5.2: Moving from Summary to Synthesis
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Synthesis as Conversation
To synthesize is to combine ideas and create a completely new idea. That new idea becomes the conclusion you have drawn from your reading. This is the true beauty of reading: it causes us to weigh ideas, to compare, judge, think, and explore—and then to arrive at a moment that we hadn’t known before. We begin with simple summary, work through analysis, evaluate using critique, and then move on to synthesis.
How do you synthesize?
Synthesis is defined above, but how do you do it? It’s common skill we practice all the time when we converse with others about topics we have different levels of knowledge and feeling about. When you argue with your friends or classmates about a controversial topic like abortion or affirmative action or gun control, your overall understanding of the topic grows as you incorporate their ideas, experiences, and points of view into a broader appreciation of the complexities involved. In professional and academic writing, synthesizing requires you to seek out this kind of multi-leveled understanding through reading, research, and discussion.
What synthesis is NOT
Synthesizing does not mean summarizing everyone’s opinion: “Julia is pro-life, and Devon is pro-choice, and Jasmine says she thinks women should be able to have abortions if their life is in danger or they’ve been the victims of rape or incest.”
Synthesizing does not mean critiquing opinions: “Rick tried to defend affirmative action, but everyone knows it’s really reverse racism.”
What synthesis is
Instead, synthesis demonstrates YOUR full, objective, empathetic understanding of a topic from multiple perspectives. When you synthesize, you “cook” the ideas and opinions of others by thinking, talking, and writing about them, and what comes out is a dish full of many blended flavors but uniquely your recipe: “Because feelings about gun control are so strong on all sides, and because outlawing semi-automatic weapons will not solve the problem of illegal handguns that are implicated in most gun crimes in the United States, any solution to the problem of our gun violence will likely require greater efforts to reduce illegal weapons, greater responsibility taken by gun manufacturers, and better enforcement of existing legislation rather than new legislation or constitutional change.”
Notice that this synthesis does not crouch behind limited and thoughtless positions: “You can’t change the Second Amendment!” “Ban all guns!” This synthesis instead tries to depict hard reality: guns are an integral part of American culture, and so is gun violence, and limiting the latter can’t be done without impacting the former. This synthesis reserves judgment and aims for understanding.
The next section, 5.3, “Synthesizing in Your Writing,” gives you concrete examples of how to use synthesis to support your individual interpretation of a topic.
For a more in-depth explanation of what synthesis writing is, what its goals are and how you can approach synthesis, visit the Writing Commons article “Identifying a Conversation”
Synthesis as Writing Genre
Why do we seek to understand the ways that authors or sources “converse” with one another? So that we can synthesize various perspectives on a topic to more deeply understand it.
In academic writing, this understanding of the “conversation” may become the content of an explanatory synthesis paper – a paper in which you, the writer, point out various various themes or key points from a conversation on a particular topic. Notice that the example of synthesis in “What Synthesis Is” acknowledges that guns and gun control inspire passionate responses in Americans, that more than one kind of weapon is involved in gun violence, that guns in America are both legally and illegally owned, and that there are many constitutencies whose experience with guns needs to considered if sound gun-control policy is to be achieved. The writer of this synthesis isn’t “pretending” to be objective (“Although gun violence is a problem in American today, people who want to increase gun control clearly don’t understand the Second Amendment”); nor is the writer arguing a point or attempting to persuade the audience to accept one perspective. The writer is making a claim about gun control that demonstrates his or her deepest understanding of the issue.
Or, another assignment that you may complete in college is a literature review, which applies your synthesis skills. Literature reviews are often found in the beginning of scholarly journal articles. Literature reviews synthesize previous research that has been done on a particular topic, summarizing important works in the history of research on that topic.
- Literature reviews can be arranged by topic or theme, much like a traditional explanatory synthesis paper.
- Literature reviews can also be arranged chronologically, according to various time periods of research on a topic (i.e., what was published ten years ago, five years ago, and within the last year, for example).
- Finally, literature reviews can be arranged by discipline or field (i.e., what is the current research being done by biologists on this topic? What is the current research being done by psychologists on this topic? What is the current research being done by [insert academic discipline] on this topic?).
A Literature Review offers only a report on what others have already written about. The Literature Review does not reflect the author’s own argument or contributions to the field of research. Instead, it indicates that the author has read others’ important contributions and understands what has come before him or her.
The Literature Review provides context for the author’s own new research. It is the basis and background out of which the author’s research grows. Context = credibility in academic writing. When authors have broad Literature Review, they demonstrate their credibility as researchers.
5.2 Moving from Summary to Synthesis by Yvonne Bruce and Melanie Gagich is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.