Swamped With Sources? Tips for Synthesis

Accurate representation of me drowning in sources

After looking at the midterm essay prompt for my French class, I was immediately overwhelmed by the amount of readings I would have to review and analyze. Dozens of articles, books, and excerpts loomed on the syllabus, and I had no idea where to begin. I often run into this problem. Synthesis is a meaningful combination of several sources, and can be difficult to do when everything seems important. The pressure to come up with a unifying and relevant thesis makes these initial stages of finding information even more stressful. Having experienced this struggle several times, I’ve come up with a few ways to organize sources that will hopefully be useful in the writing process!

Writing begins with a research question. That question might come from a given prompt, or from a personal interest. Either way, it provides a loose focus that will help eliminate irrelevant information when you’re reviewing and searching for sources. To speed up this process, make sure that if you’re reviewing sources you’ve already read in the semester, you’re just reviewing and not re-reading! You’ve already done the brunt of the work: simply skim through the readings to select ideas and passages that relate to your research question. Also, don’t feel pressured to use every source you’ve skimmed. Ultimately sources should function to bolster your own conclusions, so instead of crowding your paper with them, further analyze the ones most relevant to your research focus.

I’m a huge fan of bullet points. As you read, keep a list of the main ideas of each work so you have a convenient summary to refer to. This becomes useful in the next step: analysis. Look for patterns in your list of ideas. How are authors in conversation with one another, and how does this conversation complicate your research question? I’ve found that a good amount of analysis is done in class as professors prompt us to discuss themes across several readings; use these notes to uncover arguments.

Synthesis is a complicated part of the writing process, and one that is crucial to a comprehensive argument. In my experience, I benefit from starting out with a loose focus and gradually organizing myself when reading. Even more helpful might be making an appointment with the Writing Center if you’re especially stuck. While midterm essays are never a walk in the park, this certainly made my French paper less daunting.

— Elise Freeman, Social Sciences Correspondent