Synthesis- 2011 Workshop

Presenter: Jillian DeFore

What is synthesis?

Synthesis is the bringing together of two or more works.  Writers accomplish this by drawing conclusions from individual sources and then using those conclusions to make connections with other sources.  The ability to create a synthesis is dependent upon the ability to take implicit relationships and make them explicit.

The purpose of a synthesis and how it’s used across the disciplines

The purpose of a basic synthesis is to infer a relationship between multiple sources.  That purpose can become more defined, however, depending on a specific assignment:  If students are asked to compare and contrast two sources, such as two opposing editorials, their purpose is to make use of summaries, paraphrases and quotes of those two sources in order to analyze the similarities and the differences of the articles.  Students may, furthermore, be asked to side with one of those editorials, thus making their purpose argumentative instead of merely comparative.

If students are asked to write an in-class final exam in a history course or a political science course, odds are they are relying on info they’ve gathered from multiple sources to complete their response (synthesizing) in order to show their knowledge of the topic at hand (their purpose).   They may be asked to write an economics paper discussing capitalism and socialism, put together a political science presentation comparing capitalism and socialism, or write a film/English essay that discusses the film adaptation of a novel, referencing both the film and the novel. Each of these is a synthesis and each has a specific purpose.

How does synthesis differ from argument and from analysis?

A synthesis CAN be a part of an argument or an analysis, but doesn’t always have to be.  A rhetorical or literary analysis of one work – such as Hamlet – is not a synthesis because it focuses on only one source.  But, let’s say we’ve read Hamlet and watched The Lion King and we see some connections between the two.  We can then create a written explanation of the connections or a written argument that relies on both sources for support.

An argument lacking research or personal bias arguments are not syntheses since they don’t make room for any sources excluding the writer’s point of view.  Researched arguments, if researched and written correctly, are syntheses:  They rely on multiple texts to create their argument, i.e. they draw on more than two sources to make their point. 

Types of Syntheses

There are two main types of syntheses: argument and explanatory (some consider a compare and contrast synthesis as a separate type of synthesis while others consider it a subset of the explanatory synthesis).  Here are examples of a very general thesis statement for each type of synthesis along with a brief explanation of each type: 

Explanatory- basic (simply explains a connection):

The Lion King is a modern retelling of Hamlet: Prince of Denmark.”

  • Your purpose is to point out a connection and to make that connection explicit through explanation
  • Make use of summaries, paraphrases and quotes to, essentially, explain/prove your claim
  • Make use of both sources referenced in the thesis in order to fully make your point
  • May make use of compare and contrast to point out both similarities and differences (“While The Lion King is a modern retelling of Hamlet: Prince of Denmark,” some character variations add a little spice to the new version.”) 

Argument (creates and supports a logical argument):

“Modern entertainment has lost touch with the classical influences of its predecessors.”

  • An argument synthesis should make an argument
  • Your purpose is to address your argument while using relevant info from multiple sources to support and further your claim
  • Make use of summaries, paraphrases and quotes to prove your claim

These types of syntheses can cross over or collide – they’re not always black and white.

Structuring a Synthesis Essay

Using a synthesis matrix is a great way to create and organize ideas for a synthesis essay.  From there, mapping out the structure of an essay through some visual means can help guide your students from the matrix to the essay.  Something such as this could work:

The essay can be structured according to sources, according to each point of synthesis, or according to each supporting reason for a claim.  The topic and purpose will help you decide which structure is best for your audience.

Types of sources

Many synthesis assignments begin with a primary text – a specific play, novel, poem or whatnot – and then incorporate secondary sources – journal articles, reviews, and so on. Here’s a brief definition for these types of sources:

  •  Primary sources – firsthand accounts and/or original creations
  • Secondary sources – sources that interpret or otherwise rely on a primary source

Writers may also make use of tertiary sources (reference books and similar materials).

In the essay, “Hamlet and The Lion King: Shakespearean Influences on Modern Entertainment,” the writer uses both primary and secondary sources:

  • Primary sources:       Hamlet and The Lion King
  • Secondary sources:    “The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark” and “Patriarchy in the Pride Lands”

(View “Hamlet and The Lion King: Shakespearean Influences on Modern Entertainment” at

Common problems students have with the synthesis essay

Many students will end up summarizing instead of synthesizing.  Having students summarize each individual source before comparing them will help the students see the difference between a summary and a synthesis.  A synthesis matrix will help as well (we’ll take a look at one of these soon).

