How Great Writers End Their Articles

What you can learn from the final paragraphs of 100 top feature articles from Malcolm Gladwell, the Atlantic, Fast Company, and the New York Times

Jason Shen
Jan 31 · 39 min read

One of the unfortunate truths about writing is that most of your readers bail midway through your piece and never get to the ending.

Two elements that affect your read ratio (how many people read to the end) are length and popularity:

  • The longer the piece, the more likely a time constraint or other distraction will keep them from getting to the end.
  • The more popular the piece, the more likely it is that your article will find its way in front of someone who isn’t your target audience, and that they will quit reading after skimming the first few paragraphs.

Earlier this year, I published a massive analysis of the 13 patterns of introductions that appear in great writing, based on my analysis of 94 articles from the Atlantic, Fast Company, and the New York Times Op-Ed section. It has been viewed 21,000 times and shared online by journalism professors, marketers, English departments, and tech CEOs.

My Medium stats tell me that 89% of readers never got to the end—which makes sense. It’s a 25-minute read, and it reached tens of thousands of people, not all of whom were super dedicated to the art of great writing (good news for you, dear reader, if you are!).

And this is a pattern that holds true for my other pieces: only 3 of the 22 pieces I’ve written in the last three years on Medium have gotten more than a 50% read ratio, and they were all short (requiring less than four minutes of reading time) and were read by a more targeted audience (fewer than 3,000 views).

Why Endings Matter

This is an article about how to write great endings, and I started it by telling you how many people won’t make it to the end of anything you write. So why bother making your ending great?

Because while not everyone makes it to the end of every piece, the ones who do matter much more. They are more invested in your work and will be the ones most likely to remember, talk about, and share your writing. And you want them to finish on a strong note.

Nobel Prize–winning psychologist Daniel Kahneman and collaborators have found that people seem to form memories based on averaging the most intense part of an experience and its final moments, a tendency that they dubbed “The Peak–End Rule.” While their work focused on unpleasant experiences like dunking your hand in ice water or undergoing a colonoscopy, there’s no reason why this rule shouldn’t hold for writing.

As a writer, you want to maximize how readers perceive your work. Using the ending to cement your place in the reader’s memory and make an emotional impact makes good sense.

By studying great endings, you can also improve the way you close a paragraph, a section, or a piece of writing and create an outsized impact for your most engaged readers.

So how does great writing conclude?

Following up on my Great Beginnings piece, I picked out the endings from 94 of the most compelling feature articles from the Atlantic, Fast Company, and the New York Times Op-Ed section, and an additional 6 articles by Malcolm Gladwell for a nice round 100. See the appendix below for details on the articles chosen.

In this article, I analyze how those articles conclude and demonstrate what you can learn about honing the ending of your own articles.


Elements vs. Patterns

The first thing to know is that while beginnings tend to fall into one of 13 patterns, endings are an amalgamation of several elements, with most including several different components.

That said, my analysis found 23 specific elements of endings, and I’ve listed their frequency below.

All illustrations by the author.

Note that an element having a higher frequency doesn’t imply that it’s somehow “better”—the elements that work best for an article depend on the effect you’re trying to have on your reader, the research you’ve done, and the subject matter itself.

Read on for descriptions of these elements and how I was able to sort them into categories.

Simple and Universal

Elements in this category can be easily used in almost any kind of ending.

  • Summary — A general recap of the main points or facts discussed in the piece. This can span many sentences rather than being a focused single statement.
  • Quote — A direct citation of the words of a third-party source, usually someone the writer directly interviewed or has been quoting throughout the piece.
  • Question — An inquiry used to frame the piece and the answers to which can tee up the final paragraphs/sentences.
  • Stats — Numerical figures that relate to the main topic in some fashion.

Structured and Thoughtful

Elements in this category require more thinking but can be very satisfying for smart readers.

  • Call Back—A reference or follow-up to something (question, event, idea) that was said earlier in the piece.
  • Thesis (Re)Stated—One to two clearly worded sentences that articulate (sometimes for the first time) the main argument of the piece.
  • What’s Next — Forward-looking statements that describe the main subject’s plans or what most informed people expect to happen in the near future.
  • Possible Outcomes—A much more speculative version of “What’s next” that usually features two or more possible ways things may unfold.
  • Compare/Contrast—A discussion of a different idea or entity to illustrate something about the main subject of the article.

Taking Action

Elements in this category are found in articles that imply or are meant to drive the reader to not just think differently, but take action.

  • Actionable Advice—Specific suggestions directed at readers who want to improve their own lives in the area discussed by the topic.
  • Call to Action — A direct appeal to the reader to take certain actions or support certain causes in order to produce a broadly desired outcome.
  • Policy Recommendations — A series of recommendations by the writer that are directed at industry, academic, or government leaders who have the power to implement the ideas mentioned in the article.

Frames

Elements in this category are more about how the ending is written than a specific item.

  • Optimistic — A kind of tone that pervades the end of the piece suggesting that good things are ahead.
  • Pessimistic — A kind of tone that pervades the end of the piece suggesting that things will be getting worse.
  • Zoom Out — The use of historical context or a broader perspective to show how the topic of the article fits into a wider scenario.

Reporter’s Toolbox

These are elements typically found in pieces written by professional reporters and journalists and, while harder to pull off, can be very powerful.

  • Story — A full plot arc featuring one or more characters and a beginning, middle, and end.
  • Scene — The description of one or more characters at a particular setting and/or point in time, but without a full plot resolution, as in a Story.
  • Dialogue — Several lines of quoted conversation between two people, usually captured directly by the writer.
  • On the Other Hand — A way to balance the coverage by explaining counterpoints to the prevailing wisdom. Often seen in conjunction with Optimistic/Pessimistic/What’s Next.

Sign-offs

Elements in this category tend to be the very last thing in the article.

