Synthesis notes are a strategy for taking and using reading notes that bring together—synthesize—what we read with our thoughts about our topic in a way that lets us integrate our notes seamlessly into the process of writing a first draft. Six steps will take us from reading sources to a first draft.   

When we read, it is easy to take notes that don’t help us build our own arguments when we move from note-taking to writing. In high school, most of us learned to take notes that summarize readings. Summarizing works well when the purpose of our notes is to help us memorize information quickly for a test. When we read in preparation for writing a research-supported argument, however, summarizing is inefficient because our notes don’t reflect how our sources fit into our argument. We have to return to our sources and try to recall why and how we saw them contribute to our thinking.

When you synthesize your research, part of what you’re doing is deciding how much you accept, question, or reject the claims that your sources make—in other words, you’re finding your position in an ongoing conversation. When you start to write about that research, you need to figure out how to show that position, even as you quote, summarize, or paraphrase from your sources.

Use a variety of invention strategies to stimulate your creative abilities.

Many people do not perceive themselves as creative. They reserve the terms "creative" or "innovative" for people who write literature, create art work, invent products, or lead scientific breakthroughs. People who develop new theories, products, and ideas certainly deserve to be called "creative" or"innovative," yet the vast majority of us can be creative, too.

Our insights, ideas, products, and art work may not transform the world; they may not even be perceived by others as creative because to others they may seem familiar or prosaic. However, if we develop ideas, stories, and works of art that are new to us (that we're not copying), then we are being creative. Our creations may not enrich society at large, yet they may enrich our personal lives, and, perhaps, the lives of those around us. Over time, our "small c" creative projects may lead to a "big c" Creative project--something that truly does transform how people think about the world. A daily pattern of being creative, of working hard to solve problems, may lead, over time, to breakthroughs for ourselves and others.

Use Burke's Pentad to interpret human events, stories, and movies.

In A Grammar of Motives, philosopher and critic Kenneth Burke presents a model for analyzing written and spoken language to better understand and even predict human behavior. His model, the pentad, can be used to understand or interpret human behavior and to develop ideas for stories. The pentad assumes people can have ambiguous, conflicting, and complex reasons for acting. It attempts to avoid simplistic explanations.

"[A]ny complete statement about motives will offer some kind of answer to these five questions: what was done (act), when or where it was done (scene), who did it (agent), how he did it (agency), and why (purpose)." -Kenneth Burke

The Fundamental Components of the Pentad

Like the journalistic questions or the common topoi and tagmemic questions, the pentad can be presented as a series of questions. By asking these fundamental questions, Burke proposes that we can generate insights about the factors that led us to the action. In particular, these questions will offer us insights into the following five components of a situation:

  1. The act
  2. The scene
  3. The agent
  4. The agency or method or means
  5. The purpose or motive

Relationships Among Terms

While analyzing specific acts or scenes can obviously lead us to some understanding about what motivated someone to do something, what really makes Burke's pentad useful is his emphasis on the relationships among the terms. Burke is especially interested in the relationships, or ratios, that occur when the following terms are compared:

  • Actor to act
  • Actor to scene
  • Actor to agency
  • Actor to purpose
  • Act to scene
  • Act to agency
  • Act to purpose
  • Scene to agency
  • Scene to purpose
  • Agency to purpose

For example, by analyzing the "act-to-scene ratio," we can gain information about how a scene, or social context, influenced the act. Thus, you might try to understand how criminal behavior is expressed in the inner city. If violence is an everyday part of the scene in a housing project in the inner city, then we can understand why residents might express a lot of fear about being a victim of violence. If we interviewed people in the community who acted violently (i.e., agents), then we might have a better sense of how they commit the violence (scene to agency) or why they believe they commit the violence (act to scene).

Social Media_WC

Sources for a research essay can be seen as a web of people talking to each other. Although sources may not seem alive to you, they represent their authors' unique identities and opinions, which makes conversations among them not only possible but also lively. Similar to people who may have different types of conversation, sources may converse with each other: they may support, complement, conflict with, or attack each other's opinions. 





Who is doing this?

Who will do this?


What did they do?

What was it for?


Where did they do it?

Where is it going to happen?


Why are they doing this?

Why are they doing it?


When is it happening?

When is it going to happen?


How did they do it?

How do they hope to do it?

