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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.

Thinking through your sources

Step 1: As you read, keep in mind your purpose. Why are you reading this source? About what will you be writing? Write down your thoughts on how the text fits in with what you are currently thinking about your topic; if you did not begin your research with ideas, start thinking and building as you read. Try to make complete sentences. Often, you may summarize or paraphrase a bit of what the text is saying as you refer to it in the context of your own thinking, but do not just summarize what the text says. Capture what you think as you read: your reactions, how it is helpful, how it is relevant. Incorporate any quotes you find especially helpful, but rather than simply copying the quote, write about and around the quote.

Repeat step 1 for each source you think you may use to build your argument.

Identifying your thesis: Whether or not you began with firm ideas about your topic, your reading – and, more precisely, your thinking as you read – will be the source of new ideas. Your thesis, then, will emerge during your reading as the product of how all of your reading and thinking comes together to create a position you can support, with your sources and with your own well-informed argumentation. Even if you began your research holding a clear position on your topic, give your thesis permission to change as you read. Not doing so limits your capacity to learn and grow through your reading and, moreover, risks leaving you unable to support your thesis with your sources.

When you feel as though you have read and thought enough to develop a position on your topic that your sources can support, and that you can stand behind, take note of that position as your thesis. Know, though, that your thesis may still grow and change as you continue to read, think, and draft if you find your sources leading you to support a different position.

Elaborating on your ideas

Step 2: When you are ready to begin writing, refer back to your synthesis notes. Look at the first point and write a short paragraph about that thought or observation. If your synthesis notes are in complete sentences, you may cut and paste those sentences into your new paragraphs or revise and build from them to reflect how your thinking has changed and grown. Then move to the next note and, again, write a short paragraph about that observation. These sections of writing do not need to be connected; that will come later. Do not worry about writing a coherent paper; just focus on one idea or observation at a time.

If you get stuck – if you cannot figure out how a particular note fits into your argument or if it no longer fits—skip that note and move to the next one. You can return to these unused notes later when you may find that you now have something to say about them or that they simply are not part of your argument.

You may find it helpful to color-code your synthesis notes to remind yourself of what material you have and have not used. Remember, too, to include in-text citations to your original source material as you write (look here for guidelines on when citation is necessary).

When you reach the end of your notes, you should have a list of short paragraphs constituting much of your argument.

Finding the essence of your argument

Step 3: Read back through your short paragraphs and, in a separate document or on a separate sheet of paper, summarize each paragraph in a single phrase or sentence. If you cannot summarize a paragraph with a single phrase, try to revise the paragraph so that it focuses on just one idea. Give each paragraph and its corresponding summary phrase a number so that you can match the paragraph to its summary phrase. 

Organizing your ideas

Step 4: Now we will organize the writing we did in step 2. Looking only at the list of summary phrases, rearrange them until they can be read as a logical, coherent paragraph from top to bottom. This paragraph should summarize your argument. If you find that a phrase fails to fit, set it aside. If you find a gap where you need an additional sentence to provide a logical connection between two of your phrases, write in that sentence.

Organizing your writing

Step 5: Return to your short paragraphs and rearrange them so that they match the order of the summary phrases that you have just organized. If you set aside any phrases, set aside their corresponding paragraphs—you may not end up using those paragraphs. If you had to write any new phrases, add those phrases in their place in-between paragraphs; you can expand these phrases into full paragraphs in the next step.

Shaping and structuring your argument

Step 6: Now, take these organized paragraphs and bring them together into a coherent argument. When you read your organized paragraphs, the ideas from each paragraph should flow logically into the next. Add transitions to make those connections explicit. Revise your paragraphs to make the logic of your argument more clear. Delete sentences that are no longer relevant in their new context or add sentences if you need to more fully explain an idea. Expand any added phrases into more complete connecting paragraphs.

At this stage, you may need to refer back to your source material to flesh out any gaps in your argument, or you may find that you need to consult new source material for the same purpose, but your draft should make clear what additional information you need and where it goes. You will also want to add an introduction and conclusion summarizing and drawing out the main points of your argument. Nevertheless, you have produced a first draft from your reading notes without ever going through the painful steps of wondering where and how to begin writing.

Synthesis