Essay Synthesis

Synthesis Writing

Although at its most basic level a synthesis involves combining two or more summaries, synthesis writing is more difficult than it might at first appear because this combining must be done in a meaningful way and the final essay must generally be thesis-driven.  In composition courses, “synthesis” commonly refers to writing about printed texts, drawing together particular themes or traits that you observe in those texts and organizing the material from each text according to those themes or traits.  Sometimes you may be asked to synthesize your own ideas, theory, or research with those of the texts you have been assigned. In your other college classes you'll probably find yourself synthesizing  information from graphs and tables, pieces of music, and art works as well.  Thekey to any kind of synthesis is the same. 

Synthesis in Every Day Life

Whenever you report to a friend the things several other friends have said about a film or CD you engage in synthesis.  People synthesize information naturally to help other see the connections between things they learn;  for example, you have probably stored up a mental data bank of the various things you've heard about particular professors.  If your data bank contains several negative comments, you might synthesize that information and use it to help you decide not to take a class from that particular professor.  Synthesis is related to but not the same as classification, division, or comparison and contrast.  Instead of attending to categories or finding similarities and differences, synthesizing sources is a matter of pulling them together into some kind of harmony.  Synthesis searches for links between materials for the purpose of constructing a thesis or theory.

Synthesis Writing Outside of College

The basic research report (described below as a background synthesis) is very common in the business world.  Whether one is proposing to open a new store or expand a product line, the report that must inevitably be written will synthesize information and arrange it by topic rather than by source.  Whether you want to present information on child rearing to a new mother, or details about your town to a new resident, you'll find yourself synthesizing too. And just as in college, the quality and usefulness of your synthesis will depend on your accuracy and organization.

Key Features of a Synthesis
(1)  It accurately reports information from the sources using different phrases and sentences;
(2)  It is organized in such a way that readers can immediately see where the information from the sources overlap;.
(3)  It makes sense of the sources and helps the reader understand them in greater depth.
The background synthesis requires that you bring  together background information on a topic and organize it by topic rather than by source.  Instructors often assign background syntheses at the early stages of the research process, before students have developed a thesis--and they can be helpful to students conducting large research projects even if they are not assigned.  In a background synthesis of  Internet information that could help prospective students select a college, for example, one paragraph might discuss residential life and synthesize brief descriptions of the kinds of things students might find out about living on campus (cited of course), another might discuss the academic program, again synthesizing information from the web sites of several colleges, while a third might synthesize information about co-curricular activities.  The completed paper would be a wonderful introduction to internet college searching.  It contains no thesis, but it does have a purpose:  to present the information that is out there in a helpful and logical way. 

In the process of writing his or her background synthesis, the student explored the sources in a new way and become an expert on the topic.  Only when one has reached this degree of expertise is one ready to formulate a thesis.  Frequently writers of background synthesis papers develop a thesis before they have finished.  In the previous example, the student might notice that no two colleges seem to agree on what constitutes "co-curricular," and decide to research this question in more depth, perhaps examining trends in higher education and offering an argument about what this newest trend seems to reveal.  [More information on developing a research thesis.] 

[See also "Preparing to Write the Synthesis Essay," "Writing the Synthesis Essay," and "Revision."]
A Thesis-driven Synthesis

Sometimes there is very little obvious difference between a background synthesis and a thesis-driven synthesis, especially if the paper answers the question "what information must we know in order to understand this topic, and why?"  The answer to that question forms the thesis of the resulting paper, but it may not be a particularly controversial thesis.  There may be some debate about what background information is required, or about why, but in most cases the papers will still seem more like a report than an argument.  The difference will be most visible in the topic sentences to each paragraph because instead of simply introducing the material for the paragraph that will follow, they will also link back to the thesis and assert that this information is essential because... 

On the other hand, all research papers are also synthesis papers in that they combine the information you have found in ways that help readers to see that information and the topic in question in a new way.  A research paper with a weak thesis (such as: "media images of women help to shape women's sense of how they should look") will organize its findings to show how this is so without having to spend much time discussing other arguments (in this case, other things that also help to shape women's sense of how they should look).  A paper with a strong thesis (such as "the media is the single most important factor in shaping women's sense of how they should look") will spend more time discussing arguments that it rejects (in this case, each paragraph will show how the media is more influential than other factors in that particular aspect of women's sense of how they should look"). 

