Sunday, October 6, 2013

How to bring compositions to a proper, satisfying close

The following question was raised by a reader after I posted a four-part essay entitled “Basic and advanced techniques for doing paragraph transitions” in this blog last September 22, 2013: “If there can be ways to keep paragraphs flowing, how can writers properly stop them?”

I must say that this question puts the cart way, way before the horse. We really can’t talk meaningfully about how to end an article—much less take up specific techniques for such endings—unless we know the kind of article we are doing and how to go about writing it. I therefore replied to the question with an extended essay that takes up the four general forms of composition, namely description, narration, exposition, and persuasion; the six basic composition tools, namely definition, restatement, example, comparison, contrast, and cause and effect; various paragraph composition techniques; and options for bringing expository or persuasive compositions to a proper, satisfying close. I’m sure that everyone aspiring to write better, more readable, and more compelling compositions will find the posting instructive and greatly benefit from it. (October 7, 2013)

The craft of organizing and clarifying our thoughts in writing

I – The four general forms of composition

To put things in perspective, let’s first recall that the activity of organizing and clarifying our thoughts in writing is formally called composition, and that composition can take four general forms: description, narration, exposition, and persuasion. These are not mutually exclusive forms, of course; a particular composition can use any or all of them in combination.

As we all know, descriptive and narrative compositions are the simplest to do. It’s because they only require us to write about the things we have seen, heard, or felt and to just present them in a straightforward way to the reader. Falling under this category are written eyewitness accounts, testimonies, news stories, general feature articles, and travelogues. Our primary objective in writing them is simply to convey our information and our impressions to the reader. Once this task is done, we can stop without a formal conclusion; we can simply say “I’m done” or say nothing further. (In straight news stories, for instance, the inverted pyramid type of reporting allows the narrative to just trail off without a formal closing.)

In contrast, expository and persuasive compositions are much more complicated to do. To these categories belong essays, masteral or doctoral dissertations, interpretative or investigative reports, editorials and opinion pieces, court pleadings, advocacies, and position papers on debatable or controversial issues. In these types of writing, we need to explain more rigorously what’s in our mind, which could be a new idea or concept, a proposition, a theorem, or a stand on a raging issue. Our objective is not only to let the reader know what we know and think about the subject but to influence him or her to think or act about it our way. This is definitely a more exacting kind of writing, so we need to draw not only from our own stock of knowledge but also from the collective wisdom of other thinking minds—the familiar process that we know as research. Our goal is not only to make our point clearly understood and appreciated but, even more important, to make the reader accept that point and make it part of his or her own repository of stock knowledge and beliefs.

II – Writing the body of the composition

Even up to this point, it’s still too premature to talk about how to keep the paragraphs flowing in the composition and how to finally stop the flow. These are still a universe away, so to speak, for we still have to do the main business of writing the body of the composition. Indeed, ending it should be the least of our worries at this stage.

Now, if we are any good in our writing ability, we should be able to make short shrift of most descriptive and narrative compositions; competent newspaper writers, for instance, manage to come up with news and feature stories day in and day out despite their punitive deadlines. But coming up with readable and convincing expository or persuasive writing is an altogether different matter. This is because it requires the writer not just to share information and impressions with the readers but also to convert their lack of knowledge or their reservations or doubts about the subject under discussion into certainty, understanding, and belief. This is a much more demanding writing enterprise, one that requires most, if not all, of what I’d call the primary arsenal for doing compositions, namely definition, restatement, example, comparison, contrast, and cause and effect.

Let’s do a quick rundown of these basic composition devices:

Definition. This composition device clarifies or explains a concept or term for the reader, depending on our assessment of the level of knowledge or understanding of the reader about that concept or term. If the concept or term requires an extended definition, we may use the following methods to clarify it: (a) comparison-contrast, (b) description, (c) exemplification, and (d) negation.

Psychology is the study of the mind and behavior. The discipline embraces all aspects of the human experience — from the functions of the brain to the actions of nations, from child development to care for the aged. In every conceivable setting from scientific research centers to mental healthcare services, “the understanding of behavior” is the enterprise of psychologists.
         Definition of psychology by the American Psychological Association (APA)

Restatement. This composition device states an idea in another way to heighten the reader’s understanding of it.

Example 1:
The computer models also know where to draw the line; in other words, they’ll only go so far with the cheap seats. The airline knows how many seats it must sell at what price to ensure that the flight isn’t losing money. It could be that your flights have enough high-paying passengers that the airline is making money even with the empty seats. In which case, there may be nothing you can do about it.
         Excerpt from “Locating an Arabic Translator” by Donald D. Groff, Travel and            Food Advisor

Example 2:
It’s no secret that remittances sent home by foreign workers eclipse both foreign direct investment (FDI) and foreign aid in many countries. In the Philippines, for example, remittances equal nearly 16% of total GDP. In India, nearly $23 billion is sent home from overseas, but just 3% of GDP.
         Quoted from a newspaper story

Comparison. This composition device examines similarities between two subjects to enhance perception and understanding about them.

In some respects, the 2004 merger of Union Planters with Regions Financial Corp.—a top-15 US bank headquartered in Birmingham, Alabama—looked to present fewer challenges than many such deals. The two banks had co-existed in comparable regional areas, and had similar work cultures that promised to ease many of the typical post-merger integration issues. Yet the Integration Team recognized that for the merger to be successful in the long term, an acquisition strategy for improving overall organizational performance was necessary.
         Excerpted from “Powering Up for an Important Merger,” 

Contrast. This composition device examines differences between two subjects to enhance perception and understanding about them.

