It seems to be a time of difficult endings: last day of July, last day of the academic year and I am currently having a bit of a struggle to conclude a paper. This may well reveal some underlying problem with the paper’s themes or the way I set up the question it was going to address, but it is at least as much a result of the fact that (deep breath) I don’t really know what I want from a conclusion.
I have tried thinking about it from various points of view, comparing the conclusion of an academic article to the end of a race (Olympics are on), the landing of a flight, the last group confrontation scene of a detective novel, but none of that quite fits or helps. Perhaps it is an idea to think about it in musical terms, with the conclusion as a sort of cadence. In my far-off youth, I went through the hoops of the Associated Board exams and A level music, so picked up some basic harmony, including the main different ways in which a piece of music might come to an end, with a perfect, plagal, imperfect or interrupted cadence. I also listened to a wide range of less classical music, good bad and indifferent, and formed some ideas about what I liked and didn’t like in an ending. How would some of these musical conclusions map on to academic papers I have written, read or heard?
The perfect cadence
I suppose this is what I aspire to, instinctively, in a paper: the definite ‘here it is, all tied up in a bow and aren’t I clever’ of cadences. V to I, from the dominant to the tonic; here’s my evidence, this is the brand new thing I draw from it, and you have to agree with me. In reality, few academic papers have a perfect cadence, and it may well be beyond me.
The plagal cadence
This is still quite a definite conclusion, but perhaps on a smaller point, and perhaps with less of a claim to field-redefining originality. It is the ‘Amen’ cadence, after all, with all of the orthodoxy that that implies; IV to I – subdominant to tonic. Maybe I have done a few of these over the years. Might just about get there with current paper.
The imperfect cadence
I to V, with a strong sense of incompleteness. Is that a good thing or a bad thing in an academic paper? I think it can work, if is ‘owned’, i.e. the conclusion calls itself ‘concluding thoughts’ and makes a point of saying that this is leaving some thoughts for others to build on, or for the author to come back to in future, but it can also be a bit weak and unsatisfying.
The interrupted cadence
V-VI and flipping between major and minor (in either direction). Hmm. I think this could work in an oral paper, in the hands of somebody very self-confident and where the paper was on a specific point but then drew back to make a few comments about a wider field. Could definitely look bad on paper (and attract the condescension of Reviewer 2) if it was an unexpected move within the same specific area, with no lead up in the preceding sections of the composition.
This is the one to avoid most of all – though I think I probably did it quite a lot in oral presentations in the first 10 years of my career. I shudder to think of all of those papers ending with a limp ‘I think I’ll leave it at that’ or similar, rather than a nice, planned out, pithy last sentence. It was often the result of having too many points, and just hoping that I could work out, live, which to keep and which to skip over. The end result was something like one of those deeply unsatisfying old pop tunes that doesn’t conclude at all, the sound engineers just turn down the volume until it ends (‘Hey Jude’, amongst others – wouldn’t that have been better with a proper finish, and minus about three minutes?).
It’s not a perfect analogy, of course, but maybe it’s something to bear in mind in attempting to craft a satisfying ending to this latest paper.
Which I should be getting on with …
Though, actually, isn’t a well-crafted conclusion more like the end of a limerick, or a sonnet … but which kind of sonnet … ah, needs more thought. Can’t possibly write that conclusion until I get that straight …