Understand how writers organize their commitments by organizing work under development into a notebook.

Although the thought of maintaining a notebook may at first appear intimidating, you will probably be surprised to find that it is actually quite easy to keep one on a day-to-day basis. Indeed, the following comments are fairly representative of how most students feel after keeping a notebook for a semester:

  • Writing these entries has helped me to remember important events from my childhood that I was not aware were buried in my subconscious, in particular, I have thought of several special moments that I shared with my maternal grandmother and have made a record of them. I now have a written record and can reread them years from now when perhaps my memory becomes faulty, and I am no longer able to recall them with ease.
  • Another bonus of notebook writing is the discipline it has imposed on me to write frequently. I enjoy writing, but I have always found excuses not to do so because I allowed other responsibilities to take precedence. Since journal writing has been a class requirement, its importance has been elevated because I see it as an obligation (not a negative).
  • Do you ever notice how important something seemed to you in high school and now that you look back on that you think, “God, I sure acted stupid back then!”? Doesn't it sort of make you wonder if what you consider important now is really stupid, especially if you were to look back on it in say, 10 years? What then is truly important?
  • Notebook writing has helped me get a better perspective on my life and problems.
  • I used the journal to let out emotions and thoughts. The journal was like a person I would talk to whenever I needed someone to talk to.
  • I used my journal to help myself study for exams in other subjects. This is something I never used to do—take notes on chapters—and I found it to help.
  • I think the more you write, the more you enjoy it, the more easily you can come up with ideas.
  • I’ve learned that I have a lot of hidden opinions and feelings about issues that I usually don’t get a chance to express. Consequently, in this class, I have an outlet to express my ideas in a creative and structured way. By writing a little each day, I am able to think more about what I feel which then, helps me to become a better writer.

Maintaining a notebook can help you write regularly, set goals, establish priorities, and organize your writing projects. If you tend to be a disorganized writer, the notebook can provide an invaluable focus for creative ideas. Although you can succeed without such a notebook, maintaining one can give you some control over what and how you write.

"Benefits to Using a Writer's Journal" was written by Joseph Moxley, University of South Florida

Use freewriting to avoid writer's block, stimulate your thinking on a subject, and find your voice.

Freewriting involves writing without stopping. Your goal is to write whatever ideas occur to you, using a pen or pencil and paper or using a computer with the monitor turned off. When freewriting, your focus is to generate ideas as opposed to writing grammatically correct sentences. Get your thoughts down as fully and quickly as you can without critiquing them.

Freewrite to Avoid Writer's Block

Freewriting is a powerful way to blast through writing blocks. Rather than staring at a blank page, wondering what you have to say about a topic, you can write about the topic, exploring what you know, what you need to research, and what you need to accomplish to finalize the document.

In Writing Without Teachers (Oxford University Press, 1973), Peter Elbow argues that freewriting is "a way to produce bits of writing that are genuinely better than usual: less random, more coherent, more highly organized." Elbow believes that freewriting, when used routinely, helps writers to find their voice, a voice that is smoother than a voice "damped out by all the interruptions, changes, and hesitations."

Different Ways to Use Freewriting

  1. Use freewriting to warm up; to identify everything you need to know about a topic

  2. Use freewriting to overcome writer's block

  3. Use freewriting to find your voice

Use talk-and-then-write strategies to jump-start writing projects.

Dialoguing, dictating, and group brainstorming all rely on talking to generate writing. Many people get their best ideas discussing issues and ideas with people.

Lawyers, doctors, and business leaders have frequently used dictation to draft documents. Now, as a student, you can also dictate, thanks to voice recognition software. IBM Via Voice and Dragon, Naturally Speaking are two popular programs that enable your computer to transcribe your speech into words, after you've trained the software.

Extroverts particularly enjoy talking-over possibilities before writing. If you are fairly introverted, however, you may prefer to develop a topic by yourself, holding off on discussing it with others until you've conceived a plan to develop the documents. And it is possible that this is the best approach. Even so, you should experiment with talk-and-then-write strategies.

Unlike writing, where we have to guess how readers might respond, when we talk with other people, we can see the immediate effects of our words. When we see people shaking their heads negatively, nodding, smiling, or looking bored, we can adjust our rhetoric accordingly.

