Graduate Learning Specialist: Synthesizing Sources at the Paragraph Level

Thesis writing

So you’ve read 50 journal articles, consumed 10 books using ILLiad, and are ready to commit your ideas to paper. You’ve got a great outline of the big picture, but when it comes to seamlessly integrating your evidence into your argument at the paragraph level, you get stuck. Either it sounds like the main idea of the paragraph is actually all the source’s idea, or you don’t refer to the sources at all.

There are some basic guidelines that can help, bearing in mind always that accuracy regarding source use is imperative. You cannot change the source’s focus or intention to suit your own work’s needs. So when using any source to support your work:

Determine YOUR purpose first.

  1. What elements of the original idea connect to that purpose?
  2. Are the ways the author put it too unique or controversial or authoritative to mess with? If so, and your field is ok with it, consider quoting instead of paraphrasing.
  3. What was the author’s original intent in the passage? Have I recognized that in my own work?
  4.  What is the tone: that is, what is the overall connotation suggested by the word choice of the original? How can I retain that in my paraphrase?
  5. Should I explain my purpose for using this info more BEFORE or AFTER the paraphrase according to the conventions of my field/my personal style/the needs of the section of the paper (lit review versus introduction versus discussion)?

This last consideration can help you craft a well-structured and infinitely readable paper because it recognizes the general requirements for the smallest unit of meaning in American academic English: the paragraph.

Because each paragraph is one unit, each paragraph ideally should have only one main idea. Since your paper is a communication of your thoughts and ideas, in general every paragraph should begin with your thought, and not a quote or citation (there are exceptions to this, especially if you’re writing a paper about someone else’s work, or the paragraph is a continuation of an idea from the previous paragraph. However, if you aim to keep your ideas in the topic sentence, you’ll have an easier time keeping the paper focused on your purpose). After all, how to decide what to cite when and how all depends on what YOU want to say! The purpose of any work is the idea that you intend to put forth, elucidate on, defend, etc. Therefore, the source should prove your point, not the other way around. YOU guide the reader in interpreting the source as it adds to your argument.

A common strategy for synthesizing sources into your argument, then, is to choose citations that you can clearly relate to your intended topic, and organize your paragraph accordingly:

  • Topic
  • Explanation/definition (a sentence or two that clarifies what the topic is, or how you’re defining it)
  • Support/proof
  • Exposition (connecting the support to the purpose of the paragraph as a whole)
  • Transition (connection of THIS idea to the idea of the NEXT paragraph).

A paragraph can often have multiple citations, but all of them should be clearly linked to the paragraph’s purpose. You can’t take for granted the reader thinks the same way you do. For instance:

Student persistence, or the phenomena of students continuing in academic coursework to a satisfactory end, has been an issue for student affairs as long as there have been schools. In fact, from a historical perspective of encouraging students through appeal to prestige, to recognizing the different elements that affect persistence such as socialization and motivation, to the additive methods that have been the focus of recent approaches when dealing with student persistence, it can be seen as an integral issue facing the field at all turns.

(This is the focus for the whole, which should inform my idea structure all the way through my paper.)

Another factor of persistence can be seen in the influence of interaction on a student’s desire and ability to continue attending classes.  School offers both educational opportunity as well as socialization, and the connection of the two could be the key to encouraging students to “stick it out” and finish their degree.  In his study on the classroom community, Tinto (1997) also makes this assertion, pointing out that, while it has long been held that the interactional element of school increases both learning and persistence, it’s not clear how it does it, especially when viewing it from the classroom as the  source. The students’ ability to communicate with each other and their professors then, both inside and outside the classroom, leads to greater persistence in the student population even though the how of it is not quite clear. This social aspect of persistence can and has been used in the most common approach student affairs has for combating student attrition, the Phone Tree.

There is more than one right way to structure a paragraph, to be sure. Hopefully these guidelines, though, will help you analyze the idea organization preferences of your field, and give you some direction in developing your personal writing strategies.

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