Also, many students will analyze or agree/disagree with a topic instead of synthesizing the sources that discuss that topic.  Once again, using a synthesis matrix will help with this problem by helping students organize the information they’ll need for a synthesis essay.

Another common problem is a lack of attribution.  When working with multiple sources, it is important for students to learn how to clearly distinguish the words and thoughts of those various sources from one another.  Emphasizing the importance of attribution and spending time practicing it is the best way to keep the problem from occurring.

Attribution (signal phrases)

Here’s a brief overview of attribution that is a good introduction for students:

Attributing Words and Phrases inform your audience that specific thoughts belong to a specific person.


  • According to . . .                                             As __________ notes . . .
  • states                                                               suggests
  • informs                                                            asserts
  • implores                                                           refutes
  • claims                                                              emphasizes


Examples in sentences:

1) Klass suggests these shows make a mockery of news programs.

2) According to Waxman and Klass, the media promotes the paranormal, parapsychology, and pseudoscience as if they are more than unproven phenomenon.

Without this attribution, the preceding sentences would read:

1) These shows make a mockery of news programs.

2)The media promotes the paranormal, parapsychology, and pseudoscience as if they are more than unproven phenomenon.

These sentences now sound like the writer’s ideas instead of ideas the writer gathered from outside sources.  Avoid this!

Quotation Sandwich

You’ll occasionally need to quote when composing a synthesis essay.  In the very helpful book They Say, I Say:  The Moves that Matter in Academic Writing, the authors propose the use of a “quotation sandwich”:

            A tag line        +          the quotation              +          an explanation of the quote                                                                                                              (interpretation or relevance) 

*The parts of the quotation sandwich need not always be in this exact order. 


A tag line is an introduction into the quote (attribution):  “Henry states”; “The speaker implies”; “The writer asserts”; “As Jones notes” and so on.

An explanation of the quote can be either (a) an explanation of the way you would like your audience to interpret the quote or (b) an explanation of how the quote is relevant to your topic.

Some have attempted to theorize that Hamlet’s delay is due to his mental instability, his madness over the death of his father. Eliot refutes this, calling the characterization “a simple ruse,” which he argues is “understood as a ruse to the audience” (62).  Simba exhibits this same behavior…


Teaching a synthesis

A well developed synthesis relies on (1) a careful reading of multiple texts, (2) creating an explicit connection between those texts, (3) creating an easy to understand essay (well structured, proper grammar, etc).  As with any writing assignment, the process of a synthesis is just as important as the finished product.  Focus on this step-by-step process:  use any cliché you see fit to relate to your students an understanding of a slow process (“Rome wasn’t built in a day.”).

The following pages offer an example of this process.  These pages include:

  • A sample assignment sheet for a synthesis essay in an introductory level writing course at SFASU
  • A synthesis matrix for students to use as a guide in collecting and organizing information in preparation for writing a synthesis essay
  • A detailed sample of a peer review sheet to be used during an in-class peer review session
  • A detailed sample of a grading rubric used to measure a student’s performance on the synthesis essay


Fun Activity to Introduce the Concept of Synthesis

Pass around cups with slips of paper in them.  Each cup should contain a specific category (persona, addressee, career, hobbies, setbacks, accomplishments, family status, etc).  Students should take one paper from each cup and then write a letter – as their assigned persona, to their assigned addressee – that logically ties together the info on their slips of paper.

When moving on to lengthy readings to use for a synthesis essay, start with only two sources. You can slowly build from there.

Some good sources to refer to:

  • Behrens, Laurence and Leonard J. Rosen.  What it Takes:  Writing in College.  NY: Pearson/Longman, 2009.  ISBN:  978-0-205-64782-8
  • Graff, Gerald and Cathy Birkenstein.  They Say / I Say: The Moves That Matter in Academic Writing.  2nd ed. NY:  W.W. Norton & Co., 2010.  ISBN:  978-0-393-93361-1