What does it mean to synthesize? I trolled the web and found some sources, and combined them with my own observations into the following post.

Slide02Synthesis combines information from two or more sources. The sources could include published peer-reviewed literature, articles, essays, and books, but also lectures, seminars, interviews, data, observations, and personal experience.
You synthesize all the time—when you identify relationships between something you’ve read online and something you’ve seen for yourself. When you make a decision about something, like buying a car or renting an apartment, you are synthesizing information. Maybe you ask your friends or family for advice. You research cars online or set up appointments to view apartments. You check and talk to other tenants. Then, in your mind, you pull these various bits into some kind of picture that helps you make a decision.

As you begin to write a synthesis, you accurately report information from the sources using paraphrase and/or direct quotation. (Learn more about how to avoid plagiarism by paraphrasing correctly.)

Slide04But a synthesis is more than combining a spectrum of source material into a single document. Why? Because you also have to use your own mind and words to draw connections between the sources, and using these connections to relate the different texts in a way that illuminates and transforms the material. Synthesizing sources is a matter of pulling them together into some kind of harmony.  You may have to consider whether what seem like unrelated elements or opposite observations might be reconciled. You may have to create an umbrella idea, some larger argument under which several observations and perspectives might stand.

The information should be organized and presented in such a way that readers can identify the various sources, and how they overlap. Finally, the synthesis makes sense of the sources and helps the reader understand them in greater depth.

What are some different types of syntheses?

A concept or explanatory synthesis divides a subject into its component parts and presents them to the reader in a clear and orderly fashion. The purpose in writing an explanatory essay is not to argue a particular point, but rather to present the facts in a reasonably objective manner, to explain how something works. The explanatory synthesis does not go much beyond what is obvious from a careful reading of the sources.

A synthesis of an event pulls in multiple perspectives to craft a full picture of what happened. Think of an earthquake, a hurricane, or the bird flu outbreak. It could be news or a retrospective.

History or chronology syntheses provide a timeline or describe the evolution of a topic. They may contain reflection and multiple views. Examples include pollution, resource declines, science policy.

The purpose of an argument synthesis is to present your own point of view – supported, of course, by relevant facts, drawn from sources, and presented in a logical manner. The thesis of an argumentative essay is debatable. Any two writers working with the same source materials could conceive of and support other, opposite arguments.

Almost any feature article in a magazine or newspaper could be considered a synthesis.

The way you relate information sources, the patterns you identify, the questions you ask and the way you answer them, all of these are personal  and unique.

So, its easy to talk about synthesis in the abstract. But how do you actually do it?

First, what is your purpose? Why are you writing this synthesis, and for whom? Remember your audience. Your purpose determines which sources you use, which parts of them you use, at which points in your essay you use them, how you relate them to one another, and how much weight or space to give them in your story.

Second, you have to start reading differently—more thoughtfully, as MIT professor Ed Boyden explains in a Technology Review blog post titled “How to Think.

Highlight key facts and ideas while reading. Cut and paste important text (keeping the source attached!) into a notes document.

By reading actively, you will start to recognize the crucial connections between ideas that form the basis for synthesizing. Since the very essence of synthesis is the combining of information and ideas, you must have reason for attempting to combine them. What are the relationships among your sources that make them worth synthesizing? Answering this question can help provide a framework for the synthesis.

Finally, you can now start to write. You have all the pieces—you just have to fit them together, trimming and moving text, adding transitions and context. Flag any gaps or questions that require more reading or research. Add that information in, trim some more, move things around.

Read it aloud. Put it away for awhile. Read it again. This is the “work” part of writing.

A few examples:

Carl Zimmer’s article in The New York Times was one of three that earned him an award from the American Association for the Advancement of Science. I counted at least six interviews and eight peer-reviewed journal articles as sources, as well as one in-progress study in the 2,000 word story.

A recent 3,500-word feature story by veteran reporter Ted Williams in Audubon used nearly 75 sources, including multiple interviews with 20 people, dozens of documents and peer-reviewed journal articles, and web sources.

In a magazine article (links to PDF) published last spring, I combined peer-reviewed literature and historical accounts with a field trip with researchers into 2,000 words about a fish.

Research institutions, government agencies, and nonprofits often produce synthesis reports. One recent report from Dartmouth College used some 86 scientific sources, nearly all of them peer-reviewed, as well as interviews and datasets for a 26-page synthesis of scientific knowledge on mercury in the marine environment.


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