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 was the author really trying to say?
  • What parts of them do you agree with?
  • What parts of them do you disagree with?
  • Did they leave anything out?
  • What does an author’s work lead you to say?

It’s wise to not only analyze—take apart for study—the sources, but also to try to combine your own ideas with those presented in class and in the resources. Professors frequently expect you to interpret, make inferences, and otherwise synthesize—bring ideas together to make something new or find a new way of looking at something old. It might help to think of synthesis as the opposite of analysis.


Getting Better at Synthesis

To get an A on essays and papers in many courses, such as literature and history, when you write in reaction to others’ work you 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 are 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

The Eiffel Tower

Imagine that you have to write an argument essay about Woody Allen’s 2011 movie Midnight in Paris. Your topic is “nostalgia,” and the movie is the only resource you can use. In the movie, a successful young screenwriter named Gil is visiting Paris with his girlfriend and her parents, who are more politically conservative than he is. Inexplicably, every midnight he time-travels back to the 1920’s Paris, a time period he’s always found fascinating, especially because of the writers and painters—Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Picasso—that he’s now on a first-name basis with. Gil is enchanted and always wants to stay. But every morning, he’s back in real-time—feeling out of sync with his girlfriend and her parents.

You’ve tried to come up with a narrower topic, but so far nothing seems right. Suddenly, you start paying more attention to the girlfriend’s parents’ dialogue about politics, which amount to such phrases as “we have to go back to…,” “it was a better time,” “Americans used to be able to…” and “the way it used to be.” And then it clicks with you that the girlfriend’s parents are like Gil—longing for a different time, whether real or imagined. That kind of idea generation is synthesis.

You decide to write your essay to answer the research question: How is the motivation of Gil’s girlfriend’s parents similar to Gil’s? Your thesis becomes “Despite seeming to be not very much alike, Gil and the parents are similarly motivated, and Woody Allen meant Midnight in Paris‘s message about nostalgia to be applied to all of them.” Of course, you’ll have to try to convince your readers that your thesis is valid and you may or not be successful—but that’s true with all theses. And your professor will be glad to see the synthesis.

There is a lot more you can learn about creating synthesis in scholarly writing. One place synthesis is usually required is in literature reviews for honors’ theses, master’s theses, and Ph.D. dissertations. In all those cases, literature reviews are intended to contribute more than annotated bibliographies do and to be arguments for the research conducted for the theses or dissertations. If you are writing an honors thesis, master’s thesis, or Ph.D. dissertation, check out Susan Imel’s Writing a Literature Review for more advice.

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Critical Thinking in Academic Research by Cindy Gruwell and Robin Ewing is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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