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Although at its most basic level a synthesis involves
or more summaries, synthesis writing is more difficult than it might at
first appear because this combining must be done in a meaningful way
the final essay must generally be thesis-driven. In composition
“synthesis” commonly refers to writing about printed texts, drawing
particular themes or traits that you observe in those texts and
the material from each text according to those themes or traits.
Sometimes you may be asked to synthesize your own ideas, theory, or
with those of the texts you have been assigned. In your other college
you'll probably find yourself synthesizing information from
and tables, pieces of music, and art works as well. The key
to any kind of synthesis is the same.
Whenever you report to a friend
the things several other friends have
said about a film or CD you engage in synthesis. People
information naturally to help other see the connections between things
they learn; for example, you have probably stored up a mental
of the various things you've heard about particular professors.
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
as classification, division, or comparison and contrast. Instead
of attending to categories or finding similarities and differences,
sources is a matter of pulling them together into some kind of
Synthesis searches for links between materials for the purpose of
a thesis or theory.
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
synthesize information and arrange it by topic rather than by
Whether you want to present information on child rearing to a new
or details about your town to a new resident, you'll find yourself
too. And just as in college, the quality and usefulness of your
will depend on your
(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."]
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
that they combine the
information you have found in ways that help readers to see that
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
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
it rejects (in this case, each paragraph will show how the media is
more influential than other
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.
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 involve comparison. 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
of themes or traits you should look for in your synthesis. At
times, though, you may be assigned two or more sources and told to
them. In such cases you need to formulate your own purpose, and
your own perspectives and interpretations. A systematic
comparison will help. Begin by summarizing briefly the points, themes,
or traits that the texts have in common (you might find summary-outline
notes useful here). Explore different ways to organize the
depending on what you find or what you want to demonstrate (see
above). You might find it helpful to make several different
or plans before you decide which to use. As the most important
of a synthesis is its organization, you can't spend too long on this
of your paper!
A synthesis essay should be organized so that others can
the sources and evaluate your comprehension of them and their
of specific data, themes, etc.
The introduction (usually one paragraph)
The body of a synthesis essay:
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).
Adapted from material written by Rebecca Moore Howard and Sandra Jamieson.
This work is provided free of charge under a Creative Commons License (click here to read the conditions governing use)
For permission to print and use this page, please contact Sandra Jamieson by e-mail.