In January, I wrote my comprehensive exam for my doctoral program, which, in my department, involves writing a 50-page critical synthesis based on a specific claim of knowledge over a six-week period. It is a fairly daunting task, requiring the integration of literature across many methodologies, sub-disciplines, and underlying theories. The writer’s job is to somehow balance the big picture of their knowledge claim with the individual contributions of each included source, ultimately making a cohesive argument. Easy, right?

Unfortunately, the particular skill set required for this kind of synthesis is often not explicitly taught. Sure, we have all crafted five-paragraph essays since the 5th grade, and have probably contributed to scientific research reports. But synthesizing other people’s writing to make your own point takes a different thought process. Many graduate students find it hard to move beyond summarizing individual studies in a linear fashion. As the proverb goes, we struggle to see the forest for the trees, detailing specifics but failing to communicate the overall meaning effectively.

As I planned for writing my exam, I realized that the bulk of the work of finding patterns in my sources needed to happen before I started writing. Using ideas from the book Destination Dissertation: A Traveler’s Guide to a Done Dissertation and my own adaptations, I developed a step-by-step process for organizing my notes and ideas. This process assumes you’ve already conducted an exhaustive literature search and have a fairly set reference list; it’s difficult to piece together a synthesis without first establishing your sources. If you are tackling a literature review, comprehensive exam, or other similar writing activity, this process can help you synthesize your information before even beginning a draft.

1. Read your sources several times

First, read every article, chapter, or other source multiple times with different purposes for each read. On the first read, skim for the big ideas and start mentally categorizing them. After familiarizing yourself with the basics, read in-depth with highlighter in hand, marking the main constructs, findings, or arguments relevant to your claim. The third read will be for in-depth note taking.

2. Take organized notes on every source

On this third read, each source gets a notes page labeled with the author and year at the top. I formatted my notes in two columns, with the left column including a word or phrase to capture the main concept and the right column with the details. For example, my knowledge claim addressed teachers’ subjective ideas and experiences related to using specific interventions in their classrooms. My notes included concepts like teachers’ use of interventions, contextual influences, and training experiences. Avoid organizing your notes by steps in the research process—labeling information as sample, methods, or results won’t help you make connections later on. I chose to write all my notes by hand, but this could also be done in a typed document.

3. Identify relevant concepts and supporting sources

Once you have a stack of source notes, it’s time to identify the concepts that show up across them. These concepts might include specific research findings, definitions of terms, future implications, or other ideas driven by the purpose of your paper. Not every source will address every concept. First, make a master list of all the concepts from the left sides of your source notes. Then, find all the sources that covered each specific concept in their article or chapter. Personally, I simply transferred each concept to an individual sticky note and listed the authors who addressed it underneath. 

4. Restructure your notes by concept

Now, each of those concepts gets its own two column notes page. This time, the authors will go on the left-hand column and you will transfer the notes from Step 2 specific to that concept on the right side. Think of it as if you were cutting apart your article notes, categorizing them by concept, and pasting them to a new page (which, conceivably, you could also do, but it might get messy). As you are transferring these notes, pay attention to which authors agree and which raise unique ideas related to the concept; this will help you make connections when you write. In the spirit of synthesis, once this step is completed, these concept notes will be your primary reference, not the individual source notes.

Pro Tip: Include a concept notes page for your overarching argument or thesis. In my paper, I argued the necessity of understanding teachers’ subjective beliefs about interventions. This was broader than my other concepts, but it was the common thread that needed to weave throughout the synthesis. By maintaining a single page of the primary arguments made by others, including particularly effective quotations, I could pull ideas from here throughout the whole writing process to keep my claim at the forefront.

5. Organize concepts into an outline

Those concepts should now form the basis of an outline of the paper. Decide how the concepts can be meaningfully grouped under larger themes. In my case, I sorted 29 concepts into six major themes, which became the level one headings in my draft. Physically sequence your concepts based on the structure of your paper so that as you draft, you can just flip through the notes in order.

Once all of your notes are organized, it’s time to draft! You will have already done most of the synthesis work before ever putting a sentence on the page. For reference, I tracked my time use on my exam and ended up spending almost half of my total working time in the pre-writing stage. This saved me the frustration of sifting through my sources over and over again to draw parallels and integrate the information while drafting. If you’re looking to write a synthesis more effectively and efficiently, try integrating these five steps into your pre-writing process. Let us know how it goes in the comments or on Twitter!


Jordan McNeill is a doctoral student in special education at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Follow her on Twitter at @jordanmcneill89.

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