Synthesizing Sources

Synthesizing Sources

Once you have analyzed the texts involved in your research and taken notes, you must turn to the task of writing your essay. The goal is here is not simply to summarize your findings. Critical writing requires that you communicate your analysis, synthesis, and evaluation of those findings to your audience.

You analyze and synthesize even before you compose your first draft. In an article called, “Teaching Conventions of Academic Discourse,” Teresa Thonney outlines six standard features of academic writing. Use the list to help frame your purpose and to ensure that you are adopting the characteristics of a strong academic writer as you synthesize from various sources:

  1. Writers respond to what others have said about their topic.
  2. Writers state the value of their work and announce their plan for their papers.
  3. Writers acknowledge that others might disagree with the position they have taken.
  4. Writers adopt a voice of authority.
  5. Writers use academic and discipline-specific vocabulary.
  6. Writers emphasize evidence, often in tables, graphs, and images. (348)

Let’s return to the example of Marvin, who is working on his research assignment. Marvin already learned from the online professor that he should spend time walking (knowing where to find them) and talking (knowing who is conversing about them and what they are saying) with sources. Now Marvin will learn the importance of cooking with his sources, or creating the right recipe for an excellent paper.

Cooking With Your Sources

O-Prof: Let’s take a look at the third metaphor: cooking. When you cook with sources, you process them in new ways. Cooking, like writing, involves a lot of decisions. For instance, you might decide to combine ingredients in a way that keeps the full flavor and character of each ingredient.

Marvin: Kind of like chili cheese fries? I can taste the flavor of the chili, the cheese, and the fries separately.

O-Prof: Yes. But other food preparation processes can change the character of the various ingredients. You probably wouldn’t enjoy gobbling down a stick of butter, two raw eggs, a cup of flour, or a cup of sugar (well, maybe the sugar!). But if you mix these ingredients and expose them to a 375-degree temperature, chemical reactions transform them into something good to eat, like a cake.

Marvin reaches into his backpack and pulls out a snack.

Marvin: You’re making me hungry. But what do chili cheese fries and cakes have to do with writing?

O-Prof: Sometimes, you might use verbatim quotations from your sources, as if you were throwing walnuts whole into a salad. The reader will definitely “taste” your original source. Other times, you might paraphrase ideas and combine them into an intricate argument. The flavor of the original source might be more subtle in the latter case, with only your source documentation indicating where your ideas came from. In some ways, the writing assignments your professors give you are like recipes. As an apprentice writing cook, you should analyze your assignments to determine what “ingredients” (sources) to use, what “cooking processes” to follow, and what the final “dish” (paper) should look like. Let’s try a few sample assignments. Here’s one:

Assignment 1: Critique (given in a human development course)

We’ve read and studied Freud’s theory of how the human psyche develops; now it’s time to evaluate the theory. Read at least two articles that critique Freud’s theory, chosen from the list I provided in class. Then, write an essay discussing the strengths and weaknesses of Freud’s theory.

Assume you’re a student in this course. Given this assignment, how would you describe the required ingredients, processes, and product?

Marvin thinks for a minute, while chewing and swallowing a mouthful of apple.

Marvin: Let’s see if I can break it down:


  • everything we’ve read about Freud’s theory
  •  our class discussions about the theory 
  • two articles of my choice taken from the list provided by the instructor

Processes: I have to read those two articles to see their criticisms of Freud’s theory. I can also review my notes from class, since we discussed various critiques. I have to think about what aspects of Freud’s theory explain human development well, and where the theory falls short—like in class, we discussed how Freud’s theory reduces human development to sexuality alone.

Product: The final essay needs to include both strengths and weaknesses of Freud’s theory. The professor didn’t specifically say this, but it’s also clear I need to incorporate some ideas from the two articles I read—otherwise why would she have assigned those articles?

O-Prof: Good. How about this one?

Assignment 3: Research Paper (given in a health and environment course)

Write a 6–8-page paper in which you explain a health problem related to water pollution (e.g., arsenic poisoning, gastrointestinal illness, skin disease, etc.). Recommend a potential way or ways this health problem might be addressed. Be sure to cite and document the sources you use for your paper.

Marvin: Oho, trick question! That one sounds familiar.

Ingredients: No specific guidance here, except that sources have to relate to water pollution and health. I’ve already decided I’m interested in how bottled water might help with health where there’s water pollution. I’ll have to pick a health problem and find sources about how water pollution can cause that problem. Gastrointestinal illness sounds promising. I’ll ask the reference librarian where I’d be likely to find good articles about water pollution, bottled water, and gastrointestinal illness.

Process: There’s not very specific information here about what process to use, but our conversation’s given me some ideas. I’ll use scholarly articles to find the connection between water pollution and gastrointestinal problems, and whether bottled water could prevent those problems.

Product: Obviously, my paper will explain the connection between water and gastrointestinal health. It’ll evaluate whether bottled water provides a good option in places where the water’s polluted, then give a recommendation about what people should do. The professor did say I should address any objections readers might raise—for instance, bottled water may turn out to be a good option, but it’s a lot more expensive than tap water. Finally, I’ll need to provide in-text citations and document my sources in a reference list.

O-Prof: You’re on your way. Think for a minute about these assignments. Did you notice that the “recipes” varied in their specificity?

Marvin: Yeah. The first assignment gave me very specific information about exactly what source “ingredients” to use. But in the second assignments, I had to figure it out on my own. And the processes varied, too. In the second assignment—my own assignment—I’ll have to use content from my sources to support my recommendation.

O-Prof: Different professors provide different levels of specificity in their writing assignments. If you have trouble figuring out the “recipe,” ask the professor for more information. Keep in mind that when it comes to “cooking with sources,” no one expects you to be an executive chef the first day you get to college. Over time, you’ll become more expert at writing with sources, more able to choose and use sources on your own. You’ll probably need less guidance for writing in your senior year than in your freshman year.

Four puzzle pieces fitting together.

Correctly utilizing and synthesizing your sources is much like fitting together the pieces of a puzzle.

Integrating Material from Sources

Integrating materials from sources into your own text can be tricky; if we consider the metaphor that writing a paper and including sources is a way of facilitating a conversation about a topic, it helps us to think about how this will best work. When you’re discussing a topic in person with one or more people, you will find yourself referencing outside sources: “When I was watching the news, I heard them say that . . . I read in the newspaper that . . . John told me that . . .” These kinds of phrases show instances of using a source in conversation, and ways that we automatically shape our sentences to work references to the sources into the flow of conversation. Think about this next time you try to work a source into a piece of writing: if you were speaking this aloud in conversation, how would you introduce the material to your listeners? What information would you give them in order to help them understand who the author was, and why their view is worth referencing? After giving the information, how would you then link it back to the point you were trying to make? Just as you would do this in a conversation if you found it necessary to reference a newspaper article or television show you saw, you also need to do this in your essays.


Watch this video to learn more about the synthesis process.