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Consider a piece writing that makes three points, all prefaced by some type of heading:

Multiple paragraphs of introduction

Heading 1
Multiple paragraphs explaining Argument 1

Heading 2
Multiple paragraphs explaining Argument 2

Heading 3
Multiple paragraphs explaining Argument 3

Multiple paragraphs of conclusion

Note that there is no heading above the conclusion.

How do you manage that transition? How do you let the reader know that "we're not continuing to support Argument 3 anymore; this is actually wrapping up the entire work"?

The introduction has a clear transition, because the reader hits Heading 1. But the transition from Argument 3 to the conclusion is vague and ill-defined. By that time, the reader has gotten used to seeing the headings as a transition to a new thought. How do you bring this same clear cognitive break to the transition into the conclusion?

How do you avoid the reader getting halfway into the conclusion and thinking, "wait a minute, is the author still talking about Argument 3...I'm confused."

Do you set it off with some formatting?

Heading 3
Multiple paragraphs explaining Argument 3


Multiple paragraphs of conclusion

Or do you do some wording like:

"In conclusion..."

"To sum up..."

"At the end of the day..."

Or do you just bite the bullet and stick a heading in there:

Heading 3
Multiple paragraphs explaining Argument 3

Conclusion
Multiple paragraphs of conclusion

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+50

If you are writing different subjects with headings, stay consequent and give the conclusion a heading, period.

If you are writing lengthy segments about different topics without headings, or if you absolutely must create your conclusion without a header while giving it to other subject (for some odd reason), you will need a 'glue paragraph':

After the end of the last subject, and if you used the headings, then preferably separated visually from it (horizontal line or such), write a paragraph that very briefly summarizes all prior "chapters". Preferably, less than a sentence per chapter - bundle two or three points per sentence. This is a clear signal to the reader you are no longer on the subject of the last chapter, but collecting them together for a "final touch". It helps them recall all the points (you just signal them; the reader can recall the finer details from memory and will do so) and shifts the focus from close-up on the last subject into a broad image of the whole.

Then, without further ado, you proceed to your conclusion. You don't really need any "concluding..." or "To sum up..." if you don't want it. You have shifted the focus back to the broad view, and you can just conclude the whole thing.

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This is almost never done in my experience (which is mostly with technical documentation and some journal articles), for the reason implicit in your question: it's confusing. Once you start carving off sub-sections, the expectation is that each such subsection runs until the next division or the end of the chapter/document. An introduction is special because it can "sit" above the subsections, but there's no standard way to get back to that level and pick up where you left off. Perhaps an illustration will help:

document structure

You could try offsetting the conclusion with extra white space and "* * *" or a similar marker, but I recommend using a heading ("Conclusion") to make it easier on your readers. Besides, if they're skimming, don't you want to make it easier for them to jump there? Give them a signpost.

If your document will have a table of contents, then I think this argument is even stronger. Introductions are implicit, but people aren't going to know to look at the end of the "Heading 3" section for the conclusion to the "Super-Heading" section.

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A different bullet to consider biting: Remove all of the headings. That gives the conclusion equal standing with the other parts. Now all that's left (hah!) is to mark the transitions.

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From a technical writing standpoint especially, I agree with the other presented answers: if you use headings in one place you should continue their use throughout. How you go about this, I think at least, depends on what you're writing and the format you are pursuing.

MLA Format Check out: Purdue Owl's MLA Overview

I've captured some of the interesting bits from that page here:

Why Use MLA?

Using MLA Style properly makes it easier for readers to navigate and >comprehend a text by providing familiar cues when referring to sources and >borrowed information. Editors and instructors also encourage everyone to use >the same format so there is consistency of style within a given field. Abiding >by MLA's standards as a writer will allow you to: •Provide your readers with cues they can use to follow your ideas more >efficiently and to locate information of interest to them •Allow readers to focus more on your ideas by not distracting them with >unfamiliar or complicated formatting •Establish your credibility or ethos in the field by demonstrating an >awareness of your audience and their needs as fellow researchers (particularly >concerning the citing of references)

Who Should Use MLA?

MLA Style is typically reserved for writers and students preparing manuscripts >in various humanities disciplines such as: •English Studies - Language and Literature •Foreign Language and Literatures •Literary Criticism •Comparative Literature •Cultural Studies

MLA Headings tend to look like this:

APA Format Check out: Purdue Owl's APA Overview

And those same interesting bits that you might find helpful:

Why Use APA?

Aside from simplifying the work of editors by having everyone use the same >format for a given publication, using APA Style makes it easier for readers to >understand a text by providing a familiar structure they can follow. Abiding by >APA's standards as a writer will allow you to: •Provide readers with cues they can use to follow your ideas more efficiently >and to locate information of interest to them •Allow readers to focus more on your ideas by not distracting them with >unfamiliar formatting •Establish your credibility or ethos in the field by demonstrating an awareness >of your audience and their needs as fellow researchers

Who Should Use APA?

APA Style describes rules for the preparation of manuscripts for writers and >students in: •Social Sciences, such as Psychology, Linguistics, Sociology, Economics, and >Criminology •Business •Nursing

APA Headings tend to look like this:

What If....

Since I don't know the nature of what you're writing, what if you aren't going for a technical piece? What if you're writing an essay about your love for toasters and it's a very personal piece for you? Headings don't have to be drab and boring. They can be relevant, fun and fuzz the lines of the "Intro, Main Point 1, Main Point 2, Main Point 3, Conclusion" format. Yes, using that format is the norm and yes if you use part of that format continuing with it helps readers significantly (remember human brains like patterns, parallels and being able to fill in the blanks with context clues). However, your headings don't have to spell out "Okay guys this is my introduction, this is my argument part and this is my conclusion" that can get boring and bland.

So let's go back to toasters (I don't know why I picked it as an example, but I did and I'm rolling with it). You could format the essay with headings like these and be creative:

I love toasters.

You know, a nice unlabeled intro like Monica Cellio discussed above.

Insert the Bread; push the lever

Main point one

Popping it's Way to my Heart

So, main point 2 with a unique heading. (Here the headings are the steps to using a toaster)

Skipping Main Point 3 as I'm not questioning your creativity, just trying to give a lame example of creative heading format.

My Reflection in the Toaster

I look at the finished work. The toast sits on my plate, the toaster is primed for another slice. I smile as a toaster-sized reflection smiles back. This is why I love toasters. The culmination of...

(and then you conclude and recap etc...)

The point is, the heading for the conclusion doesn't always have to be "conclusion." In some cases, that's helpful, preferred by a professor, and so on, but writing allows for freedom and you can use headings to convey that freedom.

Here are some sample essays with unique heading/section formats:

(NOTE: I proofed for format, not topics, so if anything is radical, profane, etc... I apologize). Roman Numerals as Section Separators

Use of Large Capital Letters and Unique Formatting

As previously stated, the option to not use any headers also exits.

Also, if you're writing for a certain publication, a certain professor, a certain job, etc... someone probably has an idea of the format they are looking for-it helps to appeal to that as well.

Just my thoughts in a lengthy post that talks far too much about toasters :)

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