52 Synthesizing Sources

Phil West and Christina Frasier


Learning Objectives

  • Identify what synthesis is and how synthesizing quotes differs from summarizing quotes
  • Recognize ways synthesis might be incorporated into college writing and on-the-job writing

Finding good evidence to use as quotes and paraphrases for your papers is essential to college writing, and it’s also a skill that translates to writing you might do in your career. The level of research you’ll need to do will depend on the rhetorical situation you’re in, but you’ll typically need to consult more than one source, and you’ll need to think about how those different sources compare to one another–and how the interact with one another in the text of your paper.

For instance, one source might be extremely knowledgable about the whole topic. Another might be focused on one aspect of a topic, and provide detailed information on that. Another might have a great deal of knowledge, but might be biased and advocating for a cause rather than just giving general information on the topic. Research is not just about knowing the what in the text, it’s about uncovering the how and the why.

The difference between summary and synthesis

When you’re sharing evidence from sources with your audience, the most basic and straightforward way to do so is through summary. You might have learned to do this even before getting to college: You take one source and highlight what’s important, and if you’re working with two or more sources, you present them one at a time, ideally in separate paragraphs to help your reader know which is which.

But there’s a more sophisticated approach that allows you to do more with the quotes you gather—synthesis.

In its basic definition, synthesis is combining two or more sources in the same paragraph. But in college writing, it’s more than just finding quotes from different sources to add to a paragraph. Each body paragraph in your paper should have a specific focus—an aspect of your topic, a central idea or a shared group of ideas. Synthesis allows you to use quotes from different sources that have a theme or aspect or idea in common, and as you introduce your quotes and then show how they fit into your paper–the context surrounding your quote or paraphrase can give the reader needed context.


Let’s say you’re writing a paper about electric vehicles. Source A talks about the challenge of making them affordable for consumers. Source B elaborates on how one company worked to bring the cost down and create an option priced for a wide range of drivers. And then let’s say, in the next paragraph, on building an infrastructure of charging stations, Source A has some material that will work to support that paragraph, and while Source B doesn’t. Source C does, so you use evidence from Sources A and C to build that paragraph.


The University of Arizona Global Campus Writing Center differentiates summaries from quotes: “In a summary, you share the key points from an individual source and then move on and summarize another source. In synthesis, you need to combine the information from those multiple sources and add your own analysis of the literature. This means that each of your paragraphs will include multiple sources and citations, as well as your own ideas and voice.”

Think about being at a party. You mingle with different people, hear a wide range of things from many characters, but when you’re relaying a story about that party, you’re actively synthesizing it, sharing the best quotes from the best people you met to convey how fun it is—or maybe the worst quotes from the worst people if you had a terrible time!

The synthesis matrix

The same writing center also suggests using a synthesis matrix to help organize a paper using synthesis. As they describe it, “the sources are listed in the left column of the table, and the main ideas or themes about the topic are listed along the top of the table.”


Below is a synthesis matrix for the above example:
Point 1–affordability Point 2–infrastructure
Source 1 X X

Source 2


Source 3 X


To build out the matrix, students can list their sources (author name and year) in the Sources column. Then, on the top row, list the main ideas, points, or themes identified you will be focusing on in each paragraph. This allows you to map which sources cover which general areas that might apply to your argument. If you’ve already selected specific quotes you think you can use, you should either place them into the appropriate places in your draft, or otherwise organize them in a way you can grab them once you’re ready.


University of Arizona Global Writing Center, “Synthesis.” University of Arizona Global Writing Center, https://writingcenter.uagc.edu/synthesis. A


University of Arizona Global Writing Center, “Synthesis Matrix.” University of Arizona Global Writing Center, https://writingcenter.uagc.edu/synthesis-matrix.





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From College to Career: A Handbook for Student Writers Copyright © by Phil West and Christina Frasier is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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