Academic Writing AdviceAcademic, Writing, Advice
ServiceScape Incorporated
ServiceScape Incorporated
2017

Want to Master Your Synthesis Essay Assignment? Here’s How.

Despite the intimidation evoked by its scientific name, a synthesis essay isn't any more difficult to write than other types of essays if you know what to avoid. For example, a common mistake writers make is trying to hone in on their topic right away, just as they would with other essays—a synthesis essay just doesn't work like that.

But before we delve into what not to do, let's first discuss what a synthesis essay is and the purpose for writing one. A synthesis essay assignment will test whether you not only can understand information that is presented in multiple sources, but also if you can synthesize that information on a broader scope or higher level of thinking. It tests if you can find relationships that exist between the sources combined, and then go one step further to develop your own thesis that both sources could defend.

Avoid writing an argumentative essay instead

While sometimes confused with an argumentative essay, a synthesis essay indeed presents an argument—but there is more to it than that.

The goal of an argumentative essay is for you to assert and defend a thesis about a controversial issue. In the process of outlining the introduction of an argumentative essay, you'll state your thesis and then provide evidence that affirms your claims in the body. This evidence will be information or quotes from several reliable sources—sources that you may or may not have accessed before. And finally, in a great argumentative essay, you will present the opposing side, as well.

In contrast, a synthesis essay veers away from the argumentative essay in that the resources are usually pre-determined, often by the teacher assigning the essay, and your first task is to find a notable relationship or common thread that is between them.

The synthesis essay assignment

To better understand the thinking process that goes into a synthesis essay, let's look at an example.

Jean is a college student working on a degree in Climatology. She has been given a synthesis essay assignment in one of her upper-level science courses. The professor of the course instructed the students to use two specific resources in their synthesis. The first is an article from Live Science entitled "Global Warming: Official Report Shows Climate Change is Human-Caused." The second is an article published in Climate, a peer-reviewed journal, entitled "A 133-Year Record of Climate Change and Variability from Sheffield, England."

Since this is a synthesis essay assignment, Jean's first step—even before outlining or thinking about a thesis—is to read the two resources in depth. This doesn't mean skimming them or reading summaries of them. Rather, this requires a thorough knowledge of the information contained within the resource. Multiple readings may be required but these will make the daunting task of writing the synthesis essay significantly less daunting.

So, after Jean reads (or listens to, or watches) the assigned resources, Jean then takes a moment (or days!) to hash out the information in her head to find a common thread that runs between them. To do this, she must first ask herself the following questions:

  1. What is an idea, theme, or commonality that connects the sources to each other?
  2. What is my thesis concerning this idea, theme, or commonality?
  3. How can my thesis be given supporting evidence from both sources?

By determining the answers to these important questions, Jean will use a higher-level order of thinking to find a thread of connection between the multiple sources, and then use those sources to defend a thesis that they all support. So yes, she is writing a type of argumentative essay in that she determines a thesis and substantiates it. The difference is in how and when she arrives at that thesis.

Great topics versus not-so-great ones

It's important at this step to be sure that the thesis you use is narrow enough to be covered in the scope of the synthesis essay assignment. When a topic that is chosen is too broad, the writer will have a difficult time writing a succinct, well-rounded synthesis essay.

Let's take a look at some topics to avoid when writing your essay.

  • A synthesis on religion
  • A synthesis about gender issues
  • A synthesis covering foreign relations

Choosing one of these topics to write your synthesis essay is inviting a lot of trouble, particularly because it is impossible to cover the scope of them. No one essay can adequately discuss religion, gender issues, or foreign relations, and the result of attempting to do so will almost certainly result in a highly-disorganized synthesis essay.

Better topics would be as follows.

  • A synthesis on Christian mysticism.
  • A synthesis on the changing role of women in America.
  • A synthesis on the current economic ties between China and the United States.

Avoid straddling the fence

Another mistake to avoid here is not picking a "side" on the issue. If you begin your synthesis essay with a thesis statement that straddles the fence, so to speak, you will have a difficult (if not impossible) task ahead of you in synthesizing the sources. As with an argumentative essay, when writing a synthesis essay, you need to choose the side you're on in the argument and show evidence from your sources that will substantiate your claim.