[See also thesis-driven research papers.]
[See also "Preparing to Write the Synthesis Essay," "Writing the Synthesis Essay," and "Revision."]

A Synthesis of the Literature

In many upper level social sciences classes you may be asked to begin research papers with a synthesis of the sources.  This part of the paper which may be one paragraph or several pages depending on the length of the paper--is similar to the background synthesis.  Your primary purpose is to show readers that you are familiar with the field and are thus qualified to offer your own opinions.  But your larger purpose is to show that in spite of all  this wonderful research, no one has addressed the problem in the way that you intend to in your paper.  This gives your synthesis a purpose, and even a thesis of sorts. 

Because each discipline has specific rules and expectations, you should consult your professor or a guide book for that specific discipline if you are asked to write a review of the literature and aren't sure how to do it.

[See also "Preparing to Write the Synthesis Essay," "Writing the Synthesis Essay," and "Revision."]

Preparing to write your Synthesis Essay

Regardless of whether you are synthesizing information from prose sources, from laboratory data, or from tables and graphs, your preparation for the synthesis will very likely involvecomparison. It may involve analysis, as well, along with classification, and division as you work on your organization. 

Sometimes the wording of your assignment will direct you to what sorts of themes or traits you should look for in your synthesis.  At other times, though, you may be assigned two or more sources and told to synthesize them.  In such cases you need to formulate your own purpose, and develop your own perspectives and interpretations.  A systematic preliminary comparison will help. Begin by summarizing briefly the points, themes, or traits that the texts have in common (you might find summary-outline notesuseful here).  Explore different ways to organize the information depending on what you find or what you want to demonstrate (see above).  You might find it helpful to make several different outlines or plans before you decide which to use.  As the most important aspect of a synthesis is its organization, you can't spend too long on this aspect of your paper!

Writing The Synthesis Essay

A synthesis essay should be organized so that others can understand the sources and evaluate your comprehension of them and their presentation of specific data, themes, etc.
The following format works well: 

The introduction (usually one paragraph)
    1.    Contains a one-sentence statement that sums up the focus of your synthesis.
    2.    Also introduces the texts to be synthesized:
            (i)  Gives the title of each source (following the citation guidelines of whatever style  
                  sheet you are using);  
            (ii)  Provides the name of each author;
            (ii)  Sometimes also provides pertinent background information about the authors, 
                  about the texts to be summarized, or about the general topic from which the 
                  texts are drawn. 

The body of a synthesis essay:
This should be organized by theme, point, similarity, or aspect of the topic.  Your organization will be determined by the assignment or by the patterns you see in the material you are synthesizing.  The organization is the most important part of a synthesis, so try out more than one format.
    Be sure that each paragraph:
    1.     Begins with a sentence or phrase that informs readers of the topic of the paragraph;
    2.     Includes information from more than one source;
    3.     Clearly indicates which material comes from which source using lead in phrases and
            in-text citations.  [Beware of plagiarism:  Accidental plagiarism most often occurs
            when students are synthesizing sources and do not indicate where the synthesis 
            ends and their own comments begin or vice verse.]
    4.    Shows the similarities or differences between the different sources in ways that make
            the paper as informative as possible;
    5.    Represents the texts fairly--even if that seems to weaken the paper! Look upon
            yourself as a synthesizing machine;  you are simply repeating what the source says,
            in fewer words and in your own words.  But the fact that you are using your own 
            words does not mean that you are in anyway changing what the source says. 

When you have finished your paper, write a conclusion reminding readers of the most significant themes you have found and the ways they connect to the overall topic.  You may also want to suggest further research or comment on things that it was not possible for you to discuss in the paper. If you are writing a background synthesis, in some cases it may be appropriate for you to offer an interpretation of the material or take a position (thesis).  Check this option with your instructor before you write the final draft of your paper. 

