What Does It Mean to Synthesize for Writing Assignments?

synthesis writing

Synthesis Writing – What It Means and How to Do it!

Have you been asked to synthesize material for a writing assignment? Are you taking a college course where your instructor doesn’t want you to use quotes but instead, write in your own words?

If the answer is yes, you’ve come to the right place. This post is all about that word “synthesize” with a specific focus on essay based writing for college students.

On this page, you will learn:

  • The definition of synthesis
  • What synthesis means in the context of writing assignments.
  • How synthesizing looks in essays.
  • How to synthesize the material you are reading and apply to your paper.
  • See an example college essay written entirely through synthesis.
  • Additional writing tips to help you earn the highest possible score on college papers.

You may be wondering what qualifies me to author this piece? It’s simple – I’m a college professor who has been teaching business and psychology courses at for almost twenty years. In my work, I evaluate writing submitted by students and assignment a grade.

So the bottom line is this: I know exactly what your professor is looking for when ask you to synthesize.  I require the same approach to writing for my learners.

OK – now that we’ve gotten that out of the way, let’s jump right in.

What does synthesis or synthesize mean?

Synthesis is a ten-dollar word to describe the combination of two or more ideas or concepts into your writing using your own words.

Think of this as a way of bringing together different themes that you observe from your reading material and then writing about it in your own voice.

Example of synthesis in everyday life

If a friend asked you to explain the similarities and differences between Star Trek and Star Wars, how would you respond?

Whatever your answer might be, you will be synthesizing.

Here is how I might answer that question in casual conversation.

Star Trek is similar to Star Wars in that both take place in the future and presented as science fiction. Additionally, both draw upon age-old concepts of a shared journey.  

But the two shows differ in that Star Trek is heavily focused on exploration. Star Wars, on the other hand, is all about survival.

See how this works? Simple, huh?

Notice how I talked about both shows without quoting anyone else. In addition, did you see how I pulled in other material I knew about (“age-old concepts”) as part of the dynamic?

Folks, I promise you synthesis is not complicated. The problem is college educators, like English professors and business instructors, don’t take the time to explain what this term means or how it works.

In fact, the very reason I am blogging about this topic is that there’s not a lot of useful resources on the web that explains – with examples – how synthesis looks.

Most sites engage in babble and use a bunch of fancy words that don’t get to the heart of what you are looking for.

What does synthesis mean when I write essays?

When your professor or teacher asks you to write an essay and synthesize, here is what they are really saying to you:

  • Discuss your understanding of the material in your own words.
  • Demonstrate your knowledge of key concepts in your own words.
  • Apply that knowledge to your writing in your own words.

As you will see, the “in your own words” is critical. To help draw a mental picture, let’s have a little fun and go camping.

Campfire Analogy

I’d like you to imagine that we are sitting around a campfire with your fellow classmates, roasting marshmallows.

As you take in the smell of burning wood and watch golden ambers float into the air, one of your classmates asks the group a question.

I wonder where marshmallows come from?”

Let’s assume you know the answer to this question. How would you respond?

Would you quote, verbatim, the words of someone else or would you simply start talking about your knowledge of marshmallows?

Hopefully, the answer to that question is the later. In other words, you might say something like:

Marshmallows are kind of amazing. They have been with us for nearly 2000 years, dating back to the early Egyptians.

Believe it or not, they are made from a combination of sap from the mallow plant – plus egg whites and a little sugar. They even make them in different colors, thanks to dyes. How cool is that?

Notice how you gave that answer is a very conversational way?

While you may not have recognized it, you were synthesizing!

Just for the sake of demonstration, here’s how you wouldn’t answer that question:

According to the Encyclopedia, “Marshmallows are a sugar-based confectionery that in its modern form typically consists of sugar, water and gelatin whipped to a squishy consistency, molded into small cylindrical pieces, and coated with corn starch. Additives may be included to change the color-scheme”

The reasons you wouldn’t answer it this way is because:

1)  Nobody talks like that unless they are an android.

2) Quoting doesn’t demonstrate you really know the answer. All it shows is that somebody else knows the answer and you don’t.

My point is this  – Your professor will be grading you on your ability to explain different concepts in your own words.

That’s synthesis.

Let’s look at another example but this time, something more complex. Again, I’d like you to pretend we are all sitting around the campfire.

As your fellow students gossip about the latest rumors, somebody points to the sky and shouts, “Holy crap – look, it’s a shooting star!”

Suddenly you gaze towards the heavens. Your eye catches a fast-moving white light racing from east to west. Seconds later, it’s gone.

Excited, everyone starts talking about where comets come from and if they present a risk to earth. Mesmerized by the conversation, you find yourself sucked in.

That’s when somebody asks:

“Do you think an asteroid killed the dinosaurs?”

