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This handout is designed to show you many of the writing situations and decisions that you will face when writing a synthesis essay. Among the many questions that writers have about writing this type of essay, the primary questions all seem to arise around the use of sources. What is the proper use? When do I use quotes? How do I incorporate paraphrases? How can I include my ideas and opinions? The essay that I am analyzing is the Synthesis Example Essay that has already been handed out to you. In analyzing how this writer prepared and presented his/her argument, I should be able to better show you the style and techniques expected of the writer of a synthesis essay.
The format of this handout is very simple: I will quote a paragraph from the Sample Synthesis Essay, and then I will analyze what the author has done in that paragraph to make it a Synthesis Essay. The original essay paragraphs will be overly indented and smaller and a different color in order to help you distinguish between my comments and the original essay.
I am ashamed. I never realized that I was such a bad person. I have sinned against my community and my fellow townspeople on a regular basis. What is my crime? I shop at Wal-Mart. According to one train of thought, I'm helping destroy Main Street U.S.A. by shopping at a predatory national chain. But am I really? top
To begin with, the introduction to a synthesis essay needs to accomplish two things: 1) it needs to get the reader’s attention and make them want to keep reading, and 2) it needs to introduce the main idea or topic of the paper. Your introduction DOES NOT have to introduce or include your thesis. In fact, most of the time when you are writing a synthesis, you DON’T want the reader to know your conclusion until AFTER they’ve seen all the evidence; so don’t give away the conclusion in the introduction unless there’s a good reason to do so. The synthesis example essay uses a mock confession approach to get the reader’s attention and introduce the question of whether or not shopping at Wal-Mart is a bad thing. Notice that this question/this approach is more personal than just discussing whether Wal-Mart is good or bad; this approach makes the issue a personal one to anyone who has ever shopped at Wal-Mart instead of a local merchant.
Once you have the introduction set, then you need to give the necessary background information. Always remember that you know more about your subject than your readers do, or at least you should. Most of the time, this background section will seem silly and unnecessary to you, but it is VERY necessary to get your readers up to speed so that they can understand the more complex parts of your argument. In this particular essay, there are basically two sets of background information that the reader needs to know: 1) exactly how big and pervasive Wal-Mart really is, and 2) exactly what the protestors are protesting about when they claim Wal-Mart is bad for small towns. Where is the proof? What data exists to set these ideas up?
As of 1994, Wal-Mart had 2,504 stores across the U.S. and was expected to open 125 more that year (Ortega 205). Wal-Mart stores do over $67 billion dollars in annual sales (Norman 207). A Wal-Mart store in Iowa, after being open for two years and building its base, can generate $10 million a year in sales. A Wal-Mart store planned for Greenfield, Mass. would have employed 274 people (Anderson 218) or 240 people (Johnston 222), depending on which source you read. Discount stores like Wal-Mart allow small to medium towns with little population growth to hold customers to the local shopping area by cutting down on trips by locals to bigger urban areas with lower prices (Stone 210). With all of these benefits, why would anyone be upset about a Wal-Mart store opening in their town? top
First, let’s look at background issue #1, to be dealt with in this background paragraph #1: exactly how big and pervasive is Wal-Mart? This is a piece of background information that many writers would leave out. However, it is ESSENTIAL in writing this essay. Without knowing how big Wal-Mart is, how can the protest against it being too big have any context? Everybody knows Wal-Mart, but not everybody understands exactly how big Wal-Mart is. People in this part of the country (Mid-Nebraska) might confuse Wal-Mart’s size with that of popular local stores like Skagway or Allen’s, or regional chains like Shopko or Menard’s. Most people will not automatically know how much bigger Wal-Mart is unless you let them know with the proper background. As far as finding this background information, given the sources available to me, there is a wealth of possibilities. Every essay in the WARAC section on Wal-Mart includes little pieces of data about Wal-Mart that I can use to show its size: this essay chose to use a wide variety from several different sources, to help show that the data wasn’t just from one source. Generally speaking, if all of your background data comes from one source, you are in danger of being a victim to that author’s bias. Utilizing data from several sources not only protects you from that bias, but it is also an easy form of synthesis: you are creating a profile of Wal-Mart unique to your paper!
Notice that all of the specific data used here was used by paraphrase, rather than direct quotes. Keep as much of the information in your own words, so that direct quotes become something special. Also notice that the third sentence in this paragraph DOES NOT have a citation after it, even though it is using information from the same source and page as the second sentence. This is the #1 piece of advice I can give you about citation: you only need to cite again when the citation is different from the last one you used. By the way, remember that this rule is only good inside the paragraph. Each paragraph starts over again and needs its own set of citations.
