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UMGC Effective Writing Center Write to Synthesize: The Research Essay

In a synthesis, you bring things together. This combination, integration, or merging creates something new--your synthesis. The action of synthesis is basic to our world. Take, for example, what happens when a single oxygen molecule is combined with two hydrogen molecules. Water is created or synthesized. Hard to get more basic than that.

You also use synthesis to make personal decisions. If two instructors are teaching a class you must take, you may synthesize your past experiences with the teachers to choose the best class for you.

Image Still for Video: Write to Synthesize: How to Combine Sources

Research Essays:

Thesis Driven

In school, when writing a synthesis from your research, your sources may come from the school's library, a textbook, or the Internet. Here are some important points to keep in mind:

First, regardless of where your sources come from or how many you have, what you write should be driven by a thesis that you devise. After reading and studying your sources, you should form a personal point of view, a slant to connect your sources.

Here's a quick example--Let's say you've read three folktales: Goldilocks and the Three Bears, Little Red Riding Hood, and the Pied Piper--and now you must write a synthesis of them. As you study the three sources, you think about links between them and come up with this thesis: 

Folktales use fear to teach children lessons.

Then you use this thesis to synthesize your three sources as you support your point of view. You combine elements from the three sources to prove and illustrate this thesis. Your support points could focus on the lessons for children:

  • Lesson 1: Never talk to strangers.
  • Lesson 2: Don't wander from home.
  • Lesson 3: Appearances can deceive us.

This step of outlining your thesis and main points is a crucial one when writing a synthesis. If your goal in writing a research essay is to provide readers a unified perspective based on sources, the unified perspective must be clear before the writing begins.

Once the writing begins, your point of view is then carried through to the paragraph and sentence levels. Let's examine some techniques for achieving the unity that a good synthesis requires. First, here’s an example of an unsuccessful attempt at synthesizing sources:

Many sources agree that capital punishment is not a crime deterrent. [This is the idea around which the sources should be unified. Now comes the sources] According to Judy Pennington in an interview with Helen Prejean, crime rates in New Orleans rise for at least eight weeks following executions (110). Jimmy Dunne notes that crime rates often go up in the first two or three months following an execution. “Death in the Americas” argues that America’s crime rate as a whole has increased drastically since the re-instatement of the death penalty in the 1960s. The article notes that 700 crimes are committed for every 100,000 Americans (2). Helen Prejean cites Ellis in her book to note that in 1980, 500,000 people were behind bars and in 1990 that figure rose to 1.1 million (112).

Sample student paragraph adapted from "Literature Review: Synthesizing Multiple Sources." Retrieved 2011 from

This paragraph certainly uses a number of sources. However, the sources are presented in a random, grocery list fashion. Besides the main point at the beginning, there is no further attempt to synthesize. The sources seem tossed in, like ingredients in a salad. Let's examine a possible revision of that paragraph and how an adequate synthesis might be achieved:

Major studies suggest that capital punishment fails to deter crime. Helen Prejean, in "Deadman Walking," reviews decades of statistics that indicate capital punishment does little to lower crime. [Key idea from  topic sentence—"capital punishment fails to deter crime"— echoed in sentence about source–"capital punishment does little to lower crime." Repetition links source to main idea.] Based on this evidence, Prejean concludes “Executions do not deter crime . . . the U.S. murder rate is no higher in states that do not have the death penalty than those who do” (110). ["Based on this evidence" forces  reader to refer back to "statistics" in previous sentence.] Prejean’s point is reiterated from a historical perspective in Dunne's article “Death in the Americas.”  [This sentence provides a thought bridge between two sources.] Dunne first points out that, despite the social and economic upheavals from 1930 to 1960, crime rates were unchanged (2). [Linking phrase:"Dunne first points out"] However, after the reinstatement of the death penalty in the 1960s, “crime rates soared” (2). [Linking phase "However, Dunne notes."]

The result is a matrix of connective devices that unifies the sources around a key idea stated at the beginning. Although this matrix seems complex, it is actually built on a simple three-point strategy.

  • Stay in charge. You the writer must control the sources, using them to serve your purpose. In good synthesis writing, sources are used to support what you, the writer, have already said in your own words.
  • Stay focused. Your main point is not merely stated once and left to wilt. Your main idea is repeated and echoed throughout as a way to link the sources, to weave them together into a strong fabric of meaning.
  • Stay strategic. Notice the "source sandwich" strategy at work. First, the author sets up the source with its background and relevance to the point. After the source comes a follows up in his/her own words as a way to bridge or link to the next part. In other words, the writer's own words are used like two slices of bread, with the source in the middle.

Follow these simple principles when using sources in your writing and you will achieve the most important goal of synthesis writing--to create a whole greater than its parts.

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