Warning: Don't confuse excessive amounts of email (or talk) as work on your writing projects. Like anything else taken to the extreme, conversing online can become counter-productive.

Talk can play a surprisingly powerful role in the creative process. To find out how you can use talk effectively, try discussing drafts before writing, speaking as you write, and reading your work out loud. Our personalities, experiences, and the rhetorical demands of particular writing projects influence when and how talk can be beneficial or distracting. Try keeping a log on how and when you use talk effectively.


Use a writer's journal to organize your work, develop new projects, and nurture and sustain existing projects.

Consider using these categories to help organize your journal, whether you publish it online (with or without security) or keep it in a three-ring binder.

The writer's journal can help you to write more efficiently and more originally. Your journal provides a place to organize your work, develop new projects, nurture and sustain existing projects, and provide links to completed projects. Rather than ignoring the innovative ideas for new writing projects that occur when you are in the middle of another assignment, you can keep a record of your new ideas in your journal.

Save time, develop more effective documents, and be more creative by developing a writer's journal. Throughout human history, writers have used notebooks to organize and develop their ideas. Thanks to the internet, you can now easily maintain your journal online or you can use a low-tech solution, such as a three-ring binder.

Note: A writer's journal is different from a digital portfolio in the sense that you are the audience for the journal and the work in the journal tends to be rough, really fragments of ideas, a place to be creative.

In contrast, the digital portfolio represents your best work on a subject and its audience includes potential employers, university admission committees, and internet users.

See also:

Use visual brainstorming to develop and organize your ideas.

Cluster diagrams, spider maps, mind maps--these terms are used interchangeably to describe the practice of visually brainstorming about a topic. Modern readers love cluster diagrams and spider maps because they enable readers to discern your purpose and organization in a moment.

When Is Clustering/Spider Mapping Useful?

As depicted below, writers use clustering to help sketch out ideas and suggest logical connections. In this way, writers use cluster diagrams and spider maps as an invention tool. When clustering, they do not impose an order on their thinking. Instead, after placing the idea in the center of the page, they then free-associate.

Remembering that the goal is to generate ideas, make the drawing visually attractive, perhaps using color or a variety of geometric shapes and layout formats. Typical cluster and spider maps resemble the following:

  • Branches: If ideas seem closely related to you, consider using small branches, like tree limbs, to represent their similarities.
  • Arrows: Use arrows to represent processes or cause and effect relationships.
  • Groupings: If a number of ideas are connected, go ahead and put a circle around them.
  • Bullets: List ideas that seem related.

In addition to being a powerful invention strategy, cluster maps and spider maps can also be used to represent complex relationships to readers.

Online Cluster/Spider Maps

  1. Visual thesaurus: This online software application draws cluster diagrams around words. Plug in a word and watch similar terms spin around it. Give it time and you'll see many interesting associations.

  2. Forest management: View an example of a hand-drawn cluster map.

  3. Sociograms: Two well-functioning teams: Social network analysis encourages visual depictions of people's collaborative networks.

  4. Social networks: Examples of how maps of social networks can be drawn. Evaluating the alcohol environment: Here cluster maps are drawn to show correlations between bars and violent crime.

  5. Crime patterns made clear for Portland, Oregon, citizens via Internet mapping: This essay provides examples of how crime maps show patterns in criminal be

When Are Clustering/Spider Maps Useful?

  • Clustering is a particularly effective strategy during the early part of a writing project when you're working to define the scope and parameters of a project.
  • Congue Clustering can help you identify what you do know and what you need to research about a topic.

"Clustering: Spider Maps" was written by Joseph Moxley, University of South Florida

 Use visual brainstorming to develop and organize your ideas.

MP900433138In 1765, Joseph Priestly created the now commonplace timeline. Priestly's timeline depicted the lifespan of 2000 inventors whom he considered the "most distinguished in the annals of fame."

In technical documents as well as magazine articles, timeline flow charts are exceedingly popular. Readers love chronological timelines, which graphically chart the emergence of an idea or concept. For example, you could draw a timeline of writing technologies or a timeline for the use of visuals inside texts.

Typically, timelines move from left to right or from top to bottom to denote the passage of time, as illustrated below.

When Are Timeline/Flow Chart Maps Useful?

Because they highlight the passage of time, timelines and flow charts offer a visual representation of how ideas, people, inventions, or processes evolve.Readers can glance at your timeline while reading your story, whether it's about an inventor, or the emergence of a new technology.


