Clarifying summary, analysis, and synthesis

academics expository writing writing
By Miki

Many writing assignments in college, especially in the liberal arts, will require elements of both analysis and synthesis. Understanding the differences as well as the complementary relationship between these two moves will help you write stronger essays. 

Analysis vs Summary

What is analysis? Broadly speaking, analysis consists of breaking down the text or problem you are examining in order to understand each part of it. Analysis must be supported with evidence and examples. You can think of analytical work as being similar to taking apart a completed puzzle to see how the pieces fit together or breaking down a chemical compound to see the individual elements or molecules it consists of. 

One of the main pitfalls of rhetorical analysis is summarizing rather than analyzing. Summarizing includes statements of facts, details, and events, and offers description of those elements. However, analysis is more than just summary! Analysis goes further, and includes explanation, interpretation, and reflections on significance in context. You might use analysis to offer perspective by asking and answering questions about the source and making comparisons. The purpose of analysis is to show what you understand about the source being analyzed—sometimes there are objectively more or less correct points to prioritize in your analysis in order to demonstrate that you see the main purpose of either the author(s) or the professor in assigning the reading, but no two people will analyze in an identical way. 

Using specific, powerful verbs and verb phrases is one of the best ways to make sure your writing is incisive and clearly analytical when you are composing rhetorical analysis—a close, sophisticated reading of any text. Bland verbs, such as “uses,” “says,” or “states,” lead writers into summary. Use the verb list below for inspiration when you are faced with the task of analyzing a text—and to expand your writing vocabulary!

First, you can think about “structure verbs,” which help you as both reader and analytical writer to understand the overall structure of the source you are analyzing. Think about where the authors of your sources do these things, as well as where you can do them in your own writing:

  • Opens
  • Begins
  • Adds
  • Connects
  • Juxtaposes
  • Draws a parallel between
  • Foreshadows
  • Turns to
  • Shifts to
  • Transitions to
  • Concludes
  • Finishes
  • Closes
  • Ends

Then, you can think about the rhetorical modes in which an author develops their argument:

  • Compares
  • Contrasts
  • Classifies
  • Defines
  • Describes
  • Narrates
  • Argues
  • Persuades
  • Analyzes
  • Explains
  • Exemplifies
  • Illustrates
  • Summarizes

A longer list of power verbs is available here.

What is Synthesis? 

There are two types of synthesis: explanatory synthesis, and argument synthesis. In explanatory synthesis, your writing is meant to help the reader understand the topic at hand. You divide the topic into its components, which continues analysis, but in a way that might bring multiple sources or perspectives together. Explanatory synthesis tells you what is obvious in the source(s). Argument synthesis, on the other hand, presents your own point of view using the sources.

First, you must understand the key points (arguments, claims, ideas, evidence, and significance) of each of your sources individually. Demonstrating this understanding in our writing is part of the work of analysis. 

Then, you must be able to identify key points of similarity or difference between your sources and be able to explain them. This is both analysis and explanatory synthesis. CAUTION: This does not mean that you can cherry-pick selective evidence that agrees with your own point if it contradicts the larger argument the author is making. It also does not mean you can reduce the entire source to the points of agreement or disagreement that you want to emphasize in making your own claims. You must be able to isolate and discuss how specific aspects of the sources contribute to a conversation without oversimplifying or misrepresenting the source or conversation more broadly.

Finally, to make your argument effectively using argument synthesis, you must be able to articulate ideas and smoothly integrate multiple citations without exclusively reiterating claims your sources have already made. 

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