  • Abrupt — The article just ends without a formal conclusion. This kind of ending usually appears in list-based articles at the end of the final list item.
  • Personal Statement — One or more sentences that directly state the writer’s feelings and beliefs about a topic.
  • Open Ended — An ambiguous statement, quote, or action that hides the intentions of the writer and/or pushes the reader to decide for themselves what to think of the topic.
  • Zinger — A pithy, memorable, or otherwise powerful statement, usually the very last sentence of the article.

How the Ending Elements Differ for Entities vs. Ideas

As in my article on beginnings, I differentiated between topics that are about entities (people, things) versus those about ideas and found that the types of endings also varied based on this classification.

Entity-based articles focus on a specific person, organization, or event. Fast Company might profile a company like Pinterest or Giphy. A New York Times op-ed piece might share the personal story of someone who knelt with Colin Kaepernick or encountered Harvey Weinstein.

Compared to their articles that focused on ideas, articles that featured an entity were more likely to use Open Ended, Scene, Personal Statement, Dialogue and What’s Next in their endings.

Meanwhile, idea-based articles are about less tangible things: trends, arguments, recommendations. An example from the Atlantic might be an article about women bullying other women in the workplace. That piece might mention a number of companies and share specific experiences people have had, but its subject is bigger than any one of those specific entities.

Compared to their counterparts, articles that featured an idea were more likely to use Abrupt, Actionable Advice, Thesis (Re)Stated, Call Back, and Policy Recommendations in their endings.

Here’s a visual summary of these differences:

Having taken a broad look at these findings, let’s look at each of these ending elements in detail and review some examples.


Simple and Easy Elements

Summary | 11%

It’s surprising that summaries aren’t more common, since they’re sort of what everyone’s taught to do in school—wrap up your paper by restating what you’ve already said. In some ways the fact that this obvious technique is not a core part of how most of the articles we analyzed ended makes me feel better.

Summary Examples

How Iceland Got Teens to Say No to Drugs in the Atlantic (Entity)

In Iceland, the relationship between people and the state has allowed an effective national program to cut the rates of teenagers smoking and drinking to excess — and, in the process, brought families closer and helped kids to become healthier in all kinds of ways. Will no other country decide that these benefits are worth the costs?

Why Women Had Better Sex Under Socialism in the New York Times Op-Ed section (Idea)

Because they championed sexual equality — at work, at home and in the bedroom — and were willing to enforce it, Communist women who occupied positions in the state apparatus could be called cultural imperialists. But the liberation they imposed radically transformed millions of lives across the globe, including those of many women who still walk among us as the mothers and grandmothers of adults in the now democratic member states of the European Union. Those comrades’ insistence on government intervention may seem heavy-handed to our postmodern sensibilities, but sometimes necessary social change — which soon comes to be seen as the natural order of things — needs an emancipation proclamation from above.

Quote | 53%

Quotes are very simple to understand: you restate the words of someone else, usually a central figure in the article, but occasionally a new person not previously cited or introduced. They act as an expert providing judgment or as a “real person” sharing a personal perspective that allows the writer to conclude with credibility. It’s not surprising that this is the most common way to end, since it’s incredibly versatile.

In the first example, we see Gladwell expertly use several quotes from his main subject to talk about the odd nondivisible nature of ketchup, ending with the perfect conclusion. In the second, the author uses the Quote ending to include an inflammatory statement that might seem biased if stated directly but appears more trustworthy when cited by a source.

Quote Examples

The Ketchup Conundrum by Malcolm Gladwell in the New Yorker (Entity)

“Back in the seventies, someone else — I think it was Ragú — tried to do an ‘Italian’-style ketchup,” Moskowitz said. “They failed miserably.” It was a conundrum: what was true about a yellow condiment that went on hot dogs was not true about a tomato condiment that went on hamburgers, and what was true about tomato sauce when you added visible solids and put it in a jar was somehow not true about tomato sauce when you added vinegar and sugar and put it in a bottle. Moskowitz shrugged. “I guess ketchup is ketchup.”

When Evidence Says No, but Doctors Say Yes in the Atlantic (Idea)

The new law takes money from programs — like vaccination and smoking-cessation efforts — that are known to prevent disease and moves it to work that might, eventually, treat disease. The bill will also allow the FDA to approve new uses for drugs based on observational studies or even “summary-level reviews” of data submitted by pharmaceutical companies. Prasad has been a particularly trenchant and public critic, tweeting that “the only people who don’t like the bill are people who study drug approval, safety, and who aren’t paid by Pharma.”

Question | 24%

Just like articles often open with questions to frame the rest of the piece, a great question can also help readers understand what the piece was really about or give them something to chew on in the future. This is a great way to keep readers engaged long after they’ve put your article away.

In the first example, we see a parent wonder if her deeply troubled child can grow up to be a functional adult, and in the second, an author gives a reader struggling with imposter syndrome an empowering question to flip the script.

Question Examples

When Your Child Is a Psychopath in the Atlantic (Entity)

Of course, even if Samantha can slip easily back into home life at 11, what of the future? “Do I want that child to have a driver’s license?,” Jen asks. To go on dates? She’s smart enough for college — but will she be able to negotiate that complex society without becoming a threat? Can she have a stable romantic relationship, much less fall in love and marry? She and Danny have had to redefine success for Samantha: simply keeping her out of prison.

The Five Types of Impostor Syndrome and How to Beat Them in Fast Company (Idea)

No matter the specific profile, if you struggle with confidence, you’re far from alone. To take one example, studies suggest 70% of people experience impostor syndrome at some point in their career.

If you’ve experienced it at any point in your career, you’ve at one point or another chalked up your accomplishments to chance, charm, connections, or another external factor. How unfair and unkind is that? Take today as your opportunity to start accepting and embracing your capabilities.

Stats | 9%

Numbers are a useful way to provide context as you wrap up a piece, and we see that many writers turned to this element to round out their story, whether it focused on the value of leadership or on the relative improvement of female technical staff at Slack.

