Synthesis Essays: A Step-by-Step How-To Guide

A synthesis essay is generally a short essay which brings two or more sources (or perspectives) into conversation with each other.

The word “synthesis” confuses every student a little bit. Fortunately, this step-by-step how-to guide will see you through to success!

Here’s a step-by-step how-to guide, with examples, that will help you write yours.

Before drafting your essay:

After reading the sources and before writing your essay, ask yourself these questions:

  • What is the debate or issue that concerns all of the writers? In other words, what is the question they are trying to answer?
  • On what points do they agree?
  • On what points do they disagree?
  • If they were having a verbal discussion, how would writer number one respond to the arguments of writer number two?

In a way, writing a synthesis essay is similar to composing a summary. But a synthesis essay requires you to read more than one source and to identify the way the writers’ ideas and points of view are related.

Sometimes several sources will reach the same conclusion even though each source approaches the subject from a different point of view.

Other times, sources will discuss the same aspects of the problem/issue/debate but will reach different conclusions.

And sometimes, sources will simply repeat ideas you have read in other sources; however, this is unlikely in a high school or AP situation.

To better organize your thoughts about what you’ve read, do this:

  • Identify each writer’s thesis/claim/main idea
  • List the writers supporting ideas (think topic sentences or substantiating ideas)
  • List the types of support used by the writers that seem important. For example, if the writer uses a lot of statistics to support a claim, note this. If a writer uses historical facts, note this.

There’s one more thing to do before writing: You need to articulate for yourself the relationships and connections among these ideas.

Sometimes the relationships are easy to find. For example, after reading several articles about censorship in newspapers, you may notice that most of the writers refer to or in some way use the First Amendment to help support their arguments and help persuade readers. In this case, you would want to describe the different ways the writers use the First Amendment in their arguments. To do this, ask yourself, “How does this writer exploit the value of the First Amendment/use the First Amendment to help persuade or manipulate the readers into thinking that she is right?

Sometimes articulating the relationships between ideas is not as easy. If you have trouble articulating clear relationships among the shared ideas you have noted, ask yourself these questions:

  • Do the ideas of one writer support the ideas of another? If so, how?
  • Do the writers who reach the same conclusion use the same ideas in their writing? If not, is there a different persuasive value to the ideas used by one writer than by the other?
  • Do the writers who disagree discuss similar points or did they approach the subject from a completely different angle and therefore use different points and different kinds of evidence to support their arguments?
  • Review your list of ideas. Are any of the ideas you have listed actually the same idea, just written in different words?

 

Organizing a synthesis essay:

There are three main strategies writers use to organize synthesis essays: point by point, source by source, and blended.

Point by point:

If you choose to organize your essay point by point, present your ideas in the following order:

  • introduction
  • one point discussed by two or more writers
  • another point discussed by two or more writers
  • another point discussed by two or more writers
  • conclusion

Example:

You have just read several articles about protecting the fragile environment of Utah’s west desert. One article was written by a spokesperson for the cattle industry, one by a member of the Sierra Club, one by a professor of environmentalism at the state university, and one by an all-terrain vehicle owner. Although it’s unlikely that these writers will agree about the best way to protect the desert, it is possible that they will focus on similar points of concern, those being perhaps

  • impact of land-use on indigenous plants and animals
  • impact of land use on local human populations including ranchers and recreational lists
  • impact of land-use on future generations

Once you identify the similar points of concern, if you organize your synthesis essay around these points, you will give yourself a head start when describing the relationships between the different arguments because you can use easy-to-use transitions between paragraphs such as “another point on which the writers agree…”

Point-by-point organization works well when you can identify similar points discussed by different writers. However, you will sometimes read articles all of which are concerned with the same topic that do not make similar points. In this case, writers sometimes organize their  synthesis essays source by source rather than point by point.

 

Source by source:

If you choose to organize your essay source by source, present your ideas in the following order

 

  • introduction
  • summary of writer’s idea/point of view with explication and interpretation/commentary of the writer’s main points. You should aim for a two-to-one ratio in this part of the essay: one third summary and explication, two thirds interpretation/commentary.
  • summary of writer’s idea /point of view, explication, and interpretation/commentary of the main points of another source using a two-to-one ratio
  • summary of writer’s idea/point of view, explication, and interpretation/commentary of the main points of another source using a two-to-one ratio
  • write about one commonality among the sources
  • write about another commonality
  • conclusion

Tip:

Source-by-source organization is ill-advised at the high school level or in an AP situation as it often produces summary paragraphs not synthetized paragraphs.

Blended organization:

A blended essay will require a great deal of rhetorical skill and is not advised at the high school level or in an AP situation. However, if you choose to use a blended organization, present your ideas in the following order:

  • introduction
  • one point discussed by two or more authors
  • another point discussed by two or more authors
  • one major point discussed by only one author
  • another major point discussed by only one writer
  • conclusion

A skillful, blended organization and presentation of ideas will produce a rhetorically sophisticated and complex essay (complex because it will best represent connections and relations between and among points of view).

