When (and how) to end

Ending a document (or a chapter or a section) can be troublesome. How do you tie all the ideas together and come to some conclusion? How do you give readers a sense that the document is coming to a close?

And then there are questions about the placement of ideas. … Is this the best place for the main idea? The final thought? The real take-home message?

If you’re writing a novel, maybe you want to build up to a dramatic conclusion. My children love Enid Blyton novels, and she’s a master of a technique that forces you to want to read the next chapter by giving you a tiny taste of what is to come. I end each chapter to cries of … ‘But you can’t stop there! It’s too exciting!’.

But in business writing, it usually makes sense to just end. Forget about the idea of writing a conclusion. Say what you want to say, and put it in an order that will make most sense for the reader. If you have a key take-home message, put it first.

It makes sense to think about a business document as a type of funnel that gives the most important material first. This applies both to the entire document and to each section. Putting the most important material first helps readers who are in a hurry – they can quickly grab what they need to know and then stop reading.

In a document with multiple sections, it works best to simply end each section (without writing a conclusion) and move on to the heading of the next section. You don’t need to write a transition that sums up the previous section and leads into the next. Readers make the conceptual shift into a new section when they see your heading.

Some time ago, I read an interesting book by Bob Burton about the PR industry (called ‘Inside Spin’). While I enjoyed the content, it took me some time to figure out what was irritating me about the book’s structure. It was all about transitions between chapters. At the end of most chapters, instead of just stopping, Burton writes a short summary of the chapter and then gives a link (often just one sentence) into the chapter that comes next. As a reader, I kept wondering what the new concept had to do with what I had just read. Eventually I worked out that it was intended as a gentle way of leading into the new chapter. It didn’t work for me as a transition (the chapter title does a better job at this). Instead, it only confused me as a reader. For example, a chapter about the pharmaceuticals industry ends with a mention of tobacco (which is the first case in the next chapter).