A. Here’s the problem:
William Zinsser describes the problem with bad endings, the ones that do nothing more than tell the reader what you’ve already told him: “The reader hears the laborious sound of cranking. He sees what you are doing and how bored you are by it. He feels the stirrings of resentment. Why didn’t you give more thought to how you were going to wind this thing up? Or are you summarizing because you think he’s too dumb to get the point? Still, you keep cranking. But the reader has another option. He quits” (78). Don’t let it happen to you.
B. What to do:
I hope I’m beginning to challenge your notion of what a good ending should be, so I’m including this advanced lesson on the topic. I’ve probably already overdone the writing-as-gardening metaphor in the lessons on clutter, so this time I want you to think of an essay as something akin to a good piece of music or a ride in a car. Your final line or sentence or paragraph should be like the last chord or note of the song or symphony; it should stay with the reader, reverberating in the ear for a few seconds after the mind has taken it in. Like a successful journey, your ending should give the reader confidence that you knew where you were going before you began rather than making up your route as you drove.
C. Here are two endings that impressed me. Pick one and list reasons why it makes an effective last paragraph:
1. Moby-Dick is not so much a book about Captain Ahab’s quest for the whale as it is an experience of that quest. The philosophical questions presented to Ahab and Ishmael are universal ones, and it is the manner in which each man deals with such nebulous ideas that defines the soul of the book. Neither man finds a definitive answer for what he seeks to know, just as man himself has never been able to comfortably find his own place within the natural world. Moby Dick swims on, and so in some sense, for Ahab, for Ishmael, for man, the quest continues yet.
2. Tragedy has a profound effect on its audiences. The theme of the play captivates the human mind, and causes each individual to evaluate his own life and reconsider his major concerns. By depicting these intense, horrible scenes, Sophocles reaches both the heart and the mind. He shows how the individual can survive and can persevere despite awful circumstances. Although he points out the folly of man, he also shows the strength of man to continue to fight. He addresses the very issues that Faulkner found essential in literature: the words must touch upon universal issues, and inspire man not merely to endure, but to prevail.
D. For more information or additional practice, check the following sources:
Zinsser, pp. 77-81.