Introduction

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?

Simply Put—It’s a Research Paper

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.  So let’s get into it a bit more, shall we?

Less Simply Put—It’s Actually Very Different from a Research Paper

A synthesis essay and a research paper are both significant components of academic writing that serve to explore and analyze topics within different fields of study. However, they differ in purpose, structure, and methodology. Understanding these differences is important for students if they want to address appropriately their writing assignments.

Synthesis Essay vs. Research Paper

Purpose

Synthesis Essay: The primary goal of a synthesis essay is to draw connections between different parts (sources, ideas, themes) to effectively support a thesis or argument. It involves combining information from multiple sources to present a cohesive understanding or a new perspective on a topic. Synthesis essays are often used to examine complexities within a subject, and to promote critical thinking and depth of understanding.

Research Paper: A research paper’s aim is to provide an in-depth analysis of a topic through the lens of original research. This may include presenting findings from experiments, surveys, or extensive study of primary and secondary sources. The focus is on contributing new knowledge or insights to the field of study, often involving detailed methodology, data analysis, and discussion of implications.

Structure

Synthesis Essay: The structure of a synthesis essay typically includes an introduction that presents the topic and thesis, followed by body paragraphs that integrate sources to support the thesis. Each paragraph may address different aspects of the topic (themes) or different viewpoints, with the writer synthesizing the information to argue for their thesis. A conclusion then summarizes the synthesis and reinforces the main argument.

Research Paper: Research papers follow a more rigid structure, often including an abstract, introduction, literature review, methodology, results, discussion, and conclusion. This format is designed to present research findings systematically, providing clear evidence and reasoning for the conclusions drawn. The methodology section is crucial, detailing how the research was conducted to allow for reproducibility and scrutiny.

Methodology

Synthesis Essay: Synthesis essays require the writer to engage in critical thinking to integrate various sources and to organize it thematically. The sources must be carefully selected, analyzed, and related back to the thesis. The writer’s analysis and interpretation are central to creating a narrative that binds the sources together.

Research Paper: The methodology in a research paper is foundational to its credibility. It involves detailed planning and execution of research, including selecting appropriate methods for data collection and analysis. The process is documented meticulously to validate the findings and allow others in the field to examine the work critically or replicate the study.

Objectives

Synthesis Essay: The synthesis essay encourages exploration and integration of ideas to present a comprehensive and coherent view on a topic. It’s subjective to some extent, allowing the writer’s voice and interpretation to guide the narrative.

Research Paper: In contrast, a research paper seeks to objectively report findings from systematic research. It emphasizes the discovery of new knowledge or understanding that can be shared with the academic community.

Definition

Okay, so with that said—just what is a synthesis essay?

A synthesis essay is an academic composition that articulates a central idea, theme, or topic and substantiates it with evidence gathered from multiple sources. This type of essay transcends mere summary by requiring the writer to draw connections and synthesize information across different texts, thereby creating a cohesive and persuasive argument.

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Distinctions Between Types of Synthesis Essays

It’s important to differentiate between the two main types of synthesis essays: explanatory and argumentative. Explanatory synthesis essays aim to elucidate a subject matter without taking a stance, focusing on presenting facts and background information to enhance understanding. Conversely, argumentative synthesis essays require the writer to advocate for a specific viewpoint, supported by carefully selected evidence from multiple sources.

Examples Across Disciplines

Synthesis essays can be written in virtually any field and across a wide array of subjects.

  • For instance, in a literature class, a synthesis essay might explore themes of isolation across different novels.
  • In a science course, it could compare various theories on climate change.
  • In a history class, a synthesis essay could examine the different factors leading to a major historical event, such as the French Revolution, integrating perspectives from political, economic, and social angles to offer a multifaceted understanding.
  • In psychology, a student might write a synthesis essay comparing various approaches to cognitive therapy and their effectiveness in treating depression, drawing from clinical studies, theoretical frameworks, and patient testimonials.
  • In the field of art history, a synthesis essay could explore the evolution of painting styles from the Renaissance to modern art, analyzing how historical contexts influenced artistic expressions.
  • Or, in environmental studies, a synthesis essay could assess the impact of urban development on natural habitats, synthesizing data from environmental science, urban planning, and ecology to highlight the complex interactions between human activities and environmental sustainability.

These examples highlight the essay’s adaptability to different fields of study and illustrate its utility in promoting critical thinking and analytical skills across disciplines.

Nuanced Techniques for Source Integration

Effective synthesis writing involves more than just summarizing source material; it requires analytical skills to integrate sources in a way that supports the essay’s thesis while supporting the writer’s unique perspective. Techniques such as identifying common themes, contrasting viewpoints, and evaluating the credibility of sources are essential. Additionally, weaving together information from various texts to build a coherent argument demonstrates advanced writing proficiency and critical thinking.

Concerns Students May Have

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

Step 1:  Read Source Material

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.

Step 2: Cite Sources as You Go

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.

How to Find Sources for a 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. Then, 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.

Step 3:  Thematically Organize Sources

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.

Step 4:  Outline

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.

Tip:  Don’t Summarize—Synthesize

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.

  1. 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.
  2. Next are three body paragraphs, each supporting a reasoning statement you used in your introduction.
  3. Finally, the five paragraph essay concludes with a conclusion that restates the information in your introductory paragraph.
  4. 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 JulietHamletMacBeth, 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 JulietHamletMacBeth, 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 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.