Reading & Writing to Synthesize

Synthesis Defined

Synthesis is the opposite of analysis. When you analyze, you break a whole into its parts and examine how the parts relate to one another in order to judge the quality of the whole. When you synthesize, you start with different, unrelated parts, and search out relationships in order to put the parts together to make a new whole. You synthesize automatically when you read, as you relate “new” text information to previous knowledge and create the new “whole” of your knowledge in a field. Synthesis becomes more of a conscious act when you write, since you have to actively select pieces of information that make sense together. As The American Heritage Dictionary states, synthesis means “the combining of separate elements or substances to form a coherent whole.”

The concept of a “coherent whole” is essential to synthesis. When you synthesize in writing, you examine different types of information (ideas, examples, statistics, etc., from different sources) and different themes (perspectives and concepts) from different sources with the purpose of blending them together to help explain one main idea. So you have to look for relationships 1) among the sources’ themes and 2) between these themes and your own ideas in order to blend all of the pieces to make a coherent whole.

The concept of a “coherent whole” is important in terms of language, too. Once you examine content and choose the parts to synthesize, you need to express those parts in your own language in order to create a coherent whole in terms of writing style.

Synthesis is like combining different ingredients to make a stew. If you choose and combine carefully, with the end result (supporting your main idea) in mind, the ingredients will be both separate and well-blended, with all ingredients contributing as they should to the final taste.

View the following video for a basic definition of, and introduction to, the concept of synthesis.

As stated in the video, synthesis means combining similar information to create something new.  Reading and writing to synthesize means that you read information from many sources relating to a particular topic, question, insight, or assertion.  You extract appropriate pieces of information from each source, information that relates to your insight in some way (supporting it, negating it, offering additional detail).  You react to those pieces of information and relate them to your insight, to create something new–your own reasoned argument.

One standard example of reading and writing to synthesize is a research paper–a basic assignment in many college courses.  Skills that you develop in researching and synthesizing information also transfer to writing a business report or proposal. When you research a topic, you find information from many different sources which informs your personal thoughts and assertion about that topic.  However, reading and writing to synthesize involves more than just finding information and inserting it into an essay, report, or proposal.  You use the information you find to help create and support your own, unique thoughts.

Example of Synthesis in an Academic Setting

A research paper is the classic example of synthesis in an academic setting. You may be assigned to write a research paper in a sociology course, for example.  You may have read a number of selections dealing with different cultures, and the assignment asks you to synthesize information from these articles along with information from at least four other sources, to support your unique thesis. You start with a main idea in order to start the synthesis. You might create the following main idea: People within a culture have to both assimilate and adapt to their cultural and physical environments in order to thrive. You then might combine appropriate parts from different reading selections:

  • definition and examples of assimilation from a chapter in a sociology textbook
  • examples from researched articles on assimilation, cultural adaptation
  • examples from interviews with people who have assimilated

Your research paper would blend themes from all of these sources to support your original insight and assertion (thesis) about assimilation and adaptation.

Example of  Synthesis in a Business Setting

After receiving more than ten different requests for flex time over the last year, you’ve decided that it makes sense to institute flexible hours for the fifty workers you supervise in your department.  You research a number of other businesses and examples of companies moving to flex time, quote or summarize those, and put them all into a document, which you send to your boss.  Your request is denied, because while your boss understood that flex time worked in other companies, she could not relate your research to the actual situation in your department. If you had offered your own analysis of how different companies’ strategies would benefit your own department, the outcome might have been different and your proposal approved.  It’s worth saying again: it’s important to blend the information you find with your own purpose, whether that is a proposal at work or an essay designed to offer your own, unique thoughts, supported by research.

Reading to Synthesize

Synthesis builds upon analysis.  You need to be able to read and analyze the quality of a text in order to decide whether you want to bring that text into the conversation. However, reading to synthesize moves in almost an opposite direction from analysis.  As you analyze, you break the text down into its parts in order to evaluate the text.  Analysis is like taking a puzzle apart and examining each piece, or analyzing a cake to find out what the ingredients are and how they work together.

On the other hand, as you read with the purpose of synthesizing, you search for thoughts about the same focused topic, thoughts which can be similar or different, in order to get a picture of the whole ongoing conversation about that topic. Then you decide if you agree or disagree with those thoughts–you join the conversation or discourse. Synthesis is like examining puzzle pieces with the purpose of putting the whole picture together, or baking a cake with ingredients that complement each other.

The process of reading to synthesize, in itself, blends or synthesizes many reading skills, which may include the following:

  • skimming texts
  • preview questions and answers
  • reading for main idea (which may involve annotating, note taking, and more)
  • summarizing
  • analyzing the quality of the texts
  • applying chosen texts to your insight
  • reacting to the ideas in the texts

The main thing to remember as you read with the purpose of synthesizing is that your task is to find relationships among ideas.  Reading to synthesize does not merely consist of finding appropriate quotations and plugging them into an essay; instead, ideas from multiple texts need to be considered thoughtfully and linked with your own insights, reactions, and commentary.

