Research can yield a lot of information and interesting ideas. You may find that you have so many ideas from your research, it’s hard to start writing a draft. If you did an Idea Matrix to synthesize notes from many sources, then you have a good start at synthesizing ideas for an essay draft. Since an idea matrix focuses on organizing related ideas from a variety of sources, you now need to focus more on your own ideas in order to start a draft. In other words, you need to converse with your sources to achieve the kind of synthesis expected in a college research essay, which is intended to support and showcase your own ideas about an issue. In most college research essay assignments, your research should be used to support and supply evidence for your personal thoughts.
Here’s one way to proceed:
- First of all, if you have been working with a research question, now’s the time to answer that research question and create a working thesis, with a topic and an angle in which you make an assertion about your topic/issue.
- Then, review the supporting idea column of your idea matrix. Each idea listed offers in brief an idea group that can answer your research question and support your working thesis. Draft topic sentences, each with its own topic and angle, based on each supporting idea in your matrix.
- Finally and most importantly, add your own ideas to your idea matrix in a new column or by writing notes. What do you, yourself, think about these ideas? Do you agree or disagree with certain supporting information and why? Add samples from your own experience and additional thoughts to exemplify each supporting idea group in general, and each quotation, paraphrase, or summary in particular.
A good way to begin synthesizing your own with your sources’ ideas for an essay draft is to consider how you integrate ideas into a conversation. When you’re discussing a topic with a few friends, you might refer to others’ ideas with phrases such as these: “When I was watching the news, I heard them say that . . . ,” “I read in The Atlantic online that. . .,” “Jamal told me that . . . .” It’s quite standard to use sentences such as these to refer to others’ ideas within the flow of conversation. It’s the same in drafting an essay. Ask yourself if you were speaking this aloud in conversation, how would you introduce others’ ideas to your listeners? What information would you give them to help them understand who the author was and why the views presented are worth referencing? After giving this information, how would you then link it back to the point you were trying to make? Just as you do this in a conversation when you refer to another’s ideas, you also need to do this in your writing.
Yet even though ideas need to blend in a conversation, the source of each idea needs to be totally clear. While you’re synthesizing your own thoughts with your research, you still need to clarify and differentiate between your own ideas and your sources’ ideas. Part of your job is to help your reader understand exactly which information and what ideas came from whom. When you’re drafting a research essay, then, synthesizing your ideas with your sources’ ideas is like making a minestrone vegetable soup—all of the flavorings blend together, even though you still see distinct pieces of tomato, zucchini, beans, pasta, and whatever else you’ve included. If you don’t identify the source of each idea, then you have a blended soup like carrot soup—you cannot differentiate the ingredients, so no one knows which idea belongs to whom.
Another food analogy may help you synthesize ideas in a research essay—a “source sandwich.” Whether you use a direct quotation, paraphrase, or summary, a source sandwich helps you distinguish source material from your own ideas and explain how that source material fits into your argument. A source sandwich includes a transition to introduce the source, an attribution to actually move into the material from the source, and an in-text citation that connects to the full citation material at the end. It also includes your own thoughts in the most important bottom piece of bread which holds all of the rest. The bottom of the sandwich synthesizes the source material by explaining how it fits into your argument, supports your topic sentence, and supports your working thesis. Use the source sandwich convention to synthesize material from sources into your own writing so that your source’s information complements your own ideas with supporting evidence.
The Source sandwich
|Transition into the source. The transition sometimes is a word such as “and” or “but” to show how the source’s idea links with other ideas in the paragraph and unit of support. A transition integrates the new idea with its surrounding ideas, and shows how the new idea fits into the structure of your logical argument to support the assertion in your thesis and topic sentence.
|A signal phrase is an attribution that states whose idea this is, such as “according to Smith,” “Smith states that,” or “a 2020 study revealed that.” It mentions a source and contains a verb.
|The source’s idea comes after the signal phrase. This content of this idea can be offered in a direct quotation, paraphrase, or summary.
|The in-text citation signals the end of the idea from that particular source. It connects to the fuller citation at the end of the essay, in the Works Cited list, so that a reader can actually find and read the original source of the idea.
|A general rule is that your comments on a source’s idea should be as long or longer as the quotation, paraphrase, or summary itself. In other words, the bottom bread of the sandwich needs to be substantial enough to hold the sandwich’s contents. But referring to the length of the comment is just one way of saying that you need to offer your own interpretation of and comments about the source’s idea. Explain the source’s relevance to your topic sentence and thesis ideas. Illustrate how the source’s idea relates to your own conceptual framework or overall structure of ideas in the essay.
Here’s a video that offers the concept of synthesizing your ideas with your research in yet another way.
Another Approach to Synthesizing Ideas: They Say/I Say
The page on Reading & Writing to Synthesize introduces the They Say/I Say concept of joining a conversation, a way to incorporate your original thinking with ideas from your sources. Sometimes you may cite a research finding that provides strong evidence for your point; at other times you may summarize someone else’s ideas in order to explain how your own opinion differs or to note how someone else’s concept applies to a new situation. In general, using this approach, you first report what “they” say, “they” being published authors, prevalent ideas in society at large, or maybe participants in some kind of political or social debate. Then you respond by explaining what you think: Do you agree? Disagree? A little of both?
