Synthesis Essay

Synthesis Essay

A common advanced writing assignment is the synthesis essay.  Unfortunately, until getting assigned their first synthesis essay, many students are completely unaware of this type of essay, which means that, in addition to writing an essay, you may fear that you have to teach yourself a whole new type of writing.  While the synthesis essay may present a new type of writing challenge for you, the challenging is not as daunting as it first appears.  In fact, you may even have written a synthesis essay before, but simply called it a research paper. 

What is a synthesis essay?

A synthesis essay is a work that has a central idea, theme, or topic and supports that idea with multiple sources.  While synthesis essay is the trendy name for this type of paper, students have been writing synthesis essays literally for centuries; they were simply called research papers.  In addition, you have been preparing to write a synthesis essay your entire life.  The expository essay, which is the default K-12 academic writing format starts with a central theme or idea.  You may even have been asked to provide some type of third-party support for that theme or idea.  A synthesis essay merely takes the process a step further, by requiring extensive support for your theme from a wide variety of sources. 

You may have some initial concerns about this “wide variety of sources,” because we have discovered that, for many students, finding reliable academically valid sources can be the most daunting part of any research project.  However, in many synthesis essays, your professor or instructor will provide you with at least a starter list of resources.  In fact, you may be asked to synthesis a semester’s worth of reading or somehow draw from your class curriculum in your synthesis essay.  Therefore, in many ways, your professor has provided you with the resources you need to write your essay. 

How to write a synthesis essay

The first step to writing a synthesis essay is to read any and all of the sources that you are being asked to synthesize.  This step may seem obvious, but it is one that many students try to skip.  This is understandable because, in a regular argumentative essay, you can make your argument and then find sources to support your statements.  It might not be the best way to approach an argumentative essay, but the odds are high that any college-level student who has done a bunch of writing has approached at least one or two argumentative essays in this way.

Seriously, cite your sources.  Instead of making sweeping, overbroad statements about your sources, find textual support for your positions.  That support can be in the form of a quote, a statistic, an interesting fact, or even a pattern that you notice in one or more of the source texts.  However, you want to make sure to rely on specific evidence that you find in your sources and then cite those sources appropriately in order to provide the type of supporting arguments that you need for a good synthesis essay.

When choosing what sources to use and how to use them, you must keep in mind that, although similar to argumentative essays, synthesis essays cannot be supported in the same manner.  First, you have to realize that your professor is going to be very familiar with any sources that he or she has provided for you to include in the essay.  If you try to pick and choose supporting statements from those sources, you risk really missing the point of a source and revealing that you failed to do the required reading.  In fact, you could argue for something that the sources simply do not support if you fail to read them.  Therefore, you need to carefully read the sources before you begin the essay.

Next, you need to make sure you understand the assignment.  What sources can you use?  A synthesis essay assignment might reference specific sources or allude to your entire class reading list, but it is important for you to know whether you are expected to go beyond the material presented in class.  This is a very critical part of the assignment.  In most research paper contexts, having an additional source is not generally going to be detrimental, especially if the text of your paper supports why you need that additional source.  However, if your synthesis essay assignment specifically directs you to draw on the resources you have studied in your classroom, adding in additional resources could actually result in a failing grade because you are not completing the assignment you were given.  Therefore, if you have any questions about what, exactly, your professor wants to see, ask before you start writing.

Then, you want to consider the main idea or theme of your paper.  What did you take away from the course-material?  This can be a difficult issue to consider because you may have mixed feelings about course material that you covered.  In fact, your sources may even support multiple viewpoints.  That is not a problem; you can acknowledge these conflicts in the text of your paper, which adds to its complexity.  However, you want to be able to take a strong position on an issue and know that the text of your resources is sufficient to back up that position.

Once you have your main idea, you will want to outline your essay.  An outline is a great starting place for any writing assignment, because it helps you organize your ideas into subtopics and, for an argumentative or persuasive essay, helps you determine where you need to support your ideas. 

One pitfall that traps many students is that, instead of using source material to back up their ideas, they summarize the sources, instead.  Remind yourself that your audience has read these resources; they do not need you to provide summaries of the sources.  Instead, what they need you to do is explain how you believe those resources highlight your point of view or perspective.

Synthesis essay format

A synthesis essay does not have a specific format, but you may find yourself relying on that old standby, the five-paragraph essay.  That is because the five-paragraph essay format is ideal for argumentative or persuasive essays.  The five-paragraph essay format actually works for shorter or longer essays, but the classic five paragraph structure is designed to have three main ideas supporting your thesis statement or central idea.

