In a recent writing class, we gathered the last sentences of journal articles that participants thought were really strong, and analysed why they seemed to work so well.
This is one group exercise that focuses on the mechanics of language for rhetorical force, something that takes doctoral students into a healthy space as they develop their writing’s style and voice.
Group analysis let us define the rhetorical mechanics of what we liked, and why, so that those in the group could improve final sentences of their own articles. The group included people from STEM and non-STEM disciplines - we were well aware by this stage that there were disciplinary differences in preferences for academic writing style.
I’d reiterated the view that the last sentence of any article, thesis, chapter or bit of formal writing has an important role: farewelling readers in a way that is likable and memorable. Readers should leave an article or chapter convinced of the take home message, and, preferably, impressed enough to want to cite it.
It’s the same idea as at any dinner party: both guests and readers need to be made to feel that they are leaving an event that delivered everything they hoped for and that the author-host has maintained trustworthy control right through to the end.
So what did we like as an inter-disciplinary group? Are there general strategies for meeting reader approval?
Short sentences with short words in them were recommended for their power. Rhetorically, they really did have a sense of finality. One last sentence, ‘Nothing else seems to be on offer’ (Young & Muller, 2014), had a gloomy touch of realism, but also shrewdly suggested that the topic needed more research without rolling out that formulaic suggestion: future research needs to be done. We liked the use of a common truism for the final sentence.
In contrast, another last sentence, to an article that looked back at history to precaution what could go wrong if poor decisions affected the future, met with approval for its large Latinate words in juxtaposition to the nostalgia of ‘lost years’: ‘When the definition of those years becomes lost, the public domain becomes obscured, and the constitutional premise of the law degenerates into obfuscation.’ There’s a poetic, almost rapper, rhythm that had appeal.
We were strongly attracted to sentences using well-chosen verbs with connotative power. We liked ‘New ideas about the mind and brain will redraw our knowledge about autism and will ultimately lead to a better understanding of ourselves’ for its suggestion that knowledge can be drawn, perhaps mapped, especially in relation to something as complex as how the mind works. And we noted the inclusive linking of autism to ‘understanding of ourselves.’
‘Poised’ and ‘pursued’ drew approval for this last sentence: ‘Patient-centred outcomes research is poised to substantially change how clinical questions are asked, how answers are pursued, and how those answers are used’. The contributor of that sentence liked, in her words, ‘the persuasive and goal-directed tone that would have helped some fairly die-hard ‘positivists’ see value in stepping out of their comfort zones!’ We liked the counter-balance between the instability of being ‘poised’ and the massiveness of ‘to substantially change’: a dramatic pivotal moment of consequence makes a good cliff-hanger closure.
The same counterbalance is (perhaps less delicately) expressed in the ‘opportunities’ and ‘challenges’ of the last sentence: ‘These are, in short, the opportunities and challenges of the new’ (Royce, 2015).
Unusual nouns met with approval too: in the following we liked ‘myriads’, and ‘nooks and crannies’: ‘Feminising the economy via the deconstructive move extends this powerful representational politics in a different direction, opening up a myriad of ethical debates in all nooks and crannies of the diverse economy about the kinds of worlds we feminists would like to build’ (Gibson-Graham, 2008, p. 153-155). The hourglass shape of the article, which began with a broad overview of its topic and then narrowed down to the specific research niche, opened out again in this final sentence to return to the broader general context set out in the opening paragraph.
There was general approval for ‘murmurs’ and ‘glimpses’ of what another theoretical positioning might allow. We had noted that conclusions were strong when they linked back to the research question or problem, or to the broad issues raised in the opening paragraph.
Our list of last sentence rhetorical strategies to date, then, coming from a fairly small group, includes:
- Punchy, short, pithy
- Evocative vocabulary
- Rhythmic and rap-like
- Cliff-hanger tension
- Pointing to the future
Tom Joyce, Relying on customary practice when the law says ‘no’: justified, safe or simply ‘no go’ The Australian Library Journal, Volume 64, Issue 2, 2015.
Cameron, J. & Gibson-Graham, J. K. (2003) Feminising the Economy: Metaphors, strategies, politics, Gender, Place & Culture: A Journal of Feminist Geography, 10:2,145-157.
Young, M., & Muller, J. (2014). On the powers of powerful knowledge. In E. Rata and B. Barrett (eds.) Knowledge and the future of the curriculum: International studies in social realism (pp. 41-64). Basingstoke, UK: Palgrave MacMillan.
Royce, T. (2015). Relying on customary practice when the law says ‘no’: Justified, safe or simply ‘no go’? The Australian Library Journal, 64(2), 76-86.