The “They Say/I Say” approach can help you find balance in your use of sources. On one extreme, don’t assume that you aren’t allowed to make any claims without citing one or more expert authors saying the same thing. On the other extreme, don’t describe what sources say about a topic, but then go on to state opinions that seem unrelated to the claims just summarized. (For example, a student writer may draw on expert sources to explain how the prevention and early detection of cancer has saved lives, but then argue for more funding for curing advanced cancer without making any explicit link to the points about prevention and screening.) On one extreme, the sources are allowed to crowd out original thinking; on the other, they have seemingly no impact on the author’s conclusions.
How can you know when you’re avoiding both of these extremes? The concept of They Say/I Say can help you refine as well as support a working thesis. “I Say” can count as an original claim and still be grounded in the sources “They Say.” For example:
- Combine research findings from multiple sources to make a larger summary argument. You might find that none of the sources you’re working with specifically claim that early 20th century British literature was preoccupied with changing gender roles but that, together, their findings all point to that broader conclusion.
- Combine research findings from multiple sources to make a claim about their implications. You might review papers that explore various factors shaping voting behavior to argue that a particular voting-reform proposal will likely have positive impacts.
- Identify underlying areas of agreement. You may argue that the literature on cancer and the literature on violence both describe the unrecognized importance of prevention and early intervention in order to claim that insights about one set of problems may be useful for the other.
- Identify underlying areas of disagreement. You may find that the controversies surrounding educational reform—and its debates about accountability, curricula, school funding—ultimately stem from different assumptions about the role of schools in society.
- Identify unanswered questions. Perhaps you review studies of the genetic and behavioral contributors to diabetes in order to highlight unknown factors and argue for more in-depth research on the role of the environment.
These examples illustrate how original thinking in academic writing involves making connections with and between a strategically chosen set of sources.
Read the following paragraph about “mindful me” rooms in elementary schools and answer the questions that follow.
Reflective practice has also started to replace detention in schools across the country. Robert W. Coleman Elementary School is one of the first to adopt this method. As of 2014, this school has had no suspensions. When students fight or misbehave, they are sent to a “mindful me” room instead of the principal’s office, and they learn to peacefully solve these conflicts themselves (Khorsandi). Administrators at the school claim to have seen a marked improvement in student behavior. Coleman Principal Carillian Thompson explains, “The mindfulness practices have actually taught the students how to redirect that negative energy into something positive” (Khorsandi). The changes have resulted in more focus on academics and extracurricular activities at Coleman, which has made parents in the district happy. In fact, many parents have switched their thinking from once believing punitive measures are necessary to modify children’s behaviors to now seeing reflective practices as meaningful alternatives to detention.
- Which sentence contains a signal phrase?
- Coleman Principal Carillian Thompson explains, “The mindfulness practices have actually taught the students how to redirect that negative energy into something positive” (Khorsandi).
- Reflective practice has also started to replace detention in schools across the country.
- When students fight or misbehave, they are sent to a “mindful me” room instead of the principal’s office, and they learn to peacefully solve these conflicts themselves (Khorsandi).
Sentence #1 contains a signal phrase. Thompson’s name and credentials, plus the verb “explains,” constitute the signal phrase.
- In which sentence does the writer transition into using a source?
- The changes have resulted in more focus on academics and extracurricular activities at Coleman, which has made parents in the district happy.
- Coleman principal Carillian Thompson explains, “The mindfulness practices have actually taught the students how to redirect that negative energy into something positive” (Khorsandi).
- Reflective practice has also started to replace detention in schools across the country.
Sentence #3 is correct, as the writer uses “also” to indicate a new point and example to come. Sentences #1 and #2 simply summarize points previously introduced.
- Which sentence explains the relevance of the source to the writer’s thesis?
- Robert W. Coleman Elementary School is one of the first to adopt this method.
- In fact, many parents have switched their thinking from once believing punitive measures are necessary to modify children’s behaviors to now seeing reflective practices as meaningful alternatives to detention.
- Administrators at the school claim to have seen a marked improvement in student behavior.
Sentence #2 is correct; the writer relates the source to her thesis. In sentences #1 and #3, the writer describes/develops the evidence.
Synthesizing Ideas also involves Synthesizing Skills
Realize that as you synthesize ideas for a research paper, you’re also synthesizing reading and writing skills.
- Pre-writing – brainstorming, listing, mapping, etc. to create a research question and working thesis; reviewing your prewriting in the context of your writing’s purpose (e.g., to apply, analyze, etc.)
- Researching – finding appropriate types of sources and content to answer your research question and more firmly establish your working thesis
- Reading – skimming researched sources; evaluating them for content, relevance, etc.; reading fully for main ideas; annotating, note taking, or in some way recording and interacting with those ideas
- Paraphrasing and summarizing relevant ideas from your notes (relevant to your working thesis)
- Synthesizing ideas – finding relationships among ideas from different sources and synthesizing them in an idea matrix; evaluating the matrix for amount and type of support to see if more or different support is needed
- Drafting the research paper – intro-body-conclusion, determining the order of supporting ideas
- Reading the draft as a text in its own right to evaluate it (for purpose, content, clarity) and aid in revising and finalizing the paper
- Citing sources