Professors want to see evidence of your own thinking in your essays and papers. Even so, it will be your thoughts in reaction to your sources.
- What parts of them do you agree with?
- What parts of them do you disagree with?
- Did they leave anything out?
It’s wise to not only analyze—take apart for study—the sources, but also to try to combine your own ideas with ideas you found in class and in the sources.
Professors frequently expect you to interpret, make inferences, and otherwise synthesize—bring ideas together to make something new or to find a new way of looking at something old. (It might help to think of synthesis as the opposite of analysis.)
Activity: Creative Thinking
Synthesis is a creative act. Are there places, things, activities, or situations that you already use to spark your creativity? Sometimes even simple things can help us be more creative. Take a look at the article 5 Ways to Spark Your Creativity for some tips.
The book Thinker Toys, by Michael Michalko, can help you expand your ability to think creatively. The author’s web page contains fun but challenging thinking exercises, including this one that lets you practice making associations between seemingly disparate concepts.
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 others’ work should use synthesis to create new meaning or 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 resource—making associations across 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 as you get more experienced at it. So don’t be hard on yourself if it seems difficult at first.
Example: Synthesis in an Argument
Activity: 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 you 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? See the bottom of the page for the answer.
Answer to Activity: Balancing Sources and Synthesis
The answer to the “Balancing Sources and Synthesis” Activity above is:
The yellow-highlighted sections in Sample 2 show more contributions from the author than from quotes, paraphrases, and summaries of other sources.