I have written and rewritten the ending to a new article about a hundred times and it still isn’t right. So I decided to pull one of my favorite writing books off the shelf for help and guidance. One of my teachers at the Iowa Summer Writing Festival told me about William Zinsser’s “On Writing Well: The Classic Guide to Writing Nonfiction.” Each chapter of this book is a gem, full of great advice. In particular, I recommend his chapter on “Clutter.” Writers ought to read this chapter religiously! This week, though, I turned to Zinsser’s chapter on “The Lead and the Ending.”
I appreciated Zinsser’s nod to the preaching task when he writes: “Like the minister’s sermon that builds to a series of perfect conclusions that never conclude, an article that doesn’t stop where it should stop becomes a drag and therefore a failure.” Dragging on, though, is not my problem. I have a tendency to quit too soon. My problem right now is how to sum up my article that I have pushed through to the max, am ready to conclude, but want to do so in a way that is beautiful, memorable, maybe even profound. I think here of the way a good New Yorker article ends. I love the writing in The New Yorker because they can get me interested in reading about topics I thought I had no interest in—like economics! And then, their endings are always perfect. I’ll read to the final paragraph and then make that little “hmm” grunt of satisfaction because the writer has wrapped the article up in such a perfect way. That’s what I want for my article.
To achieve this kind of satisfying ending, Zinsser’s offers some good advice:
- Don’t summarize. Don’t repeat in compressed form what you have already said in detail. Not only does Zinsser say this is boring, but it’s also insulting. Do you think your reader was too dumb to get the point that you need to go over it again?
- Zinsser writes, “The perfect ending should take your readers slightly by surprise and yet seem exactly right.” This is really difficult. But this element of slight surprise is important to name and remember.
- One way to conclude is to bring the story full circle at the end. “Strike at the end an echo of a note that was sounded at the beginning—it gratifies my sense of symmetry, and it also pleases the reader, completing with its resonance the journey we set out on together.”
- What works best, though, Zinsser advises, is a quotation. “Go back through your notes to find some remark that has a sense of finality, or that’s funny, or that adds an unexpected closing detail.” I’ve often done this in my sermons, using a verse or a phrase from the text. I’m playing with the idea of ending with a quote in my article because it includes a number of interviews with college students.
Zinsser concludes his chapter on conclusions by returning to his point about surprising the reader. “Surprise is the most refreshing element in nonfiction writing” he writes. This is truly the best advice I’ve received from all the writing courses I’ve taken. When I write now, I write towards the surprise. Nothing kills interest quicker than predictability—there’s no tension, no wonder, nothing worth paying attention to about writing (or preaching) that is predictable. So now, with Zinsser in my head, I’m going to pick up my notebook and write through my ending again. I won’t stop writing until I am surprised by what I find. Because if I am surprised, then I can rest assured that my reader will be too.
[Feature Image: Steve Johnson]