You may have written a few synthesis essays in your English classes, but knowing how to synthesize information has value far beyond your Dracula essay.
This skill is used in countless areas—from history to science—and can come in handy in both professional and personal settings.
While we may still talk about essays a little bit here, I’m going to show you how to synthesize information in a way that you can apply in a range of areas.
What Synthesizing Is: Finding the Common Thread
All too often, I hear that to synthesize information means to compile information. However, that’s not a very good definition because it makes synthesizing too similar to summarizing. While the ideas may seem similar, synthesizing actually takes summarizing a step further.
Synthesis involves taking information from various sources and drawing links between them. Summarizing and paraphrasing the information is the first step, but you need to be able to see—and explain—what unifies it.
It takes a lot of skill to synthesize. It draws on the following skills:
- Reading comprehension
- The ability to communicate your ideas
Because of all that’s involved, it can take some time and practice for it to feel natural. But once you start getting into synthesis for your essays, it gets much easier to do it in other areas.
I know this all sounds kind of ambiguous right now, so let’s give the ideas above some more context.
How to Synthesize for School
Synthesizing information in English/literature essays
In high school, many of the essays you write will be for English classes. And even if you’re not specifically writing a synthesis essay, that doesn’t mean you can’t, or shouldn’t, use your synthesis skills.
Let’s get into some examples.
Say you’re writing an essay analyzing the symbolism of Yorrick’s skull in Hamlet. You can draw on your personal knowledge of the material and of symbolism in general to conclude that the skull is a symbol of death.
However, if you read other critiques of Hamlet (and there are countless critiques out there), you may find other meanings, such as Hamlet’s destiny, or that no matter how useful, kind, funny, or charismatic a person may be in life, death and decay make the dead person useless.
Once you see common threads in multiple sources, your mind starts piecing the information together, and you can form your own opinion. All you need to do then is share that opinion in a clear, cohesive way supported by evidence.
It’s important to note that, if you’re using other people’s ideas as evidence for your own, you should always cite your sources using whatever style guide your prof requires, such as APA or MLA format.
Synthesizing information in humanities/social sciences papers
The social sciences—such as history, anthropology, sociology, and philosophy—rely heavily on synthesis. There are a lot of arguments in these fields, so you have a lot of evidence to draw upon no matter what your opinion.
For example, I once wrote an essay about Louis Armstrong and whether he used his music as a subversive force to shake up the status quo and get black musicians (and black people in general) the respect they deserve. There were many historians who believed he was “playing the minstrel” and acting on stereotypes.
However, others believed that, while he played up some stereotypes to get white audiences to let their guard down, his lyrics and personal philosophies were subversive.
I had personal biases going into the essay because Louis is one of my favorite musicians. But I kept an open mind and read many secondary sources on the subject. I then found primary sources of his music, as well as interviews and voice recordings from his personal life. I sorted through the information to pick out themes and commonalities. My opinion was formed because of the evidence, not because of my bias.
Once I had the information organized, I could use the evidence I found from some of the sources to make my case.
When you do this on your own, you may feel the urge to just write down all the information you found. But that is not synthesis. Instead, explain your argument, and use the most compelling evidence you found to support it.
You should also consider referencing sources you don’t agree with. Perhaps you could say something like, “While Smith argued x, this other evidence suggests y.” This method shows that you truly understand the point you’re arguing and that you’ve considered all angles.
Writing a literature review (in any subject)? Synthesis will be ultra important in that process as well.
Other Areas Synthesis Skills Will Help
Synthesizing information in your professional life
There are so many professions that it’s hard to tell you exactly how to synthesize information in your future job. But let’s look at a couple different professions anyway.
I’ve worked as a digital marketing analyst, which was almost always synthesizing information. I looked at raw data to analyze trends. But simply finding the trends wasn’t enough. I also had to draw on information from other accounts and on industry knowledge of how digital marketing worked.
After synthesizing the data, other account information, and industry expertise, I was able to make changes and recommendations to help my clients perform their best.
Let’s say you take a completely different route and choose not to work in an office setting. If you were a restaurant owner, you’d still have to know how to synthesize information.
For instance, if you wanted to add a dish to your menu, you’d first have to know what people in your area like to eat. But you’d also need to know about trends in the restaurant industry, the cost/availability of ingredients, the amount of time it would take to make the dish, and your employees’ specific talents.
You wouldn’t come up with the new menu item before you had all of this information. Instead, you might have a general idea of a dish, but you would synthesize this information, balancing the price of ingredients with the demand from your customers, and knowing whether your staff had the time, knowledge, and resources to make it.
Synthesizing information in your personal life
Knowing how to synthesize information is actually something most people do without thinking about it. We do it all the time in our personal lives.
If you’re planning a vacation but don’t know where to go, you’d ask family and friends for ideas, look at information about different destinations, check out airfare and lodging options, etc. Then you’d use those synthesis muscles to pick out the perfect spot for your interests and budget.
Weaving It All Together
As you can see, the synthesis skills you learn in school can help you in virtually any aspect of life. While there’s no fool-proof way to synthesize every situation, here are the basic steps:
- Pull your resources. Think back to the primary and secondary sources mentioned earlier. Make sure sources are credible and relevant to the topic.
- Read, watch, and/or listen to the information you find. It helps to highlight or take notes, so you can find the important parts later.
- Organize information into groups of similar ideas. I find using color-coding systems works best. But you may find lists, graphic organizers, or other organizational methods to be the thing for you.
- Analyze information based on the evidence. Not all information is going to say the same thing. Which articles make the most sense based on what you know? Which speakers make the most compelling arguments?
- Form an opinion based on your analysis. Where does the evidence point? Are there any biases that may be altering your opinion? If so, try to filter those out.
- State your opinion, and back it up with the evidence. An opinion without evidence is fine in some situations, but if you’re trying to persuade someone or argue a point, you better be able to back up what you’re saying.
Learning how to synthesize information can help you write better essays. But it goes beyond that—it helps you stay skeptical, evaluate multiple points of view, build stronger arguments, and be more well-informed.
While the editors at Kibin can’t help you synthesize information in your day-to-day life, they can help you take the first step and do it in your essays. Whether you think you don’t have enough evidence or you’re just looking for proofreading to help your opinions shine, Kibin editors are there to help.