Mackey’s Maxim:  Answering the “So, What?” Question

One way to think of the concluding paragraph of an essay written for a course taken in The Academy is to consider it as your opportunity to answer what I call the “So, what?” question. The answer to this question is a brief explanation of why the reader has spent the better part of half an hour (or longer!) reading your writing.

Think of the answers to the “So, what?” question in terms of answers to other questions: What is the pay-off for the reader? What is the significance of the point you are trying to make? In the words of Dr. Barrett, what is “the essay’s gift to the reader for reading”?

This discussion can be as brief as a sentence or two (or longer). It should be embedded gracefully within the concluding paragraph. It may or may not begin the concluding paragraph, but however you construct your concluding paragraph, the reader should be able to tell, in addition to looking, by your words and your tone that you are coming to the end of your essay. 

Examine the following concluding paragraph:

The law is a natural and vital part of human society. Everyone, from beggars to kings, makes use of it or is affected by it. When the law is functioning as it should, each addition to it will help the whole of society, not just a select group who will exploit it or their own ends. It is designed for the benefit of someone, somewhere, and even those who openly defy it are influenced and protected, as seen in the United States where even the worst criminals are promised a speedy trial and protection from cruel and unusual punishment. That protection, that promise that it will do everything in its power to ensure a safe life for those under it, is what gives the law its jurisdiction.

--Thomas Stacey

You can probably infer from the opening sentence that this paragraph is from an essay on the function of law within our society. Notice how the writer seems to summarize the points made in the essay by each succeeding sentence—until, that is, the final sentence. Here is this writer’s answer to the “So, what?” question.

His answer affirms the need for laws in a just society on the principle that we all want to be safe. No, it’s not rocket science; it’s more important. It’s the bedrock on which any just society is based. The fact that this student arrived at such a seemingly simple observation is music to a professor’s ears.