Writing a synthesis essay is something that you will usually learn to do in high school, or perhaps in the early stages of college. However, it may not have been explained as a synthesis essay leaving you at a loss to what your professor is looking for when you are actually set one of these essays as an assignment! With that in mind we have created this guide on how to write a synthesis essay.
What Is a Synthesis Essay?
In the most basic of terms, a synthesis essay is a piece of writing which draws on information from multiple different sources and ties them together in one coherent composition. The purpose of such an essay is to demonstrate your ability to make meaningful connections between different sources and materials. A successful synthesis essay should be objective and highlight the relationship between different viewpoints. Your thesis should be based on those relationships.
How to Write a Synthesis Essay
So now that you have a better understanding of what a synthesis essay actually is, the next question is ‘how do I write on’. If you follow the steps outlined in our guide below, you will be well on your way to producing a good quality essay that will earn you a grade that you can be proud of.
Choosing Your Topic & Style of Synthesis
There are several different types of synthesis essays that you can choose from depending on your assignment and on the types of evidence available. The main types are as follows:
- Argument Synthesis – An argument synthesis essay should have a strong thesis presenting your own point of view on the topic. You should gather evidence from multiple sources to support your thesis.
- Review Synthesis – This is most often carried out before an argument synthesis. It is basically a critical analysis of what others have written on the topic at hand. This type of essay is best suited to social science and medicine classes.
- Explanatory Synthesis – This type of essay is one which does not usually have a thesis statement, or advocate any particular point of view. Instead, it is designed to help the reader understand the topic by presenting background information and facts about it gathered from a variety of sources.
If you have not been allocated a particular topic to work on, then you need to choose carefully. The topic needs to be something broad enough to allow you to find multiple sources. It is likely that you will be given an assigned topic or a list to choose from, but you will still need to narrow it down into a thesis for the essay. The best approach is to read through your research materials and see which aspect has the most evidence to work with.
Creating An Outline
No matter what type of assignment you are writing, we cannot overstate the importance of creating an outline. A good synthesis essay depends on a good solid structure. It is important to get that down from the outset as it will help you to keep on track and create a coherent essay that answers your thesis statement. You will need an introductory paragraph which acts as the hook to pull the reader in and explains your thesis and identifies what aspects of the topic you will be examining.
The body of your essay is where you will explore your evidence and present your thoughts. You can divide this into paragraphs based on the evidence that you have picked out in order to make sure it is in the right order. Finally, you will need to draw your conclusions by pulling together all of your thoughts and stating how they support your thesis statement.
Writing Your Synthesis Essay
Once you have your outline plan you can sit down and start to get your essay written. Follow the plan as closely as possible, but do not be afraid to deviate slightly if you come across some new information or source material. You should usually write a synthesis essay in the third person (he, she, it etc.). You will want to use an active voice and offer clear and accurate information in order to establish credibility. It is important to make transitions between your paragraphs as this will help to make your essay flow logically from one point to the next.
Finalize Your Essay
Once you have written your first draft of the synthesis essay, read through it and make all necessary revisions. You should also take time to proofread your work so that you do not lose points for silly spelling errors. It is worth keeping in mind that if your synthesis essay is part of an AP test, then you will be able to make one draft. You may not be able to revise your essay, but you can still proofread it and correct any minor errors if you have time.
Hopefully this guide for writing a synthesis essay will give you the pointers to make a start on your assignment. If you can get the structure down then as long as you do plenty of research and have a sound argument, you should complete a good synthesis essay.
Synthesis is something you already do in your everyday life. For example, if you are shopping for a new car, the research question you are trying to answer is, "Which car should I buy"? You explore available models, prices, options, and consumer reviews, and you make comparisons. For example: Car X costs more than car Y but gets better mileage. Or: Reviewers A, B, and C all prefer Car X, but their praise is based primarily on design features that aren’t important to you. It is this analysis across sources that moves you towards an answer to your question.
Early in an academic research project you are likely to find yourself making initial comparisons—for example, you may notice that Source A arrives at a conclusion very different from that of Source B—but the task of synthesis will become central to your work when you begin drafting your research paper or presentation.
Remember, when you synthesize, you are not just compiling information. You are organizing that information around a specific argument or question, and this work—your own intellectual work—is central to research writing.
Below are some questions that highlight ways in which the act of synthesizing brings together ideas and generates new knowledge.
How do the sources speak to your specific argument or research question?
Your argument or research question is the main unifying element in your project. Keep this in the forefront of your mind when you write about your sources. Explain how, specifically, each source supports your central claim/s or suggests possible answers to your question. For example: Does the source provide essential background information or a definitional foundation for your argument or inquiry? Does it present numerical data that supports one of your points or helps you answer a question you have posed? Does it present a theory that might be applied to some aspect of your project? Does it present a recognized expert’s insights on your topic?
How do the sources speak to each other?
Sometimes you will find explicit dialogue between sources (for example, Source A refutes Source B by name), and sometimes you will need to bring your sources into dialogue (for example, Source A does not mention Source B, but you observe that the two are advancing similar or dissimilar arguments). Attending to interrelationships among sources is at the heart of the task of synthesis.
Begin by asking: What are the points of agreement? Where are there disagreements?
But be aware that you are unlikely to find your sources in pure positions of “for” vs. “against.” You are more likely to find agreement in some areas and disagreement in other areas. You may also find agreement but for different reasons—such as different underlying values and priorities, or different methods of inquiry.
(See alsoIdentifying a Conversation)
Where are there, or aren’t there, information gaps?
Where is the available information unreliable (for example, it might be difficult to trace back to primary sources), or limited, (for example, based on just a few case studies, or on just one geographical area), or difficult for non-specialists to access (for example, written in specialist language, or tucked away in a physical archive)?
Does your inquiry contain sub-questions that may not at present be answerable, or that may not be answerable without additional primary research—for example, laboratory studies, direct observation, interviews with witnesses or participants, etc.?
Or, alternatively, is there a great deal of reliable, accessible information that addresses your question or speaks to your argument or inquiry?
In considering these questions, you are engaged in synthesis: you are conducting an overview assessment of the field of available information and in this way generating composite knowlege.
Remember, synthesis is about pulling together information from a range of sources in order to answer a question or construct an argument. It is something you will be called upon to do in a wide variety of academic, professional, and personal contexts. Being able to dive into an ocean of information and surface with meaningful conclusions is an essential life skill.