Stats Examples

Why Employees at Apple and Google Are More Productive in Fast Company (Entity)

Dell Technologies recognized the productivity difference between inspired and average teams, says Mankins. “Sales teams led by an inspiring leader are 6% more productive than those that have an average leader. If you extrapolate that 6% it accounts for an extra $1 billion in annual revenue. Consider what [poor leadership] is costing your company.”

Why Is Silicon Valley So Awful to Women? in the Atlantic (Idea)

Last year, when Slack received the TechCrunch award for Fastest Rising Startup, the company sent four black female software engineers — rather than the CEO, Stewart Butterfield (who’s white) — onstage to accept the award. “We’re engineers,” one of the women, Kiné Camara, said, meaningfully. From September 2015 to February 2016, as Slack grew, its technical workforce went from 18 percent to 24 percent female. However slowly, the industry seems to be changing its mind about innate talent and where genius comes from.


Structured and Thoughtful

Call Back | 17%

Call Backs are a type of ending that allude to something referenced in the beginning of the article. They are a high-risk, high-reward way to end, since you have to find a way to connect the ending to the beginning in a way that makes sense and reads smoothly. The reader might not remember what was said at the beginning, so you have to ensure you opened with something distinct. But when everything clicks, this can seem like a genius move. This is a pretty common strategy, and the 17% frequency of this element’s use probably undercounts the actual number of Call Backs used by at least half, since authors sometimes conclude with a reference to something said in the middle of the piece.

In the first example, the author calls back to the first paragraph, which described how the computer was better understood as emerging from mathematical logic. In the second, Gladwell introduces Steve Jobs visiting Xerox’s office at the beginning of the article but focuses the bulk of the story on Xerox itself before bringing Jobs’s company back into the picture.

Call Back Examples

How Aristotle Created the Computer in the Atlantic (Entity)

This would be a fitting second act to the story of computers. Logic began as a way to understand the laws of thought. It then helped create machines that could reason according to the rules of deductive logic. Today, deductive and inductive logic are being combined to create machines that both reason and learn. What began, in Boole’s words, with an investigation “concerning the nature and constitution of the human mind,” could result in the creation of new minds — artificial minds — that might someday match or even exceed our own.

Creation Myth by Malcolm Gladwell in the New Yorker (Idea)

Then Starkweather had a scheme for hooking up a high-resolution display to one of his new company’s computers. “I got it running and brought it into management and said, ‘Why don’t we show this at the tech expo in San Francisco? You’ll be able to rule the world.’ They said, ‘I don’t know. We don’t have room for it.’ It was that sort of thing. It was like me saying I’ve discovered a gold mine and you saying we can’t afford a shovel.”

He shrugged a little wearily. It was ever thus. The innovator says go. The company says stop — and maybe the only lesson of the legend of Xerox parc is that what happened there happens, in one way or another, everywhere. By the way, the company that couldn’t afford a shovel? Its name was Apple.

Thesis (Re)Stated | 13%

Like the thesis statements we learned to include in our high school and college writing classes, this can be a powerful way to sum up a piece. The difference between a Summary and Thesis (Re)Stated is that the latter advances the core argument of their piece rather than just condensing information.

In the first example, the author uses the final sentence to answer the implicit question posed in the title. In the second, Gladwell argues that we need to decouple our definition of genius from youth.

Thesis (Re)Stated Examples

How to Win a War on Drugs in the New York Times Opinion section (Idea)

Yet for all his suffering, Brito lives, because he’s Portuguese. The lesson that Portugal offers the world is that while we can’t eradicate heroin, it’s possible to save the lives of drug users — if we’re willing to treat them not as criminals but as sick, suffering human beings who need helping hands, not handcuffs.

Late Bloomers: Why Do We Equate Genius with Precocity? by Malcolm Gladwell in the New Yorker (Idea)

But she believed in her husband’s art, or perhaps, more simply, she believed in her husband, the same way Zola and Pissarro and Vollard and — in his own, querulous way — Louis-Auguste must have believed in Cézanne. Late bloomers’ stories are invariably love stories, and this may be why we have such difficulty with them. We’d like to think that mundane matters like loyalty, steadfastness, and the willingness to keep writing checks to support what looks like failure have nothing to do with something as rarefied as genius. But sometimes genius is anything but rarefied; sometimes it’s just the thing that emerges after twenty years of working at your kitchen table.

What’s Next | 14%

Articles that end with What’s Next usually have spent the bulk of the piece talking about what the main entity has experienced and done — accomplishments, setbacks, insights — and perhaps a bit of time on their aspirations and long-term ambitions. The ending is then used to paint a near-term picture of the future, to describe the plans the entity has set into motion, or to hint at soon-to-be-released work.

In the first example, that future is the self-driving grocery store on wheels, and in the second, it’s how safety standards for cars will impact how software is made for critical systems like autonomous vehicles.

What’s Next Examples

The Grocery Store of the Future Is Mobile, Self-Driving, and Run by AI in Fast Company (Entity)

By 2018, Wheelys expects to be ready to produce and sell the stores, and help franchisees compete with other coming retail outlets like Amazon’s new brick-and-mortar stores. “I want these to be bought by families or groups of people, so that it’s not one person that owns every store in the world,” says Mazetti. “Instead of working at a warehouse for Amazon, you can own your own little store.”

The Coming Software Apocalypse in the Atlantic (Idea)

One suspects the incentives are changing. “I think the autonomous car might push them,” Ledinot told me — “ISO 26262 and the autonomous car might slowly push them to adopt this kind of approach on critical parts.” (ISO 26262 is a safety standard for cars published in 2011.) Barr said much the same thing: In the world of the self-driving car, software can’t be an afterthought. It can’t be built like today’s airline-reservation systems or 911 systems or stock-trading systems. Code will be put in charge of hundreds of millions of lives on the road and it has to work. That is no small task.

Possible Outcomes | 11%

This type of ending focuses on the future, but in a more speculative way (compared to, say, What’s Next, which is more about the plans and activities already set in motion by the article’s main subject). In Possible Outcomes endings, the author helps the reader understand what might be ahead in a world based on the ideas and events documented in the article.