How to write a synthesis essay thesis statement:

Often, a thesis statement is meant to be a bold, opinionated statement which a student writer uses as a foundation for her argument. However, having a thesis which is too bold (hyperbolic) and/or too strong (grandiose) may be detrimental as the lack of qualification may make the statement be untrue or easy to dismiss. Therefore, it is in your best interest and customary in academe to qualify the thesis statement in order to persuade the reader that you are judicious and measured. Also, by qualifying, you allow the statement itself to be true.

Example of bad thesis statement:

Taxes on imports are too high.

This unqualified thesis statement doesn’t serve the writer well. The statement is too global, unconditional. To make the thesis statement more persuasive, you want to convince the reader that you understand that there are alternative points of view on the subject, not just your own.

 

Example of good thesis statement:

Often times, taxes on imports are too high.

This slight qualification helps assure the reader that you understand that there are multiple points of view on the subject. Other qualifiers include sometimes, most often, more often, most.

Tip:

If there is information that goes against your main point/idea, don’t ignore it, but find a way to acknowledge it.

How to write an introductory paragraph for a synthesis essay:

1.Identify a strong position vis a vis the topic written about. When writing your essay for the AP exam, it doesn’t matter if you agree with your position; think instead: What position of those written about offers me most to write about easily and quickly?

2.Test your position by writing a draft thesis statement. Sound good? Stick with it for a moment, but remember you may have to tweak it after writing the rest of the paragraph so that it most effectively represents the concerns you will write about in the essay.

3.Write at least one but better two more sentences expanding on (elaborating about/writing in more detail about) your position.

Example:

Our country, the United States of America, employs a peculiar sort of governing system: democracy. Simply by definition, democracy’s goal as a system of rule for the people by the people implies that the greatest number of people possible should be involved. Although the media’s mission of supplying pertinent information to the masses follows democratic ideals in definition, the media’s impact upon American society, especially in the area of presidential elections, has done little to increase participation in the political process and by doing so, has created a new sort of identity for the president himself.

4.Write one or more sentences identifying the sources you are using that does so in a way that shows that you are comparing and contrasting ideas and points of view from different sources. You might think of starting your sentence in this way, “While she argues/claims…, he predicts/strongly suggests that…” Remember to include title of the text, author’s name, genre (if possible), and if relevant pertinent background information about the writer, the text (perhaps its historical moment).

Example:

When governments legislate freedom acts, are they actually for the freedom of citizens or giving freedom to the governments to spy on people? This hidden agenda is demonstrated in the novel 1984 by George Orwell, the essay “Why read 1984” by Roy Ogren, and the article “Americans are Now Living in a Society that Rivals Orwell’s 1984” by Paul Joseph Watson and Alex Jones. The authors demonstrate the propaganda and technology are government tools to influence the citizens thoughts.

5.Write a sentence identifying a relationship between the sources you are using and connect to your thesis.

Example:

Many aspects of Orwell’s dystopian visions in 1984 are occurring today, but on a grand scale. Both essay and article illustrate elements of Orwell’s dark vision in present day America by describing its hidden use of technology.

How to write body paragraphs for synthesis essays:

1.Pick three points to write about from your list of points about which the writers agreed or disagreed. When picking three to write about, pick the three that offer you ample evidence.

2.Decide the order of the three points to be written about in your body paragraphs.

3.Write a topic sentence that identifies the point to be discussed in the first body paragraph.

Tip: The persuasive value of your topic sentence will be enhanced if you include a concession/counter argument in your topic sentence. This might take the form of a subordinate clause (“While some such as these people and those people are skeptical, Harvey dissects this argument with surgical precision…”)

Also, your essay will be easier to read (“flow”) if you start the paragraph with a transition. (See example in parenthesis.)

Example:

To begin, the basic assumption of using the media to relay news to the people is not a bad one. Television has brought widespread “penetration,” “geographic distribution,” and a “feeling of direct contact” to the people of America (source a). 

Example:

All in all, as a nation heralding itself as an example of democracy for the rest of the world, the United States must follow the definition of democracy, that is, allowing the greatest possible involvement in order to improve as a nation. Though the media has brought the opportunity of involvement to many American households, it has sent many more way and has actually created a sort of public apathy regarding the political process. At the same time that citizen straightaway, presidents have become more concerned with the now limited opinion surrounding their office. This inverse relationship of concern is far from fulfilling our forefathers hopes and even farther from granting that mediate the title of a positive influence on society.

 

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About The Author

Susan Osborn, Ph.D., has spent 30 years in higher education, in admissions at Vassar College, in the English department and Writing Program at Rutgers University, in the lab at The New Jersey Center for Research on Writing, and as a private tutor. Dr. Osborn is also an award-winning writer and scholar and she brings both her education smarts and her writing smarts to every student relationship.