"Timelines: Flow Chart Maps" was written by Joseph Moxley, University of South Florida

Use visual brainstorming to develop and organize your ideas.

Like cluster/spider maps, hierarchical maps involve drawing a graphical representation of ideas. Unlike clustering, cluster/spider maps are chiefly concerned with analyzing relationships among ideas.

When Are Hierarchical Maps Useful?

Mapping is a useful organizing and revising tool when you want to see if you've made connections clear among ideas or if you've gone off on a tangent. 

"Hierarchical Maps" was written by Joseph Moxley, University of South Florida

Use visual brainstorming to develop and organize your ideas.

Do you have a grand theory or an explanation for a fundamental question such as, "Do computers think?" or "How long have human beings existed?" If so, you may want to use visual language to reveal the complex details, interactions, and processes embedded within your theory.

When Are Model/Theory Maps Useful?

  • Use visual language to explore a theory or model. As your thinking evolves, redraw the theory or model. For major projects, you may want to do multiple revisions.
  • Describe how multiple processes interact within a complex, chaotic system.

Suggestions for Drawing Theory/Model Maps


A theory or model map draws on the strength of other maps, such as clustering/spider maps, time lines/flow charts, hierarchy concept maps, systems and concept maps. In other words, a theory/model map may have clusters, time lines, circles and arrows. Possible features for theory/model maps are:

  • Circles: You might have one large circle for the entire system and then, inside that, other circles, depicting sub-processes.
  • Arrows: Use arrows to illustrate how the system flows. Note when new components enter or leave the system.
  • Groupings: If a number of ideas are connected, go ahead and put a circle around them.

Online Theory Maps

"Modeling/Theory Maps" was written by Joseph Moxley, University of South Florida

Understand design principles that are important for both paper and web documents.

Contrast, repetition, alignment, proximity--these are the basic cornerstones of design according to Robin Williams, author of the frequently cited Non-Designers Design Book. Minimalism and visuals are equally fundamental design concerns. These design principles apply to both paper and online documents, as suggested by Edward Barrett, Deborah A. Levinson, and Suzana Lisanti, authors of The MIT Guide to Teaching Web Site Design:

"Other, more wired authors write panegyrics to digital media and the Web as if digital media were a new, miraculous life form. But in fact rhetorical principles that have defined communication over time apply equally well to the Web: a process of defining purpose, audience, and style to suit your objectives."


Readers notice contrasting elements. Changes in font, color, and layout are examples of contrasting elements. To promote focus, contrast should be dramatic. Yet this doesn't mean you should align garish, bright colors with soft pastels.
To develop your "design eye," take a moment to analyze the design of documents you see each day. Look at newspapers and magazines, evaluating how they use contrasting colors and fonts to draw your eye to their advertisement or story.

design18The screen shots in the left column below provide interesting examples of contrast used in document design. You can double-click the screen shot to enlarge it or visit the document by double-clicking the document title in the right column.
In 10 IT Goals, notice the right column. The contrast between the longer middle column attracts your eye.

In the Do Not Call Federal Registry, note the use of contrasting colors--blue, green, black, and white--to highlight and contrastdesign24NEW information. The box below the black and then green line, the one that says "Do Not Call" is set off from the rest of the text, so users can quickly accomplish their goal: clicking the button necessary to begin the process of entering phone numbers in the do not call registry. The contrasting colors are used consistently throughout the site: blue and green are used to highlight hyperlinks. The left column is set aside from the text block on the right to also help with navigation. Even the visual--the phone over the house--uses all four colors.


Repetition refers to repeated visual elements, such as use of color, shape, columns, headers, and callout boxes. Repeated design elements help readers understand how you have organized the work. As they scan the document, they can anticipate content based on your design.Although readers dislike reading passages with words repeated incessantly, they enjoy repetition as a design element.design2NEW

Note in this example from Greenpeace how the repeated green text blocks and green headers draw your attention.

In word processors, you can create helpful repetition by using a template. A template enables you to set the font type, size, and style for each heading. For example, by tagging a top header as "level 1" or tagging a passage "body text," you can ensure continuity throughout your document. Then, if you decide to change a design element, such as the font of your footnotes, you just modify the footnote tag.
On Web sites, repetition is especially important because readers can easily develop vertigo--a sense of not knowing where they've been or where to go. Most Web editors provide templates or themes to enable you to repeat design elements easily.