The concerns against Wal-Mart all seem to focus around one main concern: Wal-Mart and similar stores have changed American retailing, and the protestors don't like the change. Albert Norman, the best known anti-Wal-Mart advocate, claims that Wal-mart represents "... an unwanted shove into urbanization, with all the negatives that threaten small town folks" (209). This urbanization appears to be connected, in the minds of the anti-Wal-Mart brigade, to "mindless consumerism, paved landscapes and homogenization of community identity" (Ortega 204). In other words, instead of a centrally located downtown shopping area with 30 different stores all locally owned, there are now only a handful of bigger stores located on the edge of town in malls and giant concrete shoeboxes, all of them owned by or franchised from huge out-of-town corporations. top
This third paragraph is still background. But here, the writer is trying to move from the background of how big Wal-Mart really is to exactly WHY anybody would be protesting a discount retailer opening a store in town. This is probably the same sort of question that you were asking before you began reading these essays (you may still be asking those questions, but that’s another story). In this particular case, since the views of the protestors are going to strike most readers as unexpected, the author has made the decision to quote the protestors. In other words, the author wants the reader to be absolutely sure that these really are their words and ideas, and not just a bad paraphrase on the part of our author. There are several lengthy sections that could be quoted, but the author realizes that finding two quotes, both rather short, but precise, actually works better, because then the ideas are spread out among the sources, not just the ramblings of one deluded soul. The more sources that can be shown to believe or support an idea, the stronger it will come across to the reader.
This paragraph shows a strong organizational style for synthesis essay paragraphs: 1) present your idea in a straightforward thesis style sentence; 2) present information from a source or sources to support or “prove” that thesis, and 3) then finish the paragraph up with your own analysis/explanation of what the information from the source really means or proves. As long as somewhere in the paragraph you are also beginning to make connections to earlier ideas and paragraphs, you are set. In addition, this content can come in any combination, not just in one or two sentences per step. Sometimes you might have only one sentence in a step, but three or four in another; it just depends on the information and the argument. This particular paragraph splits itself pretty equally among the parts, but paragraph 5, for example, spends more time on step 1 than the others, and paragraph 6 spends almost all of its time in step 2. It just depends on the needs of the argument, and what sources you have available.
The $10 million dollars an average store generates annually comes at the expense of $8.3 million that would have been spent at local stores anyway (Norman 207). That extra $1.7 million sounds positive until it's pointed out that every dollar spent at a local business stays in town and circulates 4 or 5 times, while a dollar spent at Wal-Mart goes straight to corporate headquarters (Anderson 218). Thus fewer dollars are in local banks for mortgage or other local loans. The 274 jobs created by a new store would actually only be 8 new jobs when the jobs lost from closed competition is factored in (Anderson 218). In addition, many of these jobs are not equivalent. People who were owners are now managers who must answer to corporate headquarters for their hiring, stocking and other decisions. From this perspective, it would indeed seem that big stores like Wal-Mart are "...organizations from one place going into distant places and strip-mining them culturally and economically" (qtd. in Ortega 206). top
Paragraph 4 of this essay finishes the background information. Paragraph 3 began to explain why the protestors didn’t like Wal-Mart, but it focused on large, abstract issues like quality of life. This gets down to specific numbers and facts. This brings in the dollars and tries to show, from the opposition side, how Wal-Mart’s entry into a market hurts the overall economy, while seeming to strengthen it by doing lots of business. Basically this tries to argue that business isn’t just business, and jobs aren’t just jobs. This is still really just background information, however. Notice that the author is not showing any direct opinion yet. The fact that so much of the essay is coming from the side of the opposition indicates a leaning that way, but nothing specific has been stated yet by the author. Notice that this once again ends with a specific quote, to make sure that the ideas of the opposition are clearly articulated. Also note, that since this is a quote of a quote, the format for the in-text citation is a bit different than you might expect.
The major problem with opposition to Wal-Mart is that it's too late. American culture has changed, and people no longer shop the way they used to. People are more mobile and are no longer limited to shopping at the stores available in a local small town Main Street, regardless of price. Price now matters. People feel it's a matter of principle to drive 40 miles to save seventeen cents on a routine purchase (Anderson 220). If a town does stop Wal-mart from coming in to town, Wal-Mart, or a similar store, will simply locate in another small town in the area, and then instead of being a "Wal-Mart town," the town will become one of the towns suffering a 16 to 46 percent loss of retail sales (Stone 210). top
Paragraph 5 begins with a clear connection/transition to the last two background information paragraphs. However, it also throws a curve ball at the reader. As indicated in the analysis above, the essay to this point has been slightly leaning towards the side of the opposition. The opening sentence of paragraph 5 makes it very clear, however, that the author is going to argue something different from what the opposition sources have been arguing. Notice that this paragraph uses the synthesis essay paragraph organizational style mentioned earlier. You may not recognize that style right away, because there is a final citation mixed into the last sentence. The author has chosen to use a specific statistic in this sentence instead of a generalization, and so has had to include another citation. That shouldn’t distract you, however, from the fact that the last sentence of the paragraph is the author’s analysis of the situation discussed in the paragraph as a whole.
