ENGL 102
Writing and Research
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Synthesis Writing combines all of the elements that have been presented in the course so far. You will be expected to be able to summarize sources, critically analyze sources to find specific pieces of information that you want to use, quote some of that information, paraphrase other pieces of information, and parenthetically cite all those uses.

The term synthesis comes from the way we use the sources. Synthesis happens when you combine separate elements to create an entirely new element. Hydrogen and Oxygen synthesize together to create water. In the same way, research writers take information from one source, synthesize it with information from another source, and come up with an analysis/explanation/conclusion that is different from any other source.

Most writers are comfortable with the notion of using information from multiple sources. However, that notion that they are supposed to come up with something new or different scares them. What research writers need to understand is that the something new is often just the synthesis itself. The something new doesn’t have to be a new thesis or conclusion. The fact that you read a number of sources and decided which pieces of specific information had value and how to combine them creates the synthesis – the something new.

Synthesis writing focuses on how the information combines and connects to prove the thesis, not on creating a totally new thesis or conclusion.

How to write a synthesis essay:

  1. Determine your topic
  2. Find appropriate academic level sources about the topic
  3. Read the sources and think about their ideas, information and arguments
  4. Figure out your purpose – what type of paper do you want to write?
  5. Determine your thesis – What is the one main idea that you want the reader to learn?
  6. Decide what your main arguments/points are to support your thesis
  7. Identify what background/definitions the reader needs to know about the subject
  8. Organize the arguments into the most logical order
  9. Find the information from your sources that generated/support these arguments
  10. Write the first draft

Always remember that academic writing prefers Paraphrases over Direct Quotations, and that ALL information from an outside source, whether quoted or paraphrased, MUST be cited.

Synthesis writing can be informational or persuasive. The primary difference is simply how you present the thesis and argument. Some instructors or writing situations will require a persuasive or informative focus, but that is specific to that situation, not to synthesis writing in general. You, as the writer, need to determine what your purpose is. If you want to argue a specific position or change, then use a persuasive format. If you want your audience to learn about the topic in general, then the informational approach is more appropriate.

The three main components of an essay (introduction, body paragraphs, conclusion) are obviously also used in a synthesis essay, but HOW they are used might be different from what you are used to doing.

Introduction:

The introduction of a synthesis essay has three primary duties:

Introduce the Topic:
Note that this step says TOPIC, not thesis. Regardless of what past instructors have told you , it is NOT required to state the thesis in the introduction. Nor do you have to give an outline of your main topics. After reading your introduction, the reader should know what your paper is going to be about. Opening with an outline-style introduction is a weak, weak, weak approach that typically shows that the writer is not very comfortable with their topic or doesn’t really have a strong position to argue.

If I’m interested in gun control, and your introduction lets me know that you are going to discuss that issue, I’ll keep reading. However, if I’m against gun control, and you announce in your introduction that you are going to argue for more control, I’m simply not going to keep reading. And if I do keep reading, I’m going to read in from a prejudiced perspective, which makes your job as a writer that much more difficult.

The introduction should be general. There should be very little, if any, cited material in the introduction. The specific information and arguments belong in the body paragraphs, not the introduction.

Set the tone/define the audience:
The reader’s initial impression dominates their reading of an essay. If it’s going to be an academic essay, you want to begin with professional, academic, formal language. You want your sentences to show confidence in the topic and the use of the appropriate vocabulary. In other words, you want to set your own personal ethos/credibility right away from how you present the material. An academic paper is not typically the place for humorous asides or conversational language.

If you are writing for a specific audience, then you need to identify that audience very quickly. Write something as simple as “Current school nurses are very aware that the current educational approach to Sexually Transmitted Diseases is not consistent, to say the least.” This tells the audience that you are writing this essay for school nurses.

Focus the Reader’s Attention:
The introduction should set the purpose and focus of the whole essay. If your paper is going to discuss different treatment plans for Alzheimer’s or the effects of safety rule changes in NASCAR, then by the end of the introduction, the reader should know that.

But this is NOT the same thing as the thesis. The thesis emphasizes the conclusion (this is the BEST treatment plan, or the safety changes haven’t helped). The focus simply lets the reader knows what PART of the main topic you are going to discuss in more detail.