In the first example, the author asks us to consider how embracing certain environmental policies might shift the way capitalism operates. In the second, we are confronted with a litany of events that might shift how the Trump presidency impacts our democracy.

Possible Outcomes Examples

Are You Ready to Consider That Capitalism Is the Real Problem? in Fast Company (Idea)

People want to live in balance with the environment on which we all depend for our survival; so we can adopt regenerative agricultural solutions and even choose, as Ecuador did in 2008, to recognize in law, at the level of the nation’s constitution, that nature has “the right to exist, persist, maintain, and regenerate its vital cycles.”

Measures like these could dethrone capitalism’s prime directive and replace it with a more balanced logic, that recognizes the many factors required for a healthy and thriving civilization. If done systematically enough, they could consign one-dimensional capitalism to the dustbin of history.

Will Donald Trump Destroy the Presidency? in the Atlantic (Entity)

The second assumption is that the country is fundamentally stable. In Trump’s first seven months in office, the stock market boomed and the United States faced no full-blown national-security crisis. But what if the economy collapses, or the country faces a major domestic terrorist attack or even nuclear war? What if Mueller finds evidence that Trump colluded with the Russians — and Trump fires not just Mueller but also scores of others in the Justice Department, and pardons himself and everyone else involved? These are not crazy possibilities. The Constitution has held thus far and might continue to do so under more-extreme circumstances. But it also might not.

Compare/Contrast | 9%

Sometimes we can best understand something when we see it against the backdrop of a peer, another idea or person or event that is different in a meaningful way. We can better appreciate heat when we are cold and sculpture when compared to a painting.

In the first example, Gladwell lays out how Steve Jobs’s desire to tinker and perfect is more visible when compared to the habits and characteristics of his rival technologist, Bill Gates. In the second, the author makes it clear that AI research has far fewer resources at its disposal compared to high-energy physics.

Compare/Contrast Examples

The Tweaker by Malcolm Gladwell in the New Yorker (Entity)

Perhaps this is why Bill Gates — of all Jobs’s contemporaries — gave him fits. Gates resisted the romance of perfectionism. Time and again, Isaacson repeatedly asks Jobs about Gates and Jobs cannot resist the gratuitous dig. “Bill is basically unimaginative,” Jobs tells Isaacson, “and has never invented anything, which I think is why he’s more comfortable now in philanthropy than technology. He just shamelessly ripped off other people’s ideas.”

After close to six hundred pages, the reader will recognize this as vintage Jobs: equal parts insightful, vicious, and delusional.

Artificial Intelligence Is Stuck. Here’s How to Move It Forward in the New York Times Opinion section (Idea)

I look with envy at my peers in high-energy physics, and in particular at CERN, the European Organization for Nuclear Research, a huge, international collaboration, with thousands of scientists and billions of dollars of funding. They pursue ambitious, tightly defined projects (like using the Large Hadron Collider to discover the Higgs boson) and share their results with the world, rather than restricting them to a single country or corporation. Even the largest “open” efforts at A.I., like OpenAI, which has about 50 staff members and is sponsored in part by Elon Musk, is tiny by comparison.


Taking Action

Actionable Advice | 8%

Actionable Advice involves sharing useful tips for the reader regarding the topic at hand. These endings provide suggestions for handling challenges or dealing with situations that the reader may encounter in his or her own life, usually informed by the ideas of experts featured in the article itself.

In the first example, the author shares her tips for college students that will allow them to benefit from her years of experience in school and as an instructor. In the second, the writer ends by quoting an expert’s advice on how to initiate a change in eating habits.

Actionable Advice Examples

College Advice I Wish I’d Taken in the New York Times Opinion section (Entity)

YOU’RE NOT STUCK Don’t be afraid to ask for emotional support. It was a graduate school professor who recommended my first therapist to me: She was a fantastic listener who charged on a sliding scale. Therapy can be cheap, fun and easily available — not to mention lifesaving.

And if it turns out you’re in the wrong school, don’t worry. A third of college students transfer before graduating. If you’re unhappy or not thriving at your school, take the long view. I couldn’t have made it in Manhattan as an undergraduate, but four years later, graduate school at New York University offered me a chance to live in my dream city. It took me only three decades of work to make it to the Ivy League — to teach one class, at least.

What Happened When I Gave Up Gluten, Sugar, Dairy, and Coffee in Fast Company (Entity)

For lasting results you need to create a lifestyle change. “That can sound overwhelming at first, but it doesn’t have to be,” says Gilmore. “Start by making small changes, such as drinking a green smoothie for breakfast. Find a healthy routine that works for you, and stick with it. While making small gradual changes may not sound as exciting, those kinds of changes will create new and lasting habits that you can easily maintain forever, leaving you in overall better health.”

Policy Recommendations | 4%

This ending type mirrors Actionable Advice, except that it focuses on actions that need to be taken at a level typically above that of the reader. This might mean some kind of government action or a change in the way corporations operate. The expectation is probably that while most of the readers cannot directly enact the recommendation, they can become advocates to help drive the outlined changes. In that way, this ending type can also be thought of as a counterpart to the Call to Action, which is more personal.

In the first example we see the article’s named expert give recommendations on how cities need to leverage different departments to become greener. In the second, the author’s entire piece is a series of recommendations about AI regulation, ending on a third and final rule.

Policy Recommendations Examples

Cities Should Think About Trees as Public Health Infrastructure in Fast Company (Entity)

Creating greener cities cannot be the responsibility of the health sector alone; McDonald says it will be crucial for urban forestry departments to more fully integrate the health benefits of their trees into messaging and goals in order to break down city agency silos and communicate more effectively with urban health and planning departments. And of course, as more and more cities develop strategies to create resilience against climate change, a healthy urban canopy will be a hugely necessary component.

