Synthesis in Practice

Learning Objectives

  • Demonstrate strategies for synthesis

Professors frequently expect you to interpret, make inferences, and otherwise synthesize—bring ideas together to make something new or find a new way of looking at something old. (It might help to think of synthesis as the opposite of analysis. To synthesize is to combine; to analyze is to break down.)

Getting Better at Synthesis

To get an A on essays and papers in many courses, such as literature and history, what you write in reaction to the work of others should use synthesis to create new meaning or to show a deeper understanding of what you learned.

To do so, it helps to look for connections and patterns. One way to synthesize when writing an argument essay, paper, or other project is to look for themes among your sources. So try categorizing ideas by topic rather than by source—making associations across and between sources.

Synthesis can seem difficult, particularly if you are used to analyzing others’ points but not used to making your own. Like most things, however, it gets easier with practice. So don’t be hard on yourself if it seems difficult at first.

EXAMPLE: Synthesis in an Argument

Imagine that you have to write an argument essay about Woody Allen’s 2011 movie Midnight inThe Eiffel Tower Paris. Your topic is “nostalgia,” and the movie is the only source you can use.

In the movie, a successful young screenwriter named Gil is visiting Paris with his girlfriend and her parents, who are more politically conservative than he is. Inexplicably, every midnight he time-travels back to the 1920’s Paris, a time period he’s always found fascinating, especially because of the writers and painters—Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Picasso—with whom he’s now on a first-name basis. Gil is enchanted and always wants to stay in this fantastical past. But every morning, he’s back in the real present—feeling out of sync with his girlfriend and her parents.

For your essay, you’ve tried to come up with a narrower topic, but so far nothing seems right. Suddenly, you start paying more attention to the girlfriend’s parents’ dialogue about politics, which amount to such phrases as “we have to go back to…,” “it was a better time,” “Americans used to be able to…” and “the way it used to be.”

And then it clicks with you that the girlfriend’s parents are like Gil—longing for a different time, whether real or imagined. That kind of idea generation, where you find the connection and theme across related elements of the movie, is synthesis.

You decide to write your essay to answer the research question: How is the motivation of Gil’s girlfriend’s parents similar to Gil’s? Your thesis becomes “Despite seeming to be very different, Gil and his girlfriend’s parents are similarly motivated, and Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris’s message about nostalgia can be applied to all of them.”

Of course, you’ll have to try to convince your readers that your thesis is valid, and you may or not be successful,—but that’s true with all theses. And your professor will be glad to see the synthesis.

Synthesizing From Multiple Sources

Below are some questions that highlight ways in which the act of synthesizing brings together ideas and generates new knowledge.

How do the sources speak to your specific argument or research question?

Your argument or research question is the main unifying element in your project.  Keep this in the forefront of your mind when you write about your sources.  Explain how, specifically, each source supports your central claim/s or suggests possible answers to your question.  For example:  Does the source provide essential background information or a definitional foundation for your argument or inquiry? Does it present numerical data that supports one of your points or helps you answer a question you have posed?  Does it present a theory that might be applied to some aspect of your project?  Does it present a recognized expert’s insights on your topic?

How do the sources speak to each other? 

Sometimes you will find explicit dialogue between sources (for example, Source A refutes Source B by name), and sometimes you will need to bring your sources into dialogue (for example, Source A does not mention Source B, but you observe that the two are advancing similar or dissimilar arguments).  Attending to interrelationships among sources is at the heart of the task of synthesis.

A stack of books.

Figure 1. A strong argument will utilize many different sources to support itself. Synthesizing by identifying interrelationships among these sources will help to strengthen your paper.

Begin by asking: What are the points of agreement?  Where are there disagreements?

But be aware that you are unlikely to find your sources in pure positions of “for” vs. “against.”  You are more likely to find agreement in some areas and disagreement in other areas.  You may also find agreement but for different reasons—such as different underlying values and priorities, or different methods of inquiry.

Where are there, or aren’t there, information gaps?

Where is the available information unreliable (for example, it might be difficult to trace back to primary sources), or limited, (for example, based on just a few case studies, or on just one geographical area), or difficult for non-specialists to access (for example, written in specialist language, or tucked away in a physical archive)?

Does your inquiry contain sub-questions that may not at present be answerable, or that may not be answerable without additional primary research—for example, laboratory studies, direct observation, interviews with witnesses or participants, etc.?

Or, alternatively, is there a great deal of reliable, accessible information that addresses your question or speaks to your argument or inquiry?

In considering these questions, you are engaged in synthesis: you are conducting an overview assessment of the field of available information and in this way generating composite knowledge.

Remember, synthesis is about pulling together information from a range of sources in order to answer a question or construct an argument. It is something you will be called upon to do in a wide variety of academic, professional, and personal contexts. Being able to dive into an ocean of information and surface with meaningful conclusions is an essential skill.

Try It

Synthesis in Literature Reviews

One place synthesis is usually required is in literature reviews for honors’ theses, master’s theses, and Ph.D. dissertations. In all those cases, literature reviews are intended to contribute more than annotated bibliographies do and to be arguments for the research conducted for the theses or dissertations. If you are writing an honors thesis, master’s thesis, or Ph.D. dissertation, you will find more help with Susan Imel’s Writing a Literature Review.

Showing Synthesis

Some ways to demonstrate synthesis in your writing is to compare and contrast multiple sources. Below are some examples of sentence structures that demonstrate synthesis:

Synthesis that indicates agreement/support:

  • Source A asserts that… Source B agrees when he or she states…
  • According to both A & B…
  • The combined conclusions of sources B & C seem to indicate that…
  • The evidence shows that…
  • Source B is correct that…
  • Source C makes a convincing case when she argues…
  • I agree with Source A’s conclusion that…

Synthesis that indicates disagreement/conflict:

  • Source A asserts that…Yet Source B offers a different perspective by…
  • Source C & B would likely disagree regarding…
  • My view, however, contrary to what Source A has argued, is…
  • I argue that X & Y are the best solution, though Source B offers a different option.
  • In contrast, I would like to offer some objections to the opinions expressed by source C…
  • While source A makes an intriguing argument, I would disagree…

What the above examples indicate is that synthesis is the careful weaving in of outside opinions in order to show your reader the many ideas and arguments on your topic and further assert your own. Notice, too, that the above examples are also signal phrases: language that introduces outside source material to be either quoted or paraphrased, i.e., “contrary to what Source A has argued, source B maintains ___________ .”

Try It: Balancing Sources and Synthesis

Here’s a technique to quickly assess whether there is enough of your original thought in your essay or paper, as opposed to information from your sources: Highlight what you have included as quotes, paraphrases, and summaries from your sources. Next, highlight in another color what you have written yourself. Then take a look at the pages and decide whether there is enough of your own thinking in them.

For the mocked-up pages below, assume that the yellow-highlighted lines were written by the writer and the pink-highlighted lines are quotes, paraphrases, and summaries she pulled from her sources.

Which page most demonstrates the writer’s own ideas?

Three sample showing 1) mostly quotes with little original thought, 2) mostly original thought supported by quotes, and 3) equal split between quotes and original thought.
Mocked-up passages showing the division between quotes, paraphrases, and summaries and original ideas

Source: Joy McGregor. “A Visual Approach: Teaching Synthesis,” School Library Monthly, Volume XXVII, Number 8/May-June 2011.


signal phrase: a phrase that introduces outside sources material that will be quoted or paraphrased