Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Writers' Lab: How to write your Conclusions, Part I: Journal or Conference Paper

If you are the type of linear writer like me, you will typically start your paper from the abstract, then the "Introduction", and on and on - all the way down to the "Summary and Conclusions."

When you start proofreading your entire opus, you might find that you didn't quite keep the same red thread throughout your work that started at the "Introduction" section. You might have trailed off, adding something along the way that seemed relevant when you were writing that section. In the very worst case, you'll end up with a "Summary and Conclusions" section that is completely running in the wild.

Now, what do we not want in a "Summary and Conclusions" section? If you've been reading a number of papers for your literature review, I'm sure you might have come across a few papers where the final sections left you puzzled. Here are the typical ingredients of a poor "Summary and Conclusions" section:
  • Contains new ideas: The final sections happily comes to serve you up with an unexpected dessert. No background, no reference to the experiments, no analysis - just an out-of-the-blue statement that leaves you startled.
  • Contains nothing beyond the current state-of-the-art: If you are pressed for time and want to quickly get a grasp of a paper, you will typically browse through the abstract, then glance over the figures, and then read the "Summary and Conclusions." If this section is filled up with general statements of things we all know already, then you will start to wonder what original work this paper contains - and toss it to the side.
  • Only sums up one part of the paper: If you read a "Summary", you expect a quick recap of all parts of the paper. Some authors (presumably pressed for word count or paper length) come in wham-bam with a list of their conclusions - without the soft bed of a few sentences that repeat the problem, literature review results and methods.
  • Is not a self-sufficient unit: Take a summary out of a paper, without knowing the contents of a paper, and the paragraph(s) still need to be a logical unit that requires no further reading of the paper to understand the "Summary and Conclusions."

So now that we got these typical mistakes highlighted, I would like to share with you how I write my "Summary and Conclusions" section. Admittedly, I learned it the hard way, by getting a paper returned and the "Summary and Conclusions" part torn to pieces by the gentle reviewers. To repair the damage done, I used a strategy that I have been implementing ever since.

The approach that I will discuss is mostly suitable for linear writers. If you prefer to nibble and scribble at different subheadings at more random points in time, you might as well find this approach useful - it will help you get a grasp of the entire paper again and focus on the main points to wrap up your writing.

As I said, I typically start by writing my outline, then filling in what I already have from reports or earlier work, and then start to rework the sentences to actually write the paragraphs. The only thing that I never do is the following:

I never write my "Summary and Conclusions" section before a first round of proofreading.


I simply leave it blank - a completely blank section. Instead of finishing up my very first draft -as good as that might feel- I leave it open.
Then, I use the following sequence:
  • I sit down to proofread my very first version.
  • While proofreading, I take notes of the main points of every subchapter.
  • Once I reach the end of the paper, I reread these notes.
  • I use these notes to write the "Summary and Conclusions" sections.

Let's quickly look back at the list-of-shame for a "Summary and Conclusions" section, and link that to this strategy:
  • No new ideas: it is virtually impossible to take notes of the main points and use these as a guidance and still manage to slip in a new idea.
  • No general truths: Noting down your contributions helps you to keep your focus on your own work, and helps you stay clear of the random chatter.
  • You cover all the parts: If you take notes of the main ideas of every subchapter, you'll be able to cover all the contents of the paper.
  • Self-sufficient unit: Make sure you proofread your "Summary and Conclusions" to see if you wrote it as a stand-alone paragraph. Don't reference to elements of the paper, just keep it sharp and shine a light on the major elements of the paper.

How do you write your conclusions section? Do you agree with my approach?

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