The “image people” tend to think in terms of overall branding strategy and feel they do not need to attach a precise value to their brands; by contrast, the “numbers people” have a real interest in knowing the specific brand values. Accountants, for example, need to understand the value of brands the company has acquired to comply with IFRS 3, the new accounting standard on acquisition accounting (FAS 141 in the US has similar requirements).
         From “Image Makers” by Michael Imeson, The Banker, February 5, 2007 issue

Cause and effect. This composition device examines particular effects or outcomes in relation to their possible causes. Generally, since causes are not always easy to identify, we often will need to speculate about causes rather than offer absolute answers when we use this composition device.

In general, how we look communicates something about how healthy we are, how fertile, and probably how useful in the evolutionary environment. This may be why, across a range of cultures, women prefer tall, broad-shouldered men who seem like good reproductive specimens, in addition to offering the possibility of physical protection. Men, meanwhile, like pretty women who appear young. Women’s looks seem to vary depending on where they happen to be in the monthly fertility cycle.
         Excerpt from “Looks do Matter” by Daniel Akst, from Wilson Quarterly

Experimental exposition using the six composition tools. To give you an idea of how to use all six composition tools, I am posting in the Forum “On the Trail of Serendipity,” an essay that discusses an experimental essay that I developed based on this topic sentence: “Serendipity has shaped the life of the schoolteacher’s son more than he will admit.” Click this link now to read that essay.

III – Paragraph transition techniques

To ensure the smooth and cohesive flow of the ideas that we are presenting in an expository or persuasive piece, we need an adequate mastery of paragraph transitions—the craft of bridging a succeeding paragraph with the paragraph preceding it. I posted a four-part essay on this subject in the Forum last week, “Basic and advanced techniques for doing paragraph transitions,” and I presume that reading that essay was what prompted you to describe those techniques as “ways to keep paragraphs flowing.” If you still haven’t fully read or if you need to review the paragraph-transition techniques presented in that essay, click this link now; otherwise, you can proceed to the matter of properly stopping the flow of paragraphs—in short, how to end an expository or persuasive composition.

IV – When the time has come to conclude your composition

Let’s assume that your expository or persuasive article is now almost a done thing. You’ve been able to effectively bridge your paragraphs into a cohesive and convincing argument in support of your thesis, so you now think it’s time to end or conclude the article. Unlike a descriptive or narrative composition, however, you can’t leave an expository or persuasive composition on a lurch. You’ll surely infuriate and alienate your readers if you just say “I’m done” and blink off the page all of a sudden. Indeed, a good and effective expository or persuasive composition is one that its writer is able to bring to a compelling and satisfying close.

To get a good feel of compelling and satisfying closes, I suggest you do a focused, attentive reading of two full-length articles by two exemplars of the expository writing craft. The first is Joseph Epstein’s “I Dream of Genius” in Commentary Magazine and the second, Deborah Solomon’s “Inside America’s Great Romance with Norman Rockwell” in Smithsonian Magazine.

Here’s the one-paragraph conclusion to Epstein’s “I Dream of Genius”:

I find it pleasing that science cannot account for genius. I do not myself believe in miracles, but I do have a strong taste for mysteries, and the presence, usually at lengthy intervals, of geniuses is among the great ones. Schopenhauer had no explanation for the existence of geniuses, either, but, even while knowing all the flaws inherent in even the greatest among them, he held that geniuses “were the lighthouses of humanity; and without them mankind would lose itself in the boundless sea of error and bewilderment.” The genius is able to fulfill this function because he is able to think outside himself, to see things whole while the rest of us at best see them partially, and he has the courage, skill, and force to break the logjam of fixed opinions and stultified forms. Through its geniuses the world has made what serious progress it has thus far recorded. God willing, we haven’t seen the last of them.

And here’s the two-paragraph conclusion to Solomon’s “Inside America’s Great Romance With Norman Rockwell”:

Rockwell died in 1978, at age 84, after a long struggle with dementia and emphysema. By now, it seems a bit redundant to ask whether his paintings are art. Most of us no longer believe that an invisible red velvet rope separates museum art from illustration. No one could reasonably argue that every abstract painting in a museum collection is aesthetically superior to Rockwell’s illustrations, as if illustration were a lower, unevolved life-form without the intelligence of the more prestigious mediums.
 The truth is that every genre produces its share of marvels and masterpieces, works that endure from one generation to the next, inviting attempts at explication and defeating them in short order. Rockwell's work has manifested far more staying power than that of countless abstract painters who were hailed in his lifetime, and one suspects it is here for the ages.

There are really no hard-and-fast formulas or firm rules for doing conclusions, but I’ll list below some often-suggested options for doing them:

1. Restate the thesis or the main points of your essay.
2. State the broader implications or significance of your thesis.
3. Present a culminating example that pulls all of your arguments together in support of your thesis.
4. Make an educated prediction or outcome based on the arguments you presented.
5. End with a well-stated, satisfying flourish that echoes the soundness of your conclusion.

For a comprehensive discussion of these options, I suggest you read and study the “Concluding Paragraphs” page of the Capital Community College Foundation’s Guide to Grammar and Writing. It covers most of basic things that writers need to know about the subject, so there’s really not much I can add to it without sounding repetitive. Take time to study and internalize its prescriptions. Once you’ve done so, you’ll be on your way to developing the knack for knowing precisely when to stop your paragraphs from flowing and for bringing your articles of whatever kind to a satisfying close for your readers.