Checking your own writing or that of your peers

Read a peer's synthesis and then answer the questions below.  The information provided will help the writer check that his or her paper does what he or she intended (for example, it is not necessarily wrong for a synthesis to include any of the writer's opinions, indeed, in a thesis-driven paper this is essential; however, the reader must be able to identify which opinions originated with the writer of the paper and which came from the sources).
  1. What do you like best about your peer's synthesis? (Why? How might he or she do more of it?);
  2. Is it clear what is being synthesized? (i.e.: Did your peer list the source(s), and cite it/them correctly?);
  3. Is it always clear which source your peer is talking about at any given moment? (Mark any places where it is not clear);
  4. Is the thesis of each original text clear in the synthesis? (Write out what you think each thesis is);
  5. If you have read the same sources,
    1. did you identify the same theses as your peer? (If not, how do they differ?);
    2. did your peer miss any key points from his or her synthesis? (If so, what are they?);
    3. did your peer include any of his own opinions in his or her synthesis? (If so, what are they?);
  6. Where there any points in the synthesis where you were lost because a transition was missing or material seems to have been omitted?  (If so, where and how might it be fixed?);
  7. What is the organizational structure of the synthesis essay? (It might help to draw a plan/diagram);
  8. Does this structure work?  (If not, how might your peer revise it?);
  9. How is each paragraph structured?  (It might help to draw a plan/diagram);
  10. Is this method effective?  (If not, how should your peer revise?);
  11. Was there a mechanical, grammatical, or spelling error that annoyed you as you read the paper?  (If so, how could the author fix it?  Did you notice this error occurring more than once?)  Do not comment on every typographical or other error you see.  It is a waste of time to carefully edit a paper before it is revised!
  12. What other advice do you have for the author of this paper?

Sandra Jamieson, Drew University. 1999
Adapted from material written by Rebecca Moore Howard and Sandra Jamieson.
This work is provided free of charge under aCreative Commons License (click here to read the conditions governing use)
For permission to print and use this page, pleasecontact Sandra Jamieson by e-mail.


(mostly from Cassie Carter - with her kind permission)

What is a synthesis?
Two types of syntheses
Standards for synthesis essays
How to write synthesis essays
Techniques for developing synthesis essays
Thesis statements, introductions, conclusions, and quotations

A synthesis is a written discussion that draws on one or more sources. It follows that your ability to write syntheses depends on your ability to infer relationships among sources - essays, articles, fiction, and also nonwritten sources, such as lectures, interviews, observations. This process is nothing new for you, since you infer relationships all the time - say, between something you've read in the newspaper and something you've seen for yourself, or between the teaching styles of your favorite and least favorite instructors. In fact, if you've written research papers, you've already written syntheses. In an academic synthesis, you make explicit the relationships that you have inferred among separate sources.

The skills you've already been practicing in this course will be vital in writing syntheses. Clearly, before you're in a position to draw relationships between two or more sources, you must understand what those sources say; in other words, you must be able to summarize these sources. It will frequently be helpful for your readers if you provide at least partial summaries of sources in your synthesis essays. At the same time, you must go beyond summary to make judgments - judgments based, of course, on your critical reading of your sources - as you have practiced in your reading responses and in class discussions. You should already have drawn some conclusions about the quality and validity of these sources; and you should know how much you agree or disagree with the points made in your sources and the reasons for your agreement or disagreement.

Further, you must go beyond the critique of individual sources to determine the relationship among them. Is the information in source B, for example, an extended illustration of the generalizations in source A? Would it be useful to compare and contrast source C with source B? Having read and considered sources A, B, and C, can you infer something else - D (not a source, but your own idea)?

Because a synthesis is based on two or more sources, you will need to be selective when choosing information from each. It would be neither possible nor desirable, for instance, to discuss in a ten-page paper on the battle of Wounded Knee every point that the authors of two books make about their subject. What you as a writer must do is select the ideas and information from each source that best allow you to achieve your purpose.

Your purpose in reading source materials and then in drawing upon them to write your own material is often reflected in the wording of an assignment. For example, your assignment may ask that you evaluate a text, argue a position on a topic, explain cause and effect relationships, or compare and contrast items. While you might use the same sources in writing an argumentative essay as your classmate uses in writing a comparison/contrast essay, you will make different uses of those sources based on the different purposes of the assignments. What you find worthy of detailed analysis in Source A may be mentioned only in passing by your classmate.

Your purpose determines not only what parts of your sources you will use but also how you will relate them to one another. Since the very essence of synthesis is the combining of information and ideas, you must have some basis on which to combine them. Some relationships among the material in you sources must make them worth sythesizing. It follows that the better able you are to discover such relationships, the better able you will be to use your sources in writing syntheses. Your purpose in writing (based on your assignment) will determine how you relate your source materials to one another. Your purpose in writing determines which sources you use, which parts of them you use, at which points in your essay you use them, and in what manner you relate them to one another.