How to Regulate Artificial Intelligence in the New York Times Opinion section (Idea)

My third rule is that an A.I. system cannot retain or disclose confidential information without explicit approval from the source of that information. Because of their exceptional ability to automatically elicit, record and analyze information, A.I. systems are in a prime position to acquire confidential information. Think of all the conversations that Amazon Echo — a “smart speaker” present in an increasing number of homes — is privy to, or the information that your child may inadvertently divulge to a toy such as an A.I. Barbie. Even seemingly innocuous housecleaning robots create maps of your home. That is information you want to make sure you control.

My three A.I. rules are, I believe, sound but far from complete. I introduce them here as a starting point for discussion. Whether or not you agree with Mr. Musk’s view about A.I.’s rate of progress and its ultimate impact on humanity (I don’t), it is clear that A.I. is coming. Society needs to get ready.

Call to Action | 11%

This type of ending is common in op-eds, in which authors have explicit license to be more prescriptive and not just act as a neutral third party. A Call to Action is usually a direct statement to the reader to join the author in some kind of movement — political, social, technological. Sometimes it’s couched to apply only to readers of a certain demographic — parents, women, engineers, etc.

In the first example, the article wraps up by asking readers to teach the next generation how to be smarter about the truth (though it turns out boomers need this support the most). In the second, the author uses the “royal we” to call for women to keep sharing stories of powerful men who have done bad things.

Call to Action Examples

How America Lost Its Mind in the Atlantic (Entity)

It will require a struggle to make America reality-based again. Fight the good fight in your private life. You needn’t get into an argument with the stranger at Chipotle who claims that George Soros and Uber are plotting to make his muscle car illegal — but do not give acquaintances and friends and family members free passes. If you have children or grandchildren, teach them to distinguish between true and untrue as fiercely as you do between right and wrong and between wise and foolish.

We need to adopt new protocols for information-media hygiene. Would you feed your kids a half-eaten casserole a stranger handed you on the bus, or give them medicine you got from some lady at the gym?

Yes, This Is a Witch Hunt. I’m a Witch and I’m Hunting You in the New York Times Opinion section (Idea)

In a just system, the abuse wouldn’t have stayed an open secret for decades while he was left free to chew through generation after generation of starlets. Weinstein’s life, like Cosby’s, isn’t the story of some tragic, pitiable downfall. It’s the story of someone who got away with it.

The witches are coming, but not for your life. We’re coming for your legacy. The cost of being Harvey Weinstein is not getting to be Harvey Weinstein anymore. We don’t have the justice system on our side; we don’t have institutional power; we don’t have millions of dollars or the presidency; but we have our stories, and we’re going to keep telling them. Happy Halloween.

Frames

Optimistic | 18%

The Optimistic frame is what writers want to use when they’re projecting a bright future for the person, company, or idea that is the center of their article. The world is changing for the better, and while there might be some challenges or concerns to be addressed, the overall tone is positive. This is the kind of press you want to get, a narrative that might acknowledge but ultimately dismisses critiques.

In the first example, we see how Fast Company sends off Amazon as its most innovative company in the world, while in the second, the writer ends on a positive note for how a simple change in diet could fight the Trump administration’s policy on climate change.

Optimistic Examples

Why Amazon Is the World’s Most Innovative Company of 2017 in Fast Company (Entity)

“Well, I’ll tell you one way that I don’t think anybody is divided,” Bezos replies. “Everybody wants fast delivery. Low prices. I’m serious about this. Our job is to provide a great customer experience, and that is something that is universally desired all over the world.”

It’s tough to argue with his words. And yet this Bezosian boilerplate is certainly less than the full story. Because Amazon is doing more than delivering our next tube of toothpaste. By using the “divine discontent of the customer as a North Star,” as Bezos puts it, the company is energizing a culture of relentless progress. The neighborhood may be changing, but maybe that’s good. Maybe that’s what business in the modern era is all about.

Substituting Beans for Beef Would Help the U.S. Meet Climate Goals in the Atlantic (Idea)

The words vegetarian and vegan have stifled some people’s thinking on what it means to eat well — to consume responsibly, conscientiously. Rather the beans for beef scenario is the dietary equivalent of effective altruism — focusing on where efforts will have the highest yield. “It’s kind of a worst-first approach, looking at the hottest spot in the food system in terms of greenhouse-gas emissions, and what could that be substituted with without losing protein and calories in the food system? And at the same time, gaining health benefits.”

In addition to the well-documented health benefits of a plant-based diet, this case also brings empowerment, or at least reprieve. Regardless of a person’s degree of ecoanxiety, there is some recourse in knowing how far individuals can go to make up for a regressive federal administration simply by eating beans.

Pessimistic | 15%

While lots of writers cover topics and entities they support or believe in, that’s not always the case. Sometimes they are writing about problems without good answers, and the tone of their story ends sharply on a down note. Like its twin, Optimistic, the Pessimistic frame also requires the writer to sometimes focus on the negative aspects of the story and downplay positives to fit the narrative.

In the first piece, we see a writer lament the loss of humanity’s access to millions of books through the closing of a project, while in the second we see how despite clear signals that economic inequality is bad for society, the political party in power wants to make it worse.

Pessimistic Examples

Torching the Modern-Day Library of Alexandria in the Atlantic (Entity)

It was strange to me, the idea that somewhere at Google there is a database containing 25-million books and nobody is allowed to read them. It’s like that scene at the end of the first Indiana Jones movie where they put the Ark of the Covenant back on a shelf somewhere, lost in the chaos of a vast warehouse. It’s there. The books are there. People have been trying to build a library like this for ages — to do so, they’ve said, would be to erect one of the great humanitarian artifacts of all time — and here we’ve done the work to make it real and we were about to give it to the world and now, instead, it’s 50 or 60 petabytes on disk, and the only people who can see it are half a dozen engineers on the project who happen to have access because they’re the ones responsible for locking it up.