The format for a five-paragraph essay is simple.  First is an introductory paragraph that: 1) introduces your topic; 2) introduces the reasoning you will use in your body paragraphs; and 3) provides your thesis statement.  Next are three body paragraphs, each supporting a reasoning statement you used in your introduction.  Finally, the five paragraph essay concludes with a conclusion that restates the information in your introductory paragraph. The more body paragraphs you add, the greater the support for your idea, and the longer the essay.  Therefore, you can easily expand the five paragraph essay format to several more paragraphs.

Structurally, the synthesis essay is generally going to take the shape of an argumentative or persuasive essay, because you will be arguing a central theme throughout your essay.  That means that the body paragraphs will be used to support your central idea.  However, there are some ways that a synthesis essay deviates from the argumentative essay format.  First, you have to look at your thesis or central idea.  In a normal argumentative essay, your thesis statement can be relatively broad.  However, if you are drawing from limited course material, you want to make that clear in your thesis statement.

For example, let us say that you are taking an introductory Shakespeare survey course and your reading list for that course includes Romeo and Juliet, Hamlet, MacBeth, and Othello.  Using those sources, your professor asks you to write a synthesis essay on Shakespeare’s views of romantic love.  An appropriate central idea would be: Based on a reading of the tragedies Romeo and Juliet, Hamlet, MacBeth, and Othello, William Shakespeare appears to have had a very fatalistic view of romantic love, because love was the root cause of many of his characters’ most self-destructive behaviors.  However, in an argumentative paper, you might not want to be make your central idea: William Shakespeare appears to have had a very fatalistic view of romantic love, because love was the root cause of many of his characters’ most self-destructive behaviors.   That is because, in addition to the aforementioned tragedies, Shakespeare wrote a number of romantic comedies and is very well known for his sonnets that celebrate love.  Therefore, when you are crafting your thesis statement or central idea, you may want to reference the material in your assignment. 

If you are writing from challenging and complex material that can support multiple viewpoints, then you want to be absolutely certain to acknowledge those multiple viewpoints.  In this King of the Hill reference, Bobby has had to take a position on death.  While the cartoon is an exaggeration, it does demonstrate exactly how easy it is to oversimplify a complex issue.  Therefore, we suggest a 2:1 ratio approach to writing about complex topics.  For every two reasons you give that directly support your position, you need to deal with a reason that, at least on its surface, appears not to support your position. 

One of the most common argumentative essay topics that students choose is the death penalty, and it is also a topic that readily melds itself to course material in a wide range of subjects.  If your argument is against the death penalty, then you could address cost as one of your reasons, but do so acknowledging that execution is, facially, a less expensive alternative than life imprisonment:

For many people, the costs of incarcerating a violent murderer seem like a great reason to support the death penalty.  However, in reality, it is actually far more expensive to execute a defendant than it is to pay for life imprisonment.  Almost all death-penalty states have a mandatory appeals process that makes capital punishment prohibitively expensive.  In addition, death row inmates receive different treatment, which may make incarceration costs more expensive. 

As the above paragraph demonstrates, simply because you acknowledge another perspective does not mean that you have to endorse that perspective.  In fact, you should not endorse it.  Instead, you should mention the perspective and then take it apart and show how it does not actually argue against your position.

Synthesis essay outline

The basic structure for a synthesis essay outline is simple and is included below:

  1. Introduction
  1. Support A
  2. Support B
  3. Support C
  4. Support D
  5. Thesis statement
  1. Support A

A. Evidence

B.  Evidence

C.  Evidence

  1. Support B
  1. Evidence
  2. Evidence
  3. Evidence
  1. Support C
  1. Evidence
  2. Evidence
  3. Evidence
  1. Support D
  1. Evidence
  2. Evidence
  3. Evidence
  1. Conclusion
  1. Restate thesis statement
  2. Restate support A
  3. Restate support B
  4. Restate support C
  5. Restate support D

However, we find that many students have difficulties translating a generic outline format to an outline for their paper.  Therefore, we will provide an outline for a synthesis essay based on the Shakespeare synthesis essay we described above.

  1. Introduction
  1. Romeo and Juliet both die
  2. Ophelia commits suicide
  3. MacBeth does terrible things because his wife urges him to do them
  4. Othello kills Desdemona
  5. Based on a reading of the tragedies Romeo and Juliet, Hamlet, MacBeth, and Othello, William Shakespeare appears to have had a very fatalistic view of romantic love, because love was the root cause of many of his characters’ most self-destructive behaviors.
  1. Romeo and Juliet both die

A. Young age

B.  A friar helps them because he believes in love

C.  Their suicide is preceded by a murder

  1. Ophelia commits suicide
  1. Ophelia and Hamlet appear to have had a romantic relationship
  2. Some evidence that Ophelia may have been pregnant because of the reference to abortifactants
  3. Hamlet’s inability to return her affection seems to spur her suicide
  1. MacBeth does horrible things for Lady MacBeth
  1. Banquo
  2. MacDuff’s family
  3. Duncan
  1. Othello kills Desdemona
  1. Othello is unreasonably jealous
  2. Domestic violence makes it clear that Desdemona is in danger, but she stays
  3. Iago appears partially motivated by his belief that he has been cuckolded. 
  1. Conclusion
  1. Restate thesis statement
  2. Restate support A
  3. Restate support B
  4. Restate support C

However, we find that many students have difficulties translating a generic outline format to an outline for their paper.  Therefore, we will provide an outline for a synthesis essay based on the Shakespeare synthesis essay we described above.