Alignment refers to the positioning of elements. For example, texts can be left- center- or right-justified. Text columns, tables, or pictures can line up equally. Captions can be anchored next to images.

design4NEWIn this example from the Environmental Protection Agency's Web site note the careful alignment of information. Three aligned images create interest at the top of the page, all carefully aligned. Below these pictures, green bars are used to separate the main page into categories of information: Current Initiatives, Key Issues, and Top Stories. To the left, using contrasting colors, thedesign8 button bar presents major hyperlinks, while the right column provide links toCurrent Topics.

In Why Open Source? note the use of the level 2 heading, the left-justified text beneath the header, and then the alignment indent again for subpoint 1. As you might guess, the writer uses this left-alignment scheme throughout the document.


Proximity refers to chunking information together that belongs together--and, conversely, separating information that belongs elsewhere.design14
Obviously, you don't want your work to appear like a jigsaw puzzle. Instead, you can create focus and highlight your message by organizing similar elements together. By grouping related information, you can reduce clutter.

In this example of poor proximity, note how the jumbled annotated links create confusion. Your eye isn't sure how the items are related.


In Minimalism in Web Design, note Veronica Martin's use of horizontal lines to chunk information. Each section of Martin's text is about a screenful and chunked by a horizontal bar.


"Every word and phrase should have to fight for its life." -Crawford Kilian


Conciseness is a virtue in any printed document. On the Internet, brevity is a necessity. Image-rich introductions can be very impressive. When you first come on to a site, a Macromedia Flash introduction can be a fun way to learn about the site, but as a general principle, you should value brevity and simplicity over sophisticated, animated, image-rich introductions that require software plug-ins.

Today, the field of Web design is seen much more as a craft than an art, where function takes precedence over form and content is king. Innovative designs using fancy navigational icons are generally seen as an annoyance standing between the user and what he or she seeks. Large graphic eye-candy, no matter how pleasing, is simply wasted bandwidth. Today's Web designers are also information architects and usability engineers, and a user-centered design approach is the key to a successful Web site. Instead of constantly requiring users to relearn the Web, sites are beginning to look more alike and to employ the same metaphors and conventions. The Web has now become an everyday thing whose design should not make users think. Preface, Web Style Guide, 2nd Edition

Impatience characterizes the behavior of most online readers. Many readers will bypass animated introductions. Today's readers want a focus on the content; they want Web design to be invisible--i.e., not something you have to think about.


While it's true that some people configure their Web browsers to view the Internet with graphics turned off, most people expect and appreciate extensive use of visuals ondesign16 Web pages. Increasingly, this tendency to use visuals is altering the look and feel of traditional texts.design20NEW

In Lost Boys, by Amy Benfer, notice the playful use of the image to fuel the author's argument: Girl power has utterly overwhelmed boy power.

In this example from the EPA's Explorer Club, a large image map attempts to track the interest of younger readers. As the user scrolls over the various images, text pops up, revealing to users that selecting the image will take them to a different part of the site, such as the game room, the science room, or the art room.


Understand conventions for citing information.

Different academic disciplines and journals have unique formatting guidelines for citing sources and formatting research reports. Remarkably, there are hundreds of different formatting guidelines for referencing sources. This section briefly summarizes the most popular citation styles used in colleges and universities:

1. MLA

Humanities professors commonly require citations to be formatted according to MLA (Modern Language Association) guidelines. Information in this section pertains to the guidelines set forth by the 7th edition of The MLA Handbook for Writers of Research Papers.

2. APA

Education and social science professors commonly ask students to follow the APA (American Psychological Association) style for citing and documenting sources. APA differs from MLA in a number of ways, including the overall structure and format of the essay, but the major distinction between the two is APA's use of the year of publication, rather than the page on which a particular quotation appears, for the in-text citation. APA requires in-text publication dates because of the particular importance of a study's currency to research reports in the social sciences. Information in this section pertains to the guidelines established by the 6th edition of the Publication Manual of the American Psychological Association.


Understand the fundamentals of typography, page, and web design; use visual language to convey meaning; use design to assert authority and organize work for readers.