Body Paragraphs:

These paragraphs (and there needs to be more than one to be an essay!) are where you present the information and ideas from your sources that led to your conclusion. In a synthesis essay, this information and these ideas are going to be cited using in-text citations. Academic writing does not like to see too much emphasis in the sentence on who the source of the information is, unless it’s a direct quote, and even then, it should be kept to a minimum and only deal with the credibility/ethos of the source. For example, “Dr. David Quinn, director of research at the National Health Institute, says,” is enough, if it’s setting up a direct quote. “John Smith, in his article “I Don’t Know Much” from the August 12th issue of the Alma Journal” is way, way, way too much information for academic writing. The more specific information will be found on the Works Cited/References page, where it belongs.

Academic writing prefers for the sources’ information to be paraphrased rather than quoted, whenever possible. Anyone can cut and paste quotes, but to paraphrase, the writer needs to have actually understood the information. Plus, it makes the writing style more consistent and allows the reader to follow the arguments instead of trying to adjust to different tones and vocabularies.

In addition, a synthesis essay expects synthesis of information from multiple sources. Having one source for the information only shows that ONE source made this claim. Having multiple sources working together shows that this is a stronger claim. One very effective way to show synthesis is to have the main idea or statistic from one source and the supporting example from a second source. Or to have a claim from one source and then the refutation from a second source. The rest of the ¶ is then analyzing the two perspectives to explain which is more credible and why.

Each body paragraph should have a clear thesis that it is arguing, along with the evidence that supports the thesis and the author’s explanation of how and why that evidence is credible and supports the thesis. Never assume that the reader sees the same connections that you see.

Use specific examples whenever possible to show that your topic has an impact in the real world, not just theoretically. One very strong approach, if you used a story in your introduction, is to continue referring to that story as you develop the body paragraphs. If you began with the story of Louise, the Alzheimer’s patient, then when you present a particular treatment approach in one of your body paragraphs, show us how it is reflected in Louise’s current treatment, or how it would change her situation if it was applied.

Use transitions to show the connection between one idea and the next. Transitions can be as simple as writing “The next important point to consider” at the beginning of a paragraph or a more complete argument like “Once the definition of homelessness has been decided, then social service providers have to determine how to reach that population.” Typically, the farther you get into the essay, the more complex the transitions become, but not always.

Also make sure that each supporting argument is connected in some way to the overall thesis of the essay as a whole. An essay that only contains summaries of totally separate arguments is NOT a successful synthesis essay -- it’s just a collection of slightly related summaries.

Conclusion:

To write a convincing synthesis conclusion, the writer HAS to have a point to make. A conclusion that simply repeats an outline of the main points sends the signal that the author was simply writing a report that repeated the information from the sources. A SYNTHESIS paper does MORE than just repeat the information. The reader wants to see how the author sees the ideas and information adding up to the overall thesis/conclusion.

The conclusion is your last chance to communicate to the reader. Every reader should leave your conclusion knowing exactly what you showed or proved about the overall topic.

The conclusion should not have much, if any, cited material. You had the body paragraphs to present the data from the sources. This is supposed to be YOUR argument and presentation. If you don’t have a point to make beyond repeating the information from your sources, you need to go back to the very beginning: you aren’t ready to write a successful synthesis essay.

Refutation of Sources

Many instructors expect or require that a research paper/synthesis essay show a refutation of a source. This is not required by either MLA or APA, but it is a good technique to know and use when appropriate.

One of the reasons why a refutation is often required is that it forces students to look beyond their comfort zone when doing the research. A good researcher should always be open to new ideas and where the evidence takes them in determining their conclusion. But, unfortunately, many writers have already decided their conclusion before they ever started even researching. By requiring them to have at least one opposing view in the essay, the instructor is trying to at least create the opportunity for a wider perspective on the issue.

Where a refutation is the most effective is if it can be used to answer an objection that most readers will have to your main arguments. For example, if you are going to argue for gun control, you should know that most readers are going to know that the 2nd amendment allows for gun ownership. You can conveniently ignore that fact and stick to only the evidence that supports your claim, but the readers will know that you are ignoring this point, and it will hurt your credibility.

A refutation, on the other hand could point out that most people don’t know or understand what the 2nd Amendment really says. After all, the 2nd Amendment really reads “A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.” So a case could be made that the 2nd Amendment really only provides for the right of gun ownership to people who are part of an official, regulated militia. Any restrictions on people who are NOT part of such a militia would not be against the 2nd Amendment.

Are all readers going to accept this analysis/reading of the meaning of the 2nd Amendment? Of course not, but since you have shown that you are aware of the issue and that you have come up with an interpretation/analysis, your credibility is stronger than someone who simply ignores the issue. And your case is even stronger if your refutation can be supported with a citation from one or more credible academic sources. (plus you are showing synthesis too!).