[Tipster] The Art of Ending Well in Nonfiction Writing

tipster post Oct 13, 2023

Recently, I cheered on my friend as she completed a half marathon. I plopped myself into the bleachers by the finish line. I waited for her fist-pumping finale.

That’s the thing. When you complete a half marathon (or a marathon), runners most always finish strong. I witnessed people who limped from mile 11 to 13 sprint the last tenth of a mile.

As humans, we aim to finish well. We like the satisfaction closure brings—especially when we have completed something that’s taken gobs of resolve.

But when it comes to writing conclusions? Well, most nonfiction writers limp to the final word.

Most often it’s because we are exhausted from writing. We hit the proverbial writing wall. Who has stored energy to fist-pump their way to a strategic, creative—and satisfying!—end?

To others, a conclusion feels unnecessary and obligatory, especially if we follow the model we were taught in high school: summarize what you already spent a couple thousand words on. (Who wants to do that?)

Simply, writers haven’t been taught—or practiced—the art of ending well.

Yet the conclusion, arguably, is the most important part of your writing. It’s what the reader last reads.

Shouldn’t we strive to end well?

Don’t Fade Out

A friend recently passed along a quote by novelist Jake Wolff that points to the high stakes of endings in writing.

“As a fiction writer, I don’t think it’s fair that songs can end by just fading out. When I have no idea how to end a short story, how come I can’t just be like and then everything got very quiet.”

Wolff is a fiction writer, but the principle applies to nonfiction writers as well.

The worst ending is the one that fades. That’s indecisive. It doesn’t match the intentionality and creativity of the writing that you’ve agonized over.

To learn to write nonfiction endings well you might first begin with reading and paying attention to how the best nonfiction writers conclude their writing.

Learn from the Masters

I picked up E.B. White’s Writings from the New Yorker: 1927-1976. They’re short, digestible essays, but wise and beautiful. And satisfying, largely because each has a tasty, intentional ending.

My favorite essay is White’s 1954 Christmas greeting essay, “Remembrance Is Sufficient.”

White starts by calculating the numerous reasons it is difficult to write a satisfying Christmas greeting—because “everyone constructs a Christmas of his own…and merriment takes almost as many forms as there are celebrants.”

What’s more complicated, White points out, is that the joy we seek in Christmas “things” is typically unsatisfying and painfully reminds us of joy lost through the years. To illustrate, he tells the story of apologizing to his elderly aunt for neglecting to take her to see the fall colors in the country.

She responded, “Why, my dear? Remembrance is sufficient of the beauty we have seen.”

White goes on for another paragraph, exploring the longing that is a handmaiden to Christmas.

And then White concludes his greeting: “To any for whom by some mischance the magical moment [of Christmas] fails in reenactment, we give Aunt Caroline’s resolute words: Remembrance is sufficient of the beauty.”

White doesn’t simply end. He ends well—applying his aunt’s wisdom to the Christmas season.

He uses two strategies that you might experiment within your next piece of writing. 

  1. Circle back. Revisit a key story or phrase to advance a theme. It’s a way for you to take an idea that has already been raised and manipulate it to raise a fresh, poignant idea. It subtly creates cohesion in writing, by pulling a thread to the very end.
  2. End with a quote.  Choose a powerful quote that encapsulates the essence of your thesis. Quotes can be thought-provoking, rather than simple summations. And often, they tap into human emotion.

Shall I fade here? Or shall I fist-pump to the finish line?

The latter is exhausting.

You must tap into your creative reserve.

But I can see it—the remembrance of ending well in past writing.

And that is sufficient to make me push through to the end.

Now buckle up and write.

Melissa Parks



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