a 12 point font (serif) or 10 point font (sans serif).
3. If you're printing, make sure your printer will produce a clear, dark black type. Don't turn in a paper printed in green, red, blue, etc. Black and only black.
4. Ask your professor if she would like you to double-space or single-space the paper.
5. Margins all the way around of no more than 1.25 inches.
6. Do not attempt to reach a recommended page length by making the font larger or smaller. This does nothing to conceal the real length of your paper, and it may make your paper harder to read.
7. Number your pages in the upper right hand corner. Your software's help file will let you know how to do this.
8. Put your name at the top of every page. Again, if you don't know how to do this, your software's help file is your friend.
9. On the first page, in the upper right hand corner, put your name, the date, your class number and section (if any), and the name of your instructor.
10. If your professor requires you to turn in a hard copy of your paper, staple the pages together.
11. Be sure that you have backed up your file on a separate drive or remote server.
12. Back up your back up.
So! Now your task is done. Or maybe not: for most writers, the process isn't always a uniformly smooth and happy one. If you get blocked, or if you get stuck, you may be afraid you'll have no pages to number; perfect formatting is pointless when there's nothing there to format. In our next section, therefore, we warn against one bad way to get out of blocks and suggest one good way to help the writing process move along. Go to "But what if you get stuck?"
· · ·
Lawrence McEnerney is Director of the University of Chicago Writing Program. Joseph M. Williams (1933-2008) was Professor of English Language and Literature and the founder of the University of Chicago Writing Program.