Take It Away! Effective Endings for Nonfiction
In literature, these two words, appearing on the last page, mean just what they say. But an effective conclusion makes these words unnecessary because the author has brought readers to “the end” in a thoughtful and satisfying way.
Beginnings and endings can be challenging, and authors often revise them several, if not many, times. After all, if the opening doesn’t interest a reader, they will probably stop reading. Likewise, when readers finish our book or article, we want them to feel it was time well spent, and that our material met their expectations.
What Do Readers Want in Effective Endings?
Effective endings, whether in fiction or nonfiction, flow logically from what came before. Nonfiction readers expect to find information, ideas, and perhaps encouragement and inspiration. Here are major reasons for reading nonfiction:
- to learn something that improves our lives—at home, in relationships, work/career, hobbies, health, money management, etc.
- to satisfy curiosity and because we enjoy learning—about history, science, famous people, sports, the arts, geography, politics, literature, religion, etc
- to expand our horizons and/or gain deeper understanding and empathy
- to learn skills we need for a specific task
- to feel empowered to tackle problems and reach goals
- to be inspired to take meaningful action
Knowing what readers expect helps to give our nonfiction focus and purpose. It also lays the foundation for our ending.
What Did Readers Gain?
Our ending can remind readers what they gained from the article or book—often called the takeaway point(s). We can summarize and “wrap up” the key points and theme(s). Sometimes we show readers how various points in the book fit together and offer a view of the “bigger picture.” Effective endings can also suggest things readers can do going forward, for example, encourage them to take action, keep learning, feel more competent, share their knowledge, care about an issue, and/or do something better than before. Quotes can be part of a conclusion, or even serve as the last sentence.
Consider a book designed to help readers reduce their food bills while eating healthy meals. Chapters would offer tips on meal-planning, shopping, food storage and preparation, and more. The ending could reiterate key points—that careful planning and shopping, couponing, choosing store brands, and using recipes in the book save money. Moreover, these practices can save time and help the environment by reducing food wastes. Finally, the author can encourage readers to join others who are glad they have put these ideas into practice. Readers can close the book feeling they ‘got what they came for’ and can benefit from the information.
Now consider a memoir that deals with a serious topic, such as caring for a parent who died after a long illness. Along with a gripping personal story, such a book can offer information and practical suggestions for other caregivers. The author might end by summarizing things they learned about themselves, other people, and “life” in general during this challenging time, while offering encouragement and support to readers dealing with similar situations.
In a book that discusses social issues, the ending can remind readers why they should care about the issues involved and how they might contribute to solutions. Suppose the book deals with the history of voting rights. The conclusion might reiterate the long, hard struggle for these rights and note the benefits and duties of citizenship, with quotes from early American statesmen and/or voting rights leaders to inspire the reader.
Some nonfiction deals with unfinished business or mysteries, such as how dinosaurs became extinct, an unsolved crime, a longstanding political debate. The conclusions for such books might summarize the state of the research and/or the debate at that point in time while speculating about how things might unfold in the future, and what factors could influence those developments.
Endings also can encourage readers to keep thinking about what they read and learn more. The conclusion for a book about endangered mammals might discuss how different circumstances could impact the future of these species and note places where readers can see the animals in person and even help them to survive.
Biographies often end by discussing the person’s contributions, role in history, and/or “legacy.” What makes this person memorable and distinctive? The last paragraph might also recall big obstacles the subject overcame during their lifetime. Here again, quotes can be effective, including quotes from people who have different opinions about the subject of the biography.
Ending in Style
Needless to say, the language, writing style, and tone of the ending also reflect what came before. A humorous topic or enthusiastic “how-to” will end in a similar upbeat manner, while a serious topic requires a different tone and word choices. A work that told readers why and how they should be physically fit can end on an energetic note, along the lines of ‘now set your own fitness goals and get moving!’ A biography of a historical figure who met a tragic death might end on a somber note while still noting the person’s achievements.
Of course, while recapping key points, we don’t want to repeat them the same way we made them earlier, or write in a dull manner. We can offer readers a fresh look and deeper understanding of those points. Effective style also means avoiding trite, obvious phrases such as “In conclusion” or “As I’ve shown.”
The last paragraph of Ralph Keyes’ The Writer’s Book of Hope illustrates several of the points above. Keyes writes: “We began by considering the anxiety, frustration, and despair that is an inherent part of the writing process. We’ve examined a wide range of ways to deal with this syndrome. The best way of all can be found in writing itself. Writing is both a cause of despair and an antidote to despair. . . when we’re feeling hopeless, the best way to revive our sense of hope is to keep on writing.”
What does Keyes want readers to ‘take away’? What can you “take away” to help craft your own endings?
Victoria Sherrow has published short stories, articles, poetry, and books (fiction and nonfiction) for readers aged preschool through adult. Her books have received starred reviews and been honored by the American Library Association, Parents Choice Gold Award, National Association for the Advancement of Science, and NYPL Best Books for the Teenage, among others. Victoria has taught at The Institute of Children’s Literature for more than 25 years and has also been an assistant editor and writing contest judge.