Also, please note that in this paragraph, the author uses one source against itself. In Anderson’s essay, she is complaining that people are so obsessed with price that they drive 40 miles to save 17 cents. She clearly portrays this behavior as irrational and harmful to the local merchants. However, the author of your essay simply uses this example to show that price really does matter to people that much. The condemnation towards this example shown in Anderson’s essay is NOT shown in your author’s essay. This is still a FAIR use of Anderson’s example. Information and examples used by your sources become fair game for you to use, as long as you do not change the content, or alter the data. You do not have to use a source’s conclusions in order to use their data. This is where being able to critically evaluate and dissect a source comes in handy.
Instead of stonewalling the opening of new Wal-Marts, local businesses and home-town advocates need to adapt to the new retail landscape and figure out how to fit in around the big store, not compete with it (Johnston 222). Since many of the anti-Wal-Mart advocates are aging hippies and counter-culture advocates (Ortega 203), they should be very comfortable with the notion that alternative ways of doing business are the most effective way of surviving after Wal-Mart moves in. James F. Moore, a management consultant, talks about business as being an ecosystem that is undergoing a natural evolution from locally owned businesses to large nationally based businesses. Those who adapt and change will survive; those who cling to the outdated system will become extinct (229-230). Instead of trying to preserve Main Street U.S.A., a system that has become an evolutionary dead-end, anti-Wal-Mart and small town advocates need to determine what areas of consumer demand aren't serviced, or aren't adequately serviced, by the big stores and focus on filling that market niche (Stone 211-212). In this way, downtown can remain a viable source of community identity and offer goods, services or conveniences that the big stores can't or won't offer. Survival in the face of apparent extinction is actually a more effective means of protest against corporate giants than simply being "blindly obstructionist" (qtd. in Norman 209). One way simply complains, while the other actually builds and adds a value to the community. top
Paragraph 6, in many ways, is probably the weakest paragraph of the essay. There is really too much use of sources here. I can understand that the author is trying to show the connections between the various survival strategies shown in the Wal-Mart sources, but the sheer amount of citations indicates that this is an overstuffed paragraph. The author is trying to be fair and honest in citing sources, but the use and citation of Ortega and Norman are really unnecessary, and add two more citations to a paragraph already suffering from parentheses overload. In many ways, this is the most synthesized paragraph of the essay, since it uses the most sources working together to make one point. On the other hand, it can also be argued that the synthesis isn’t quite complete, since very little of th paragraph is the author’s analysis. If I were the author, I’d probably try to revise this and see if I couldn’t either eliminate some of the sources, or analyze it more completely and split it into several paragraphs.
People who shop at stores like Wal-mart aren't evil or wrong. They aren't contributing to the death of their small-town life. They are simply rewarding Wal-Mart for being the most efficient and effective retailer of certain merchandise. That's called capitalism, and it's supposedly the American way. Basically, the fight against Wal-Mart is a fight which cannot be won because it is a fight against a fundamental shift in how Americans shop and view their responsibilities as consumers and citizens. We don't eat at Joe's Corner Diner or the local Italian eatery anymore; we eat at McDonald's or Pizza Hut. We want conformity. We want to know that the food we eat will taste the same no matter where we eat it. Similarly, there is a feeling of comfort when you walk into a "different" Wal-Mart and it has the same products in the same location as your own local Wal-Mart. Big merchandisers, with large advertising budgets and distribution centers, can make sure that we all have access to the same products at the same time and the same price. Thus, since they can't meet this need as efficiently as the big retailers, the future of small town or local merchants will be entirely dependent on understanding what the big chains can't or won't supply. The future for small stores lies in becoming an alternative to the big stores, not in trying to compete. top
This final paragraph, the conclusion, is the big payoff. Notice that there is no citation going on here. This paragraph is pure and clear: THIS is what the author has been leading up to. In some ways, the lack of citation in this paragraph makes up for the overdose in the last paragraph, but not completely. Remember, the conclusion is where you make your last impression, and that becomes the dominant impression. The author should seem in control and able to prove every element of his/her thesis. This conclusion is actually very similar to several of the sources: local stores will have to change and be an alternative to the big stores in order to survive. The new idea that this essay throws into the mix is that in today’s marketplace, Wal-Mart offers us comfort and reliability, not the local merchant. This isn’t a very radical difference, but it is something new, and allows us to possibly see this conflict from a view we’ve never used before. That is a successful synthesis essay.