Our Broken Economy, in One Simple Chart in the New York Times Opinion section (Idea)

Remarkably, President Trump and the Republican leaders in Congress are trying to go in the other direction. They spent months trying to take away health insurance from millions of middle-class and poor families. Their initial tax-reform plans would reduce taxes for the rich much more than for everyone else. And they want to cut spending on schools, even though education is the single best way to improve middle-class living standards over the long term.

Most Americans would look at these charts and conclude that inequality is out of control. The president, on the other hand, seems to think that inequality isn’t big enough.

Zoom Out | 18%

In a Zoom Out, the writer takes a step back and looks at how the things he or she has been writing about figure into the bigger picture. This might mean examining historical patterns, happenings in related fields, or the broader category that the topic fits under. A story about a particular politician becomes a data point in an examination of a larger shift in politics; an innovative product reveals more about how tech is changing society. Zoom Outs can also function as “so what’s,” a concept my social studies teachers would constantly repeat, urging students to explain not just what happened but why it matters.

In the first article, a story about a fake male cofounder is connected to the larger issue of sexism in technology and venture capital, while in the second, the writer connects President Trump’s whiteness to a historical idea that has new significance today.

Zoom Out Examples

These Women Entrepreneurs Created a Fake Male Cofounder to Dodge Startup Sexism in Fast Company (Entity)

The imaginary startup entrepreneur Keith Mann will come as little surprise to many women who have worked in tech (not to mention other industries), or anybody who has been keeping up with the news out of Silicon Valley lately. High-profile cases of sexual harassment in the VC world and the controversy over an ex-Google employee’s anti-diversity manifesto are just two of the most recent, notable storylines in the media. Earlier this year, the story of how a pair of male and female colleagues switched email signatures and experienced radically different encounters when dealing with higher-ups and clients went viral. Evidently, email-based sexism in the workplace is something that resonates with more than a handful of people.

Gazin and Dwyer have retired Keith for now, but they concede that they can see a role for him in Witchsy’s future.

The First White President in the Atlantic (Idea)

It has long been an axiom among certain black writers and thinkers that while whiteness endangers the bodies of black people in the immediate sense, the larger threat is to white people themselves, the shared country, and even the whole world. There is an impulse to blanch at this sort of grandiosity. When W. E. B. Du Bois claims that slavery was “singularly disastrous for modern civilization” or James Baldwin claims that whites “have brought humanity to the edge of oblivion: because they think they are white,” the instinct is to cry exaggeration. But there really is no other way to read the presidency of Donald Trump. The first white president in American history is also the most dangerous president — and he is made more dangerous still by the fact that those charged with analyzing him cannot name his essential nature, because they too are implicated in it.


Reporter’s Toolbox

Story | 9%

It is popular for articles to both begin and end with a story, a mini-narrative with a protagonist, action, and conclusion. Stories included at the end of a piece are often a way to drive home a point made earlier, as in the case of the Bumble article, in which sexism and the workplace were part of the introductory story. But it can also be a way to add another dimension to a piece, as Gladwell does at the end of his piece on Ted Turner, showing how Turner’s low-risk attitude wasn’t the only thing that drove his decisions.

Story Examples

Bumble CEO Takes Aim at LinkedIn in Fast Company (Entity)

On this day, Wolfe’s team is workshopping new billboard ads for Bizz; “What does your Dad do? What does your Mom do?” is a top contender. Wolfe’s own mom is a brand ambassador who has spent the past six months recruiting the over-50 age group at various events in the Santa Barbara, California, area. As for her dad — Wolfe’s parents divorced when she was 17 — she has a story about him. Wolfe tells her team that she called him recently to share news of Bumble’s rising revenue: “And he said, ‘Well, good for you, now why don’t you just leave it be? Get a CEO in there and take care of [your husband] and enjoy your life.’”

The room of women (and three men) groans, as Wolfe laughs and throws her arms up in mock outrage. “We need more users,” she says. “Clearly our job isn’t done yet.”

The Sure Thing by Malcolm Gladwell in the New Yorker (Idea)

In “Call Me Ted,” Turner tells the story of one of his first great traumas. When Turner was twenty-four, his father committed suicide. He had been depressed and troubled for some months, and one day after breakfast he went upstairs and shot himself. After the funeral, it emerged that the day before his death Turner’s father had sold the crown jewels of the family business — the General Outdoor properties — to a man named Bob Naegele. Turner was grief-stricken. But he fought back. He hired away the General Outdoor leasing department. He began “jumping” the company’s leases — that is, persuading the people who owned the real estate on which the General Outdoor billboards sat to cancel the leases and sign up with Turner Advertising. Then he flew to Palm Springs and strong-armed Naegele into giving back the business.

Turner the rational actor negotiated the deal. But it was Turner the romantic who had the will, at the moment of his greatest grief, to fight back.

Scene | 7%

The difference between a Story and a Scene is that the latter is more descriptive and less narrative. Stories can lack detail and be told in the third person, but they make up for it with plot. Scenes, whether they focus on an NBA star heading downstairs or the image of President Obama’s inauguration, are snapshots in time and tend to be told from the perspective of the author witnessing the moment and bringing that experience to the reader.

Scene Examples

Kevin Durant’s Killer Crossover in Fast Company (Entity)

Durant stands up: He wants to go downstairs and try on some clothes for the shoot. “I’d call it a healthy competition,” he says before descending. He smiles, then adds, “It’s not malicious.”

My President Was Black in the Atlantic (Entity)

It was watching Obama on the campaign trail, always expecting the worst and amazed that the worst never happened. It was how I’d felt seeing Barack and Michelle during the inauguration, the car slow-dragging down Pennsylvania Avenue, the crowd cheering, and then the two of them rising up out of the limo, rising up from fear, smiling, waving, defying despair, defying history, defying gravity.

Dialogue | 6%

Articles almost never begin with dialogue, which is odd, as it’s very common in fiction. Perhaps the reason is that readers aren’t aware of all the characters yet and what they mean. So I suppose it makes more sense that dialogue comes at the end — we know all the players and the issues, and the conversation, which is almost always between two people, is another way to bring us into the world of the article.