Use an Idea Matrix to Synthesize Ideas

A idea matrix supports reading to synthesize, especially if you are reading multiple texts about a topic.  An idea matrix is a table that helps you identify and organize ideas from those texts according to their themes. It allows you to compare and contrast different insights about those themes. An idea matrix is a useful graphic, since one source may include ideas about many different themes.

Here’s one example of an idea matrix which synthesizes information from multiple sources around a specific focus.

Focus of Reading: Lessons Learned from the 1918 flu pandemic

Text Theme 1 Theme 2
Theme 3 Theme 4
Theme 5
  medical protocol infection control communication strategies goods & services human behavior
source 1 with all identifying information


paraphrases, summaries, quotes dealing with this theme (include exact page numbers as appropriate) paraphrases, summaries, quotes paraphrases, summaries, quotes
source 2 with all identifying information paraphrases, summaries, quotes paraphrases, summaries, quotes
source 3 with all identifying information paraphrases, summaries, quotes paraphrases, summaries, quotes

To create an idea matrix, identify a topic around which your texts converge and state it clearly above the matrix. When you identify this focus, make sure it’s not too broad (e.g., pandemics – you’d have thousands of texts to read) or too narrow (e.g., number of U.S. deaths from the 1918 flu – you’d just need to consult one valid text for that information). The focus should be something that is part of a conversation happening among a manageable number of texts (e.g., lessons learned from the 1918 flu).

The text column lists each source’s exact name.  It should also include the author, publication information for an eventual bibliography, url, and any other important identifying information.

The themes emerge from the sources you’ve read. You may choose to note them as paraphrases, summaries, and/or quotations.

Link to additional examples of idea matrices about different themes:

An idea matrix for reading can help you synthesize information from many texts, identify idea relationships within that information, and eventually help you formulate your own thoughts to add to the conversation.

Writing to Synthesize

Writing to synthesize involves taking those related ideas that you’ve extracted from multiple texts and incorporating them into a research paper, report, or proposal that’s structured around your own main insight, assertion, or thesis.

Don’t Do This:

In writing a document that synthesizes ideas from multiple texts, it’s the impulse of many students to summarize or paraphrase a paragraph or a whole article, insert the summary, and then move on to the next text and summary.  That’s not good practice, since it doesn’t link ideas in terms of their themes, and doesn’t focus on how those themes relate to your own ideas.

Instead, Do This:

Work from the idea matrix you built as you read different texts.  For a college research paper, turn your topic or focus statement at the top of the matrix into a thesis sentence, a sentence that makes an assertion or provides an insight offering your own informed views on the topic.  Offering your own perspective is key.  You’ll then structure the body of your essay using the groups of supporting ideas/themes you noted in the idea matrix, in whatever order you choose.  Each group gets its own topic sentence and unit of support.  And each group of supporting ideas includes your own thoughts, applications, and reactions to the texts included in that group.  One general rule is that you always structure “writing to synthesize” around your own ideas, and that you always offer your own ideas about information from each text used – that’s your contribution to the conversation.

The following video offers a clear discussion and examples to reinforce the concept of writing to synthesize.

This video about writing to synthesize researched sources incorporates information about using an idea matrix:

They Say/I Say Approach to Synthesis

Another way to think of synthesis is as though you’re joining a conversation; you’re listening to (reading) different texts, and bringing your own insight and experience to that conversation.  One good way of understanding synthesis in terms of reading and writing is to consider the “They Say/I Say” format created by Gerald Graff and Cathy Birkenstein, which helps you synthesize your own ideas with the text’s. The following video, although somewhat lengthy, provides a summary of Graff’s and Birkenstein’s text.

The video below explains how to write a synthesis applying the They Say/I Say framework. There’s a useful extended example showing how a writer incorporated appropriate pieces of different texts into an essay. (Note – don’t get too caught up in the MLA/APA format details at this point – focus on the concept of synthesis and how to synthesize texts in an essay.)

Summary: Reading & Writing to Synthesize

  • Synthesis means that you’re coordinating different pieces (themes, ideas, types of information) to create a coherent and new whole.
  • All of the pieces you synthesize in a piece of writing for college need to focus around your own insight/assertion/ thesis.
  • Often, a research essay assignment will expect that you synthesize information to address and offer your unique insight about a debatable issue.
  • Synthesis itself involves blending many reading and thinking skills, such as skimming, annotating, summarizing, and analyzing, among others.
  • There are different approaches to synthesis that may help you read and write about multiple texts.  They Say/I Say helps you blend your own ideas with ideas in other texts.  An Idea Matrix helps you organize ideas from multiple texts around the focus of your own main idea.