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.

The main idea. The argument of an essay. The thesis. It’s a tricky thing to define “thesis” because theses come in all sorts of shapes and sizes. A thesis can be a sentence, two sentences, perhaps even an entire paragraph. Every thesis, though, regardless of where in an essay it appears, does a few important things:

  1. A thesis acts as a unifying idea for every piece of evidence in an essay.
  2. A thesis results from research in addition to the writer’s own beliefs or opinions.
  3. A thesis answers a specific question.

You need a good thesis statement for your essay but are having trouble getting started. You may have heard that your thesis needs to be specific and arguable, but still wonder what this really means.

Let’s look at some examples. Imagine you’re writing about John Hughes’s film Sixteen Candles (1984).

You take a first pass at writing a thesis:

Sixteen Candles is a romantic comedy about high school cliques.

Is this a strong thesis statement? Not yet, but it’s a good start. You’ve focused on a topic--high school cliques--which is a smart move because you’ve settled on one of many possible angles. But the claim is weak because it’s not yet arguable. Intelligent people would generally agree with this statement—so there’s no real “news” for your reader.  You want your thesis to say something surprising and debatable.   If your thesis doesn’t go beyond summarizing your source, it’s descriptive and not yet argumentative.

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.