THE EXPLANATORY SYNTHESIS: An explanatory synthesis helps readers to understand a topic. Writers explain when they divide a subject into its component parts and present them to the reader in a clear and orderly fashion. Explanations may entail descriptions that re-create in words some object, place, event, sequence of events, or state of affairs. The purpose in writing an explanatory essay is not to argue a particular point, but rather to present the facts in a reasonably objective manner. The explanatory synthesis does not go much beyond what is obvious from a careful reading of the sources. You will not be writing explanatory synthesis essays in this course. However, at times your argumentative synthesis essays will include sections that are explanatory in nature.

THE ARGUMENT SYNTHESIS: The purpose of an argument synthesis is for you to present your own point of view - supported, of course, by relevant facts, drawn from sources, and presented in a logical manner. The thesis of an argumentative essay is debatable. It makes a proposition about which reasonable people could disagree, and any two writers working with the same source materials could conceive of and support other, opposite theses.


1. Remember that you are using your sources to support your ideas and claims, not the other way around.

2. Keep in mind that original thought and insightful analysis are required for a 4.0, 3.5, or 3.0 paper; 2.5 and below evaluations tend not to present original ideas.

3. A 4.0, 3.5, or 3.0 paper will create a "dialogue" between the essay author's ideas and her sources, and also among the sources themselves. 2.5 and below evaluations will often summarize one point at a time, with the essay author's idea stated at the end. If you imagine a synthesis essay as a room in which the synthesis writer is joined by the authors of her/his sources, the 4.0, 3.5, or 3.0 essay has everyone engaged in conversation or debate, with everyone commenting on (or arguing against) each other's ideas directly. In the 2.5 and below essay, each person in the room stands up in turn, gives a speech, and sits down, with little or no question and answer period in between or afterward.

4. Take special care to address your audience in an appropriate manner. Make sure you establish your credibility on the subject and that you provide sufficient information to make your argument (thesis) convincing.

5. Organize your paper logically:
A. State your thesis clearly and make sure that it reflects the focus of your essay.
B. Make sure your main points are clearly stated (use topic sentences), and connect each point to your thesis as explicitly as possible.
C. Divide paragraphs logically.
D. Provide appropriate transitions both within and between paragraphs.
6. Develop each main idea thoroughly. Use specific examples and source materials appropriately as support. Be sure to integrate source materials smoothly into your own writing using attribution phrases and transitions. Also be sure to avoid unnecessary repetition (repetition is often an organization problem).

7. Select words precisely. When in doubt, use a dictionary!

8. Make sure sentences are clear and unambiguous. Avoid passive voice. Double-check to see that sentences are adequately varied in length and style, and that there are no fragments or run-ons. Also proofread carefully to correct any other sentence errors.

9. Proofread carefully to identify and correct mechanical errors, such as errors in plurals or possessives, subject-verb agreement, shifts in verb tense or person ("you"), comma errors, spelling errors, and so on.

10. Quadruple check your MLA documentation. Are your parenthetical citations correct? Is your Works Cited list correct according to MLA style, and does it include all sources cited in your essay?