"Design is a fun word. Some people think design means how it looks. But of course, if you dig deeper, it's really how it works."
-Steve Jobs

We live in a culture where images and document design are used aggressively to convey meaning. Today's writers use images to do more than enrich their texts: Page design, layout, font choices, photographs, clip art, screenshots, animations, and video convey meaning.

People use the term design in two major ways:

  1. When some people use the term design, they mean ornamentation--a few baubles you might add to a text once it's completed. For these people, design is an afterthought. Content can be separate from form.
  2. In contrast, others view design from a rhetorical perspective. Instead of considering design to be ornamentation, they view design as a way to convey meaning--as a form of visual language.

Thanks to changes in how people read documents, design is more important now than ever before. In the past, discussions regarding the use of visuals, white space, fonts, and charts occurred primarily in technical writing classes. But today's easy-to-use word processors and Web editors enable writers to have unprecedented control over the look and feel of their documents. Graphic editors, images freely available on the Web, animation tools, streaming multimedia--these resources are transforming writing in interesting and powerful ways.

This doesn't mean that your teachers expect you to compete with the Web designers at And this doesn't mean your teachers will privilege substance over style. In fact, college teachers are chiefly concerned with your use of words and ideas. They have an ear for carefully crafted sentences and passages. The higher grades will go to those who develop worthwhile ideas.

Even so, writing is taking a visual turn. As modern-day readers become overwhelmed with information, writing is becoming "chunked" into deductive columns, bullets, and lists. Increasingly, people are using charts, graphics, and pictures to tell significant parts of their story. Ultimately, your writing will gain authority when it is designed well. Your professors and prospective employers are likely to be impressed by sound document design.


Whenever you incorporate outside sources into your own writing, you must provide both in-text citations (within the body of the paper) and full citations (in the works cited page). The in-text citations point your reader toward the full citations in the works cited page.

That's why the first bit of information in your in-text citation (generally, the author's name; if no name is provided, the title of the article/book/webpage) should directly match up with the beginning of your works cited entry for that source.

"Formatting In-Text Citations (MLA)" was written by Jennifer Yirinec and Lauren Cutlip

How might you format your in-text citations so that they're more compliant with MLA guidelines?

You already know why MLA formatting guidelines are an important part of an academic paper, but let’s face it—who can remember all those rules about when and where certain citation information is requisite and when and where particular punctuation is appropriate?

1. Is the heading in the upper left-hand corner of the first page? 

2. Does the heading include:

  • Your name?
  • Your Instructor's name?
  • The course name?
  • The date?

3. Does the paper have an original title (other than something like "Final Paper")?

  • Is the title presented without being bolded, italicized, or placed in quotation marks

4. Does the paper have 1" margins on all sides?

5. Is the paper written in Times New Roman (or another standard font your professor allows) and in 12-pt. font?

6. Is everything double-spaced (including any notes and the works cited page)?

7. Are your last name and the page number in the upper right-hand corner of each page (0.5" from the top, or inserted using the "header" function in Word)?

8.If you've used outside sources, do you have a works cited page? Is it titled "Works Cited" (without the quotation marks)? Does it have a page number (that follows the last page of your paper) and your last name?

9. Are the entries in your list of works cited in alphabetical order by the author's last name?

  • Does each source have an entry on the works cited page?
  • Are all direct quotes in quotation marks?
  • Do all paraphrases and summaries clearly indicate that they come from other sources?
  • Does each in-text reference include a parenthetical citation that includes the author’s last name (unless it is obvious from the context of the sentence who you are referencing) and the page number from which the information was taken?
  • If a quotation is 4 lines or more, is it block-quoted? (i.e. double-spaced, indented 1 inch from the left margin)
  • Have you clearly indicated where you found all information you did not previously know?
  • Does your works cited page conform to MLA format?

Look at the sentences below, each of which contains an incorrectly formatted in-text citation. Specify the error made in each sentence; then, write a new sentence in which the in-text citation is correctly formatted.

1. The parlor metaphor of writing describes writing as entering into a conversation, as in arriving late and a parlor and talking to guests who have been there long before you have (7).

2. In “Argument as Emergence, Rhetoric as Love,” Jim Corder explains that “Everyone is an argument.” (1)

3. David Sedaris's Me Talk Pretty One Day takes place at a school in Paris (Sedaris 1).