In the first one, we see two employees at Giphy plotting their version of world domination; in the second, we see an expert confront the author’s own internalized dismissal of her success.

Dialogue Examples

In Six Seconds, Giphy Could Make Billions in Fast Company (Entity)

“We’re synonymous with the content,” Chung says. “If you search for GIF, we’re #1.”

“Forget that,” Leibsohn replies. “You search ‘Happy birthday,’ we’re No. 1.” (This is true!)

“Yeah, we own happy birthday now,” Chung says.

If you can’t make money from owning happy birthday, well, there are 1,716 GIFs tagged “face palm” to send Chung and Leibsohn.

Why Women Bully Each Other at Work in the Atlantic (Idea)

Occasionally, I said, thinking of a handful of times people had wondered, a little too pointedly, how I’d scored one career win or another.

And what, she asked, did I do about it?

“I said I just got lucky,” I replied, “or came up with some excuses.”

“YAAAAA!” she cried. “See? See? So do you think women should rethink that strategy? Should maybe women start being stronger in our confidence?”

I admitted that it was a good idea, but that “something is keeping me from acting in a more confident way, even though that would be good for women in general.”

“It would be good for women as a whole,” Rudman said. “But individual women have to be shot down first. And you don’t want to be one of those. And I don’t blame you.”

On the Other Hand | 9%

Most journalists recognize the importance of providing fair coverage, and sometimes you’ll see an article that generally has an optimistic or pessimistic tone do a mini-reversal at the end. This is usually a way of acknowledging other viewpoints without completely derailing the thread or argument they’ve been pushing. It can also help deflect accusations of bias.

You see Gladwell do this in his story about the movie and music consultants who seem to have identified the critical factors in a hit — the work is still hard, he contends. The author of the story about how Patagonia has navigated some difficult turns as a values-driven company does the same, recognizing that while activism is part of Patagonia’s DNA, it’s still freaking hard.

On the Other Hand Examples

The Formula by Malcolm Gladwell in the New Yorker (Entity)

That was the thing about the formula: it didn’t make the task of filmmaking easier. It made it harder. So long as nobody knows anything, you’ve got license to do whatever you want. You can start a movie in Africa. You can have male and female leads not go off together — all in the name of making something new. Once you came to think that you knew something, though, you had to decide just how much money you were willing to risk for your vision. Did the Epagogix team know what the answer to that question was? Of course not. That question required imagination, and they weren’t in the imagination business.

Brands in the Age of Trump: A Survival Guide in Fast Company (Idea)

For Patagonia, principles are simply part of business, thanks to the progressive values instilled by founder Yvon Chouinard. So when issues like the Keystone Pipeline come up, customers know that Patagonia will rally behind protesters. Employees do too. In that way, its activism is palatable and natural. “This is nothing new for us,” Marcario says. “We didn’t agree with everything President Obama did either.”

As a privately held company and certified B Corporation, Patagonia is in a unique position to pursue its mission. But even with these advantages, being a values-driven company requires years of consistent commitment. It also takes courage — a belief in mission that won’t be rattled by boycotts, cries of protest, or even a tweet from the president.

Structured and Thoughtful

Abrupt | 9%

This ending is what it sounds like — dropping off without further ado. It works when you’ve got a list format or when your article is less formal and more blog-like.

Abrupt Example

This Is What Recruiters Look for on Your LinkedIn Profile in Fast Company (Idea)

SAYING YOU’RE JOB HUNTING HELPS

By using the Open Candidates option, you can privately let recruiters know that you’re looking for a job. Svei says it’s a good idea to use this option, which indicates that you want to hear about potential opportunities.

Personal Statement | 4%

In this ending element, the author explicitly shares a specific personal belief, feeling, or aspiration. Placing this statement at the end gives it a sense of power, as when a politician or activist gets fired up at the end of a speech. While we might not always agree with their sentiment, we are moved by their sincerity.

In the first example, Colin Kaepernick’s NFL teammate explains why his decision to kneel was due in part to his understanding of the example he wants to set for his own family. And in the second, a Hollywood actress declares her hopes for how #MeToo will improve conditions for women.

Personal Statement Examples

Eric Reid: Why Colin Kaepernick and I Decided to Take a Knee in the New York Times Opinion section (Entity)

I refuse to be one of those people who watches injustices yet does nothing. I want to be a man my children and children’s children can be proud of, someone who faced adversity and tried to make a positive impact on the world, a person who, 50 years from now, is remembered for standing for what was right, even though it was not the popular or easy choice.

Sarah Polley: The Men You Meet Making Movies in the New York Times Opinion section (Idea)

I want to believe that the intense wave of disgust at this sort of behavior will lead to real change. I have to think that many people in high places will be a little more careful. But I hope that when this moment of noisy sisterhood dissipates, it doesn’t end with a woman in a courtroom, being made to look crazy, as these stories so often do.

I hope that the ways in which women are degraded, both obvious and subtle, begin to seem like a thing of the past.

Open Ended | 8%

An Open Ended ending type is one that leaves the final interpretation to the reader. While it can feel less satisfying for readers to end in such a way, it can also leave them thinking about the piece longer than they would if the ending was tied up in a neat bow. It also hides the author’s intentions and personal beliefs better, since he or she doesn’t have to make some kind of overall judgment about the topic.

In the first example, the author shows Shonda Rimes in her element — seemingly confident—but introduces a subtle hint of doubt. In the second, we hear a story of a girl smashing her friend’s phone — does that negate the article’s premise or merely reinforce it?

Open Ended Examples

Shonda Rimes Sparks a Moment in Fast Company (Entity)

When our interview is over, Rhimes heads to a photo shoot in a nearby studio. Beyoncé is blasting on the speakers as Rhimes takes her place in front of the photographers. In between the firing of the camera flash, she does funny mouth-relaxing exercises and dances it out, to use a Rhimesian phrase, before settling back into a power pose. Beers is standing on the sidelines watching, smiling ever so slightly. Rhimes never looks over even once.