Sources
Finding common threads across various sources requires higher-order level thinking skills.

So now that you understand the process of writing a synthesis essay, let's move on to the standard outline for it. As with any essay assignment, beginning the writing process without an outline is similar to running a train without tracks. The result will be writing that is disorganized, at best, and guaranteed to confuse your reader.

Introduction

So, let's begin with the introduction. The introduction of a synthesis essay is like the introduction of any other essay in that its purpose is to state the thesis and give the reader a general introduction to the topic. However, that's where the similarities between introductions for argumentative essays and introductions for synthesis essays end.

The main difference is that in synthesis essay writing, you will use the introduction to state your thesis as well your sources used. In other types of essay writing, in-text citations are used throughout the body to show sources, and rarely used in the introduction. However, since the purpose of the synthesis essay is to synthesize, you need to immediately show your reader which sources you synthesized and the thesis you arrived at after doing so.

Introduction
Here's the basic structure of a synthesis essay introduction. Keep in mind that in the process of stating your sources, the author's name should be included, as well as the title of the source. After that, you can include a summary of the author's biographical information or research background to establish his or her expertise on the topic.

For our hypothetical student's synthesis essay assignment, in the introduction, Jean would write her thesis and give a brief overview of both (or all) sources used. In this case, Jean chose the following as her thesis:

"Global warming is often labeled as a hoax, but there is strong scientific evidence that supports it."

She would then provide information and in-text citations to guide the reader directly to the information she gleaned from the sources she synthesized.

Body

The two most important rules of writing the body of a synthesis essay is to:

  1. Begin each paragraph with information; and
  2. Show examples from your sources that prove your point.

The length of the body will depend on your paper's length and the number of sources used. When two sources are given, you can devote one paragraph to one source and one paragraph to the other.

Avoid summarizing the sources

This is the point where a lot of writers fail at the task of writing a great synthesis essay. Remember at the beginning when we discussed how knowing what not to do will make the assignment easier? Here's a great example of that.

Many writers will make the mistake of using the paragraphs within the body to summarize the information from each source. However, in a synthesis essay assignment, your task is not to explain what the source "is about"—rather, your task is to show a theme or idea that is a common thread in both sources. This is why reading both sources carefully and fully before beginning the writing process is so crucial.

Let's take a step back and look at the difference between writing a summary and writing a synthesis. First, and most importantly, determining a summary is a basic reading technique, while synthesis is an advanced level technique. In writing a summary, you are presenting a cursory overview of the source, while a synthesis requires a focus on the main ideas and the details that connect them. A synthesis should show how the writer achieves new insights from the information presented in the sources, while a summary simply demonstrates an understanding of the information. Basically, a summary is reviewing what has already been written, while a synthesis is a new idea that develops after reading and carefully analyzing multiple sources.

Here are examples to show the difference of Jean summarizing versus synthesizing.

Summary

In her article, "Global Warming: Official Report Shows Climate Change is Human-Caused," the author uses an infographic based on the U.S. National Climate Assessment report showing the following: 1) all signs point to global warming, 2) there are both human and natural influences on climate change, and 3) there are observable trends toward heavier precipitation.

Synthesis

If global warming were a hoax, it's a well-documented one. In her article, "Global Warming: Official Report Shows Climate Change is Human-Caused," the author uses data taken from the U.S. National Climate Assessment to show a definite global warming trend that includes increased precipitation. Those same trends are also shown in an article published in the Climate Journal entitled "A 133-Year Record of Climate Change and Variability from Sheffield, England." In their longitudinal study, the authors point to 133 years of recorded data that show that the planet is warming. The numbers, in these cases, do not lie.

Earth
An image of the earth taken by four different satellites. Source: NASA.

Conclusion

Now that you've made it through the most difficult part, the conclusion should be easy. In a synthesis essay, the conclusion is simply a reminder of your thesis and how it is supported in the resources you used. This is the place where you can suggest further research on the topic, or show limitations in the sources presented. If there are other sides to the topic that you haven't covered anywhere else in your paper, bring those up too. Then point out why your thesis holds more weight.

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