Based on your knowledge of this topic, how might you respond? Well, assuming you knew the answer, you might say something like:

A lot of people say that the dinosaurs were killed off by a huge asteroid, which blocked the sun and triggered a mass extinction event.

The problem is not everyone agrees.

There are some scientists who believe the dinosaurs died off because of massive volcanic eruptions, which made the air unbeathable. 

What you just read above is an example of synthesis. In your own words, you explained two theories in a straightforward, easy to understand way.

Not so difficult, is it?

synthesis in writing
What synthesis looks like in writing

How does synthesis look in a writing assignment?

Now that you’ve grasped the basics, let’s look at an example for a writing assignment.

Pretend your instructor gives you this as homework.

Assignment Directions:

Define Freud’s theory of denial. Discuss what denial is used for. Apply denial to a hypothetical situation. Write out your thoughts about denial by answering the question: Do you believe denial serves a purpose?

Right off the top, the first thing you’ll want to do is underline the action words in the directions.

– Define

– Discuss

– Apply

Once you’ve done this, it’s time to formulate a reply using synthesis. Here’s what you might write:

Example:

Sigmund Freud is considered the father of modern psychotherapy and one of the most important contributors to the field of psychology.

As part of his extensive body of work, he postulated that human beings use various kinds of defense mechanisms as tools for coping with unpleasant life situations (Smith, 2017).

One of those defense mechanisms is called denial.

In Freudian psychology, denial simply means that a person is unable to acknowledge something negative.

For example, a college student named Ed gets caught plagiarizing on an essay. As a result, he fails the course and is told by student services that his scholarship will be canceled.

To deal with the bad news, Ed pretends everything is fine. He even registers for new courses as part of his degree program.

But the reality of his situation sets in days later.

That’s when Ed receives an email from the registrar informing him that he must use a credit card to pay for his classes. Additionally, the email states that because of plagiarism, his scholarship is no longer active.

Suddenly, he starts to feel deep shame, particularly when it dawns on him that he’ll have to beg his parents for money. 

In short, denial acts as a kind of subconscious shield against psychological or emotional trauma. Sometimes, the shield is short term.

Other times, it can be extended for many years (Davis, 2018). Much depends on the person, the events, and the individual’s life history.

In the narrow sense, I believe denial allows a person to get through the present moment. The problem, however, occurs when denial is left unchecked and doesn’t allow space for the person to take responsibility for their actions.

Notice how I wrote the response. Using the action words from the directions, I synthesized material from various sources and applied it to my writing.

That’s called synthesizing.

By writing in your own voice, you demonstrate to your instructor that:

  • You can define a topic
  • You can discuss a concept coherently.
  • You can apply the construct to a hypothetical situation.
  • You can pull together different theories.

Synthesizing is not the same summarizing

I am often asked if synthesis is the same as summarizing. The answer to that question is a solid no.

When you are asked to summarize, your instructor is requesting that you break down the major highlights of a theory, case study, concept or news story.

Here’s an example of summarizing, using Freud’s theory of denial.

Freud believed that people employ denial as a shield against emotional or psychological trauma.

All I’ve done with the above example is provided a quick snapshot about Freud’s theory. In short, I’m reiterating a main point.

With synthesis, I’m pulling on different areas to create a meaningful answer. I’m also expanding the conversation with different ideas.

Additional tips when asked to synthesize

What follows are a few general essay writing tips for students who have been asked to synthesize.

  • Underline all action words in the directions.
  • Use those action words as a guide for what you will write.
  • Never start your essay off with a quote.
  • Unless absolutely necessary, don’t use quotes at all.
  • NEVER copy and paste from the web and try to pass it off as your writing. With today’s plagiarism technology, there’s a good chance you will get busted.
  • Write your essays in a conversational tone. This will help you to synthesize, much like the campfire examples mentioned earlier.
  • When referencing the work of others, speak in your own voice and then cite at the end of the sentence.
  • Break up paragraphs to help with flow
  • Ask your professor if you can write in the first person.
  • Expand on the topic you have been asked to write about and go beyond simply answering the essay question.

Example essay using synthesis

Because I understand it helps to see real life examples, I’m sharing an essay with you that I wrote using synthesis. Notice that I never quote in this document.

Instead, I speak in my own voice (third person) and cite where necessary.

By the way, I don’t pretend to be the perfect writer. Use the downloadable PDF below as an example of what synthesizing looks like.

Click for Example Synthesis Writing Essay

Questions about synthesis?

Are you struggling with writing in synthesis? Share your questions below and let others respond.

About John D. Moore 346 Articles
Dr. John Moore is a licensed counselor and Editor-in-Chief of Guy Counseling. A journalist and blogger, he writes about a variety of topics related to wellness. His interests include technology, outdoor activities, science, and men's health. Check out his show --> The Men's Self Help Podcast