  1. Introduction
  1. Support A
  2. Support B
  3. Support C
  4. Support D
  5. Thesis statement
  1. Support A

A. Evidence

B.  Evidence

C.  Evidence

  1. Support B
  1. Evidence
  2. Evidence
  3. Evidence
  1. Support C
  1. Evidence
  2. Evidence
  3. Evidence
  1. Support D
  1. Evidence
  2. Evidence
  3. Evidence
  1. Conclusion
  1. The tragic ending of many characters in Shakespeare’s tragedies, Romeo and Juliet, Hamlet, MacBeth, and Othello, suggest that the Bard had a very negative view of romantic love. 
  2. Romeo and Juliet die
  3. Ophelia dies
  4. MacBeth dies after killing a bunch of people
  5. Desdemona dies

Synthesis essay topics

It is difficult to provide a list of synthesis essay topics without knowing what source material you are using for your essay.  However, because a synthesis essay is an argumentative or persuasive essay, you can feel confident that almost any topic that is well-suited for an argumentative or persuasive essay will work equally well for a synthesis essay, as long as your source material deals with those topics. 

1.  Batman is not really a superhero, but simply a rich man with expensive toys.  This paper would be perfect for a course that studied comic books and the epic hero and would explore why Batman fails to fall into the traditional literary mode of hero or superhero.  Supporting arguments would include (1) Batman’s motivation; (2) Batman’s status as a criminal; and (3) Batman’s lack of superpowers. 

2.  Money can buy happiness.  This would be a great topic in a philosophy or a sociology class that discussed the role of wealth in society.  It makes a great topic because it challenges a maxim that people are told their entire lives.  Three supporting arguments could be that money is linked to: (1) better health; (2) better education; and (3) less financial stress. 

3.  Same-sex marriage should be legal.  A civil rights course may provide readings that show the evolution of civil rights for African Americans and the pivotal role that Loving v. Virginia played in the evolution of those rights. 

4.  Gun control.  This is a hot-button political topic, which can make it tempting to turn a persuasive essay into an argumentative essay.  However, given how prevalent violence is in literature and in the study of almost all of the humanities, it is a topic that you may encounter in a number of different contexts.  If your instructor asks you to write about gun control based on class readings, you can be fairly certain the material will support either perspective, so be certain to acknowledge counter-arguments to your position.

5.  Drug legalization.  Your essay could focus on marijuana, which is becoming legal for medical and recreational use in a number of jurisdictions, or it could discuss all drugs.  You could take a pro-legalization position or argue against legalization.  However, because many students have intense personal feelings about this topic, it is important to make sure that you are substantiating your position with evidence pulled from the reading.  

6.  Abstinence only sex-education.  While abstinence-based sex education is correlated with increased teen pregnancy and STD rates, it is also correlated with a delay in first sexual activity.  A nuanced essay would draw on both sides of the argument to support the position. 

Synthesis essay examples

Sometimes, the best way to learn how to do something is to see it done properly.  That is why we are providing links to synthesis essay examples, which are based on the types of synthesis essays one is likely to encounter in a traditional undergraduate course of study.  However, it is critical for you to keep in mind that the synthesis essay is often written in the exact same style and format as an argumentative or persuasive essay.  In fact, we may have an argumentative or persuasive essay example available for a specific topic.  Therefore, if you read the synthesis essay examples, but find it difficult to translate them into helpful tips for your specific topic, please check our library of argumentative and persuasive essay samples. 

Sample Synthesis Essay #1

Sample Synthesis Essay #2

Conclusion

Now that you know what a synthesis essay is and how to tackle it, we hope you are ready to write an amazing essay.  However, being a group of writers, we know that sometimes you can be motivated to write and even have ideas you want to write about, and still find yourself struggling with writer’s block.  Writer’s block, while unnerving, is manageable when you have plenty of time until your deadline, but the closer your deadline gets, the more frustrating it can be.  If you are struggling to write your synthesis essay, please check out our custom example essay program.  With this program, we can create custom narrative essays that match your exact specifications and incorporate the texts that your professor has specified for your synthesis essay.  The result is a blueprint you can use to help you surmount your writer’s block!  From generating topic ideas to working with you one-on-one to create a custom synthesis essay example for you to use as a template for your own writing, we can provide all of the help you need to write an A+ essay for your assignment.


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