Have Smartphones Destroyed a Generation? in the Atlantic (Idea)

Once, she told me, she was hanging out with a friend who was texting her boyfriend. “I was trying to talk to her about my family, and what was going on, and she was like, ‘Uh-huh, yeah, whatever.’ So I took her phone out of her hands and I threw it at my wall.”

I couldn’t help laughing. “You play volleyball,” I said. “Do you have a pretty good arm?” “Yep,” she replied.

Zinger | 24%

Zingers are pithy, memorable, and otherwise powerful statements that are almost invariably the final sentence of a piece. Some Zingers are more like clever summaries of or analogies for the main entity or idea of the piece, while others can redefine and occasionally transform the entire meaning of the piece. It’s not necessary to come up with a good one-liner, and not every topic allows itself to wrap up in such a neat and tidy way, but if you can pull it off, ending with a zinger is a mark of a capable writer.

In the first, we get a pithy one-two punch about Robert E. Lee: that while white supremacists can support him, no one else should. And in the second, we get a two-sentence metaphor about why wobbling and arguments are important for stability and the dangers of not learning how to handle them.

Zinger Example

The Myth of the Kindly General Lee in The Atlantic (Entity)

Tribe and race over country is the core of white nationalism, and racists can embrace Lee in good conscience.

The question is why anyone else would.

Kids, Would You Please Start Fighting? in the New York Times Opinion section (Idea)

Good arguments are wobbly: a team or family might rock back and forth but it never tips over. If kids don’t learn to wobble, they never learn to walk; they end up standing still.


As you can see, there are many ways that an article can wrap up. Depending on the type of piece you’ve written and what kind of tone you want to end with, this article should give you plenty of options and ideas to choose from.

William Zinsser, author of one of my favorite books on writing, wrote that “the perfect ending should take your readers slightly by surprise and yet seem exactly right.”

That’s a tall order, but one worth striving for.

The truth is, we can’t really know what a reader expects or what will seem right to them.

But we do have some clues. A person who reads to the end of your story cares a lot about this topic; has found your ideas, arguments, and stories interesting and worth spending time on; and is perhaps hoping for something special at the end, a reward for being one of the few to make it to the finish line.

In short, the person who reads to the end might be a lot like you, the writer. After all, you decided to write this piece in the first place.

Publishing is an act of ego. You have to believe that you have something worth saying. And so when it comes to your conclusion, the best advice I can give you is to write something that seems satisfying to you.

Because if you’re not pleased with your ending, why would anyone else be?


Appendix

Appendix I: Dataset

In this Airtable spreadsheet, you can see all the articles in the dataset and what type of beginning and ending each has.

Appendix 2: How I Chose the Articles

I drew from three print publications that consistently put out articles I find compelling: two magazines and a newspaper. I was not interested in studying news reports, which often take a more formulaic and mechanical approach to their endings.

Instead, I wanted to look at feature writing that explores people, places, stories, and ideas that have significance: articles that are timely but read for their perspective, not just their raw information. I wanted my sample to be of pieces that were carefully edited (which meant cover stories) and had demonstrated interest from readers (which meant looking at most shared pieces).

The Publications

The Atlantic is a monthly print magazine with a 150-year history of great writing covering everything from business to politics to culture. I find it more readable than the New Yorker and less pop culture/entertainment-focused than New York Magazine.

Fast Company has a shorter history, having started in the 1990s, and covers technology, business, and increasingly media and entertainment as well. While Fast Company covers stories that carry the same weight and demand the same journalistic investment as those that appear in any major magazine, their online stories vary widely in terms of topic, scope, and level of writer (staff, paid freelancer, unpaid contributor), giving our dataset more diversity.

The New York Times Op-Ed section is filled with pieces written by people who are not typically full-time writers or journalists but have something important to say. Their topics range widely, from AI’s shortcomings to the dearth of female CEOs to ways to stimulate creativity, and I think these articles added a good dose of topic and author diversity to the dataset. Op-eds also tend to be shorter than other pieces, between 700 and 1,000 words, which requires them to have a hook that leads straight to the main point quickly.

Malcolm Gladwell is one of the most widely read and cited nonfiction writers of the last 20 years. His writing has become an entire style—“Gladwellian”—and his ideas are sticky as hell. I had the opportunity to watch his Masterclass on writing and decided to work him into this analysis.

Overall, I think the pieces analyzed represent a range of topics, styles, lengths, and intended mediums. A different set of magazines might have led me to a different breakdown of story type, but I suspect that the major categories would not have changed much.

What Defines “Most Shared”

BuzzSumo is a tool for discovering popular content and influential people related to different topics. For my analysis, I searched for the most shared articles on fastcompany.com and theatlantic.com, and URLs shared by NYT Opinion (which tweets almost entirely links to op-eds) between January and December 2017. BuzzSumo offers an “Evergreen Score,” defined as the number of social shares and backlinks an article gets starting 30 days after it is published, for each story. According to BuzzSumo:

The Evergreen Score is important because some content is relevant for a short period of time after publication, with interest and traffic declining quickly afterwards. Evergreen content, by contrast, continues to be read, shared and linked to for a long period of time.

This was important, because if I had just focused on most shared articles, I would have over ranked articles that did not have lasting relevance.

Better Humans

Better Humans is a collection of the world's most trustworthy writing on human potential and self improvement by coaches, academics, and aggressive self-experimenters. Articles are based on deep personal experience, science, and research. No fluff, book reports, or listicles.

Jason Shen

Written by

Serial entrepreneur & Asian American advocate. Co-Founder and CEO of Midgame.gg - esports analytics co. TED, Etsy, Stanford, Y Combinator alum. BOS ✈ SF ✈ NYC.

Better Humans

Better Humans is a collection of the world's most trustworthy writing on human potential and self improvement by coaches, academics, and aggressive self-experimenters. Articles are based on deep personal experience, science, and research. No fluff, book reports, or listicles.

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