11. Be sure to give your essay a descriptive and attention-getting title (NOT "Synthesis," for goodness sake!!!).

12. Make sure your essay is formatted correctly and posted to your web site correctly.


  1. Consider your purpose in writing. Read the topic assignment carefully. What are you trying to accomplish in your essay? How will this purpose shape the way you approach your sources?
  2. Select and carefully read your sources, according to your purpose. Re-read the sources, mentally summarizing each. Identify those aspects or parts of your sources that will help you in fulfilling your purpose. When rereading, label or underline the passages for main ideas, key terms, and any details you want to use in the synthesis.
  3. Formulate a thesis. Your thesis is the main idea that you want to present in your synthesis. It must be expressed as a complete sentence and include a statement of the topic and your assertion about that topic. Sometimes the thesis is the first sentence, but more often it is the final sentence of the first paragraph.
  4. Decide how you will use your source material and take notes. How will the information and the ideas in your sources help you to fulfill your purpose? Re-read your sources and write down the information from your sources that will best develop and support your thesis.
  5. Develop and organizational plan, according to your thesis. (See Techniques for Developing Synthesis Essays immediately below.) How will you arrange your material? It is not necessary to prepare a formal outline, but you should have some plan in mind that will indicate the order in which you will present your material and that will indicate the relationships among your sources.
  6. Write the first draft of your synthesis, following your organizational plan. Be flexible with your plan, however, and allow yourself room to incorporate new ideas you discover as you write. As you discover and incorporate new ideas, re-read your work frequently to ensure that your thesis still accounts for what follows and that what follows still logically supports your thesis.
  7. Document your sources. Use MLA-style in-text citations and a Works Cited list to credit your sources for all material you quote, paraphrase, or summarize. For example, if I wanted to note in my essay the difference between name-calling and argumentum ad hominem as personal forms of attack, I would credit the article on "Politics: The Art of Bamboozling" fromWARAC by offering a citation that includes the author's last name and the exact page number where she discussed this notion (Cross 302). At the end of the essay, I would have a complete bibliographic citation for the "Politics" article.
  8. Revise your synthesis. Insert transitional words and phrases where necessary. Integrate all quotations so they flow smoothly within your own sentences. Use attribution phrases to distinguish between your sources' ideas and your own ideas. Make sure the essay reads smoothly, logically, and clearly from beginning to end. Check for grammatical correctness, punctuation, and spelling.


SUMMARY: The simplest - and least sophisticated - way of organizing a synthesis essay is to summarize your most relevant sources, one after the other, but generally with the most important source(s) last. The problem with this approach is that it reveals little or no independent thought on your part. Its main virtue is that it at least grounds your paper in relevant and specific evidence.

Summary can be useful - and sophisticated - if handled judiciously, selectively, and in combination with other techniques. At some time you may need to summarize a crucial source in some detail. At another point, you may wish to summarize a key section or paragraph of a source in a single sentence. Try to anticipate what your reader needs to know at any given point of your paper in order to comprehend or appreciate fully the point you are making.

EXAMPLE OR ILLUSTRATION: At one or more points in your paper, you may wish to refer to a particularly illuminating example or illustration from your source material. You might paraphrase this example (i.e., recount it, in some detail, in your own words), summarize it, or quote it directly from your source. In all these cases, of course, you would properly credit your source.

TWO (OR MORE) REASONS: The "two reasons" approach can be an extremely effective method of development. You simply state your thesis, then offer reasons why the statement is true, supported by evidence from your sources. You can advance as many reasons for the truth of your thesis as needed; but save the most important reason(s) for last, because the end of the paper is what will remain most clearly in the reader's mind.

STRAWMAN: When you use the strawman technique, you present an argument against your thesis, but immediately afterward you show that this argument is weak or flawed. The advantage of this technique is that you demonstrate your awareness of the other side of the argument and show that you are prepared to answer it. The strawman argument first presents an introduction and thesis, then the main opposing argument, a refutation of the opposing argument, and finally a positive argument.

CONCESSION: Like the strawman, the concession technique presents the opposing viewpoint, but it does not proceed to demolish the opposition. Instead, it concedes that the opposition has a valid point but that, even so, the positive argument is the stronger one. This method is particularly valuable when you know your reader holds the opposing view.

COMPARISON AND CONTRAST: Comparison and contrast techniques enable you to examine two subjects (or sources) in terms of one another. When you compare, you consider similarities. When you contrast, you consider differences. By comparing and contrasting, you perform a multifaceted analysis that often suggests subtleties that otherwise might not have come to your attention.

To organize a comparison/contrast analysis, you must carefully read sources in order to discover significant criteria for analysis. A criterion is a specific point to which both of your authors refer and about which they may agree or disagree. The best criteria are those that allow you not only to account for obvious similarities and differences between sources but also to plumb deeper, to more subtle and significant similarities and differences. There are two basic formulas for comparison/contrast analysis:

I. Introduce essay, state thesis I. Introduce essay, state thesis
II. Summarize passage A II. Introduce Criterion 1
  A. View on Criterion I  A. Passage A's viewpoint
  B. View on Criterion 2  B. Passage B's viewpoint
III. Summarize passage BIII. Introduce Criterion 2
  A. View on Criterion 1  A. Passage A's viewpoint
  B. View on Criterion 2  B. Passage B's viewpoint
IV. Discussion and conclusionIV. Discussion and conclusion

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