How to Stop Writing

by Andy Wood on February 1, 2013

in Since You Asked

Typewriter The EndWhen you take flying lessons, one of the first things you learn, other than to holler “Contact!” is how to land the plane.

Same goes for snow skiing.  Lesson number one:  How to stop.

A couple of years ago we joined a filled-up theater to see “No Country for Old Men.”  Somebody should have taught them how to stop.  Literally people in the theater blurted out loud, “What?”

I run into the same issue with writing.  I spend about 90% of my working life reading what somebody else has written.  Some of it is so good, I keep an ongoing collection of favorite student quotations.  I shared a few of them here recently.

That writing takes on several forms – emails from students, discussion posts, and what are supposed to be academic papers.  One of my favorite courses is a communication for leaders class (in session even as you read this) where we try out different forms of written communication.  We even tackle the Gettysburg Address and try to make it even simpler than it was in the original, while keeping the same vision and passion.

Very often when I get to the end of something written, I have the same reaction that I did whenever Tommy Lee Jones droned on about whatever he said in “No Country for Old Men.”  What? That’s IT?  It sort of has the same effect of trying to use a tree to stop that downhill run or that landing approach.

Suddenly, it’s just over.

If it’s a paper for a grade, here’s what goes into the side margin:  A concluding paragraph summarizing what you have written would be nice.

Here’s what doesn’t get written in the side margin:  AAARRRRRRGH!  Land this bird!

So in response to a student actually taking the time to write me and ask (describing conclusions as the “bane of my existence” – ha!), I thought I would share a couple of ideas about how to stop writing.

1.  Start with the purpose of your writing to start with.

Was it to present research, a critical review, or some other academic setting?  That calls for one kind of conclusion.  Was it an email to schedule lunch?  That calls for another.  Was it a blog post or casual article for a magazine?  That calls for several possibilities.

Regardless of the type of writing, begin with the end in mind.  What do you want the reader to do?  Meet you for lunch?  Laugh?  Pray?  Make a life change?  Take some sort of action?  Give you an A?

By the way, if you are a student or a researcher, there is a secret answer to that question.  And they keep it a secret for years for a reason, but I’m going to break tradition and tell you the secret.  (I hope I don’t get in trouble for this.  Seriously.)

When you write an academic paper, the correct answer to the question “What do I want to the reader to do?” is, I want the reader to keep researching this subject.

In a minute I’ll show you how to get the reader to do that very thing.

See, the unwritten sacred rule in research is, There is no end to the research.  But you can steer future research by how you conclude your paper or article.

2.  Decide how long you want your conclusion to be.

The longer the piece, the longer the conclusion.  Email exchanges may conclude with one word:  OK.  Or my favorite… Done!

Most typical pieces should be wrapped up in a paragraph.  If you want to see how I typically approach it for a blog post, check out the last paragraph here.

3.  Write one-to-two sentences that summarize what you have stated to this point.

For long academic papers it’s even more – probably a whole paragraph of summary.  The “boring” cardboard academic conclusion goes something like, “In this paper I have (a), (b), and (c).”  That, while appearing redundant, is better than nothing.

4.  Explain what you haven’t  covered.

You can skip this in casual writing.  It isn’t necessary in an email to write, “In this exchange, we have agreed to meet Tuesday for Tacos at Taco Villa.  We have not considered any other of the days of the week or other types of restaurant fare.”

But in high-level research, you definitely want to present what’s called “limitations of this study.”  It goes something like, “The focus of this study has been limited to North American women in leadership in for-profit business settings.  This study has not considered non-profit or ministry settings where women are much more of a minority in CEO-level positions, nor has it addressed female leaders in other parts of the world, including the South American Pygmy population.”

Just kidding about the Pygmy population.

5.  Reflect.

That’s what I do the most of in conclusions of casual pieces like this one. In longer ones this can be a whole paragraph; in shorter papers, it can be a couple of sentences.

What have you learned?

What comments or reflections has your research or rambling brought to mind?

How has your thinking or feeling changed, even if just a bit?

My daughter Carrie is an expert at one-word or one-sentence reflections.  My favorite:  Un-believable.  But then again, she’s the mother of three preschoolers and that’s about all the time she has.

6.  MOST IMPORTANT – Answer the question, Where do we go from here?  

If it’s an academic paper, where is there a further need for research?   You’ll see that in just about any academic journal.  It starts with something like, “Future research is needed in…”  It almost always relates to the limitations of the study or the implications of the research.  How do we follow up with this?  It’s an invitation to the academic community to add their own work to the body of literature.

If it’s a more casual or popular paper, challenge your reader to take action and explain simply what the next step is.  Tell me that you think.  Pick up the phone.  Click on this link.  Buy The Twelve Pathways to Christmas.  (Wait… how’d that get in there?)  Meet me for lunch.  Or even, Come back tomorrow for more (ever wonder why TV shows show scenes from the next episode?).

Give the reader something to do other than close the file or the book.

In Conclusion

Ooh.  Now the pressure’s on.  I have to land this thing.  Here are some actions you can take:

If you are a student, go back to the last couple of papers you have submitted.  How did you conclude?  Based on what’s here, is there a way you could have improved on the last thing your reader experienced from your writing?

If you write more casually, check out the alignment of the conclusion to what you actually want the reader to experience or do.  If it’s fiction, you may want them to rush out and buy your next book or wait breathlessly for it.  If it’s non-fiction, you want them to adjust their lives a bit to what you have just presented.

If it’s a casual exchange, you may simply want to share your feelings or thoughts and leave the results to them.

But regardless of your purpose in writing, at the end, put the ball in the reader’s court.  Empower them to take what you have written and do something (or if they decide, do nothing) with it.

And they’ll all live happily ever after.

(You’re smiling, aren’t ya?  See?  I wanted you to smile.  Or roll your eyes.  That’s OK, too.)

The End.

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Martha Orlando February 1, 2013 at 12:45 pm

Yes, Andy, I am smiling! I don’t think I’ve ever read anything on knowing how to stop writing, but as we both know, conclusions are so very important. When writing my blog, I always keep the ending in mind as I go along because it usually ties in big with the scripture selection. It’s the only way to go!
Martha Orlando´s last blog post .."Stormy . . . Bring Back That Sunny Day . . ."

Linda Adams February 2, 2013 at 2:33 pm

Dr. Wood, I am thankful to you that you are very honest and up front with your students, this helps us to understand the important of good writing skills. For some of us who have been out school for a long period of times this information encourages us that we can do anything we put our mind to it. Someone was reading my mind.


Lynne Watts February 3, 2013 at 8:43 pm

Thank goodness I’m not writing high level research because telling what I’m NOT covering seems like a big order, especially when pygmies or South America are involved (a frequent topic on my blog). Also, I’m surprised that you didn’t cover that you should never end with “The End” Maybe that’s because only the elementary students that I work with LOVE to end that way but college students don’t? Or maybe it’s because…
Lynne Watts´s last blog post ..Are Your Possessions Stealing Your Energy?

Kellie February 6, 2014 at 2:28 pm


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