Synthesizing means comparing different material and highlighting similarities, differences, and connections.  When a writer synthesizes successfully, he or she presents new ideas based on interpretations of other evidence or arguments.  Critical reading and critical thinking are key components of successful synthesizing.

Summary: The First Step

Summary is a useful first step in writing with sources, but it is not the same as synthesis.  When you summarize a source, you articulate its basic argument and essential points.  You may even begin to evaluate it--asking yourself whether its argument is logically sound, or whether the evidence is broad or persuasive enough.  Here is an example of a clear and succinct summary:

Jones (2010) argues that electronic medical records (EMRs) make care for patients more reliable and thorough.  The study cites many instances of medication mismanagement and lack of treatment records that could have been avoided with consistently applied EMRs (Jones, 2010).  The evidence in the article is persuasive, but Jones does not address the training and implementation costs of such systems.

In this excerpt, the student clearly explains the source's argument (that EMRs increase quality of care) and its evidence (the inconsistent level of care associated with analog records).  She even gives an evaluation of the text and begins to put its ideas into a broader context ("the training and implementation costs of such systems").  However, this paragraph still mainly contains summary.  This student needs to bring in other sources and begin to let her ideas build on top of the summary. 

Adding the Context

Adding context (in the form of more analysis and evidence) will help a student move from summary to synthesis.  Think about it--we all understand information as it relates to other information.  Because studies do not exist in a vacuum, it is important to bring other texts into the picture and begin drawing connections.  Imagine the student who wrote the previous paragraph went to the library and found several more sources, then wrote the following paragraph:

Jones (2010) argues that electronic medical records (EMRs) make care for patients more reliable and thorough.  The study cites many instances of medication mismanagement and lack of treatment records that could have been avoided with consistently applied EMRs (Jones, 2010).  Bond (2012) found that patients prefer the portability of information EMRs provide.  Baker (2012) found that chronic inebriates were more likely to seek care from facilities with EMRs.  Roberts (2012) argued that although training and implementation costs for these systems are considerable, patients with chronic illnesses prefer EMRs.

This student has found many new sources that related to her topic, but notice how she is still mainly summarizing.  She articulates the main point of each source, but that is all she does.  She is not yet drawing connections or highlighting the similarities or contradictions between the information.  Notice also that she presents the ideas in a list--each author is fully addressed before she moves on.  But is that the most productive way to structure this paragraph?

Starting the Conversation

In the Writing Center, we use the example of the dinner party to teach students about synthesis.  Say you invite eight friends to your house for dinner.  Do they each take turns standing up and giving a short lecture while everyone else listens?  Or does everyone participate in the conversation, which is organized around topics?  If your dinner parties are like ours, it is the second choice that will sound familiar.  Synthesis is just like that--it is organized by idea, not by text or writer.  Just as some dinner guests will have more to say than others, some texts might be cited more frequently or discussed at more length.

Take a look at another example:

Electronic medical records (EMRs) are becoming a standard technology for many urgent care centers, and for good reason.  Evidence shows that EMRs make care for patients more reliable and thorough (Jones, 2010) and that patients prefer the portability of information these systems provide (Bond, 2012).  Furthermore, preliminary studies (Baker, 2012; Roberts, 2012) indicate certain at-risk populations may be more likely to seek care if they can access information and communicate with their provider virtually.  Although the training and implementation costs of these systems are considerable (Roberts, 2012), the benefits clearly justify the investment.

Now we can see two main components of successful synthesis: evidence of the student's own ideas, and a well-organized presentation of evidence.  Notice here that the student's arguments and analysis are emphasized (in the first and last sentences especially), and the evidence and citations work to back up those arguments.  Note also the natural placement of source information--it's not just a list of sources the student has found, but an integrated whole.  These sources are in conversation!

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