Writing a Compare and Contrast Essay

Learning Objective:

  • Write a multi-paragraph compare and contrast essay.

LESSON
In this lesson, you will learn how to write a compare and contrast essayA written discussion of both the similarities and differences between people, objects, or ideas. This type of essay shows how things are alike in some ways (compare) as well as how they are different in other ways (contrast)., which is among the most common writing assignments in college classes. This structure is used to show how things are alike (compare) and different (contrast). For example, you might be asked to compare and contrast two characters in a novel. In such an essayA short piece of writing that focuses on at least one main idea. Some essays are also focused on the author's unique point of view, making them personal or autobiographical, while others are focused on a particular literary, scientific, or political subject. , you would do more than just tell what each character is like or does. A good compare and contrast essay goes beyond simple description or summary to draw connections between the characters and really analyzeTo make a thoughtful and detailed study of something. them. It is important to note that compare and contrast essays do not necessarily require you to include both similarities and differences. Sometimes the focus will be on either comparing or contrasting, depending on the subjectsThe people, places, things, or ideas being discussed or described. being compared.

In this lesson, you will learn eight steps to develop a compare and contrast  essay:

  1. Understand your assignment.
  2. Gather ideas.
  3. Create a working thesis.
  4. Develop an outline.
  5. Develop paragraphs that support your thesis.
  6. Write a conclusion.
  7. Write an introduction.
  8. Revise your essay.

Step 1: Understand your assignment.

Read the guideline sheet or rubricA guideline that explicitly lays out the expectations and possible scores for an assignment. . Do you get to choose what to compare, or has your instructor given you a specific topic? You need to look for keywordsWords that are important to understanding the meaning of a passage or reading. like similarities, differences, alike, two, parallels, and disparities to make sure that you need to write a compare and contrast essay. In some cases, your instructor may only ask you to compare or contrast. Make sure you understand what your instructor is asking for before you begin.

Step 2: Gather ideas.

If your instructor assigns you a specific subject to write about, then the next step in the process is to gather ideas. If you must come up with your own subject, there are a few things you should consider before you start to brainstormA prewriting technique where the author lists multiple ideas as he or she thinks of them, not considering one more than another until all ideas are captured. The objective is to create one great idea, or many ideas, on which to base a writing. ideas.

First, make sure that your subject is of appropriate scopeThe extent or aims of a project. for the assignment, not too broad and not too narrow. Comparing President Ronald Reagan to President Jimmy Carter, for example, is too broad for a five-page essay. But comparing their foreign policies may not be, depending on how detailed the comparison is supposed to be.

Once you are sure your subject is of the appropriate scope, be sure to carefully consider whether the two things you are writing about are a good match to the compare and contrast format. Do they have important similarities and/or differences? Will comparing them help to clarify something or lead to new insights about a subject?

If you are unsure about these questions, then gathering ideas will probably help you to decide. There are many good ways to gather ideas for essays. For compare and contrast essays, a Venn diagramOverlapping circles used to diagram the similarities and differences between two or more things. Common characteristics are written in the area of overlap, while unique characteristics are listed in the outer parts of each circle. is a particularly useful tool. The overlapping part of the circles shows similarities; the outer circles show differences or unique qualities. Here is a very simple example of a Venn diagram.

Comparison of the benefits of dogs and cats as pets

Venn diagram comparing dogs and cats

You could also make a chart that lists different qualities of each, or simply group information by how they are alike or different.

Remember, it is critical that there are points of overlap, or similarities, as well as differences between your topics. Without both aspects, it will be difficult to write an analysis that will make your essay meaningful.

Step 3: Create a working thesis.

Regardless of the kind of essay you are writing, there are certain qualities of a good thesisAn overall argument, idea, or belief that a writer uses as the basis for a work.: it must be specific, clearly state your main ideaThe most important or central thought of a reading selection. It also includes what the author wants the reader to understand about the topic he or she has chosen to write about., and demonstrate for the reader why the subject is important. For a compare and contrast essay, you will also need to decide whether to write an evaluative or an explanatory thesis.

An evaluative thesisA statement that presents an opinion about the topic. reflects an opinion or judgment about the two things being compared.

Example evaluative thesis:

Although wind turbines and solar panels both create less greenhouse gasses than fossil fuels, solar panels are much more environmentally friendly.

An explanatory thesisA statement that explains something without judgment. compares two subjects without taking a stance.

Example explanatory thesis:

While both wind turbines and solar panels have their own shortcomings, both offer a number advantages over traditional energy sources.

Remember, your thesis will drive the development of your essay. It will help you sort through all the possible points of comparisonThe criteria by which subjects are compared and/or contrasted. to arrive at the most important ones.

Step 4: Develop an outline.

Next, you will develop an outlineA preliminary plan for a piece of a writing, often in the form of a list. It should include a topic, audience, purpose, thesis statement, and main and supporting points. for your essay. The two most common methods for compare and contrast essays are the point-by-pointAn organizational strategy for a comparison or compare and contrast essay. In this method, the writer lists the major points of comparison/contrast between subjects, and discusses them one at a time. A point-by-point comparison is useful for subjects that have many points of comparison because the reader can consider both subjects side-by-side. method and the subject-by-subjectAn organizational strategy for a comparison or compare and contrast essay. In this method, a single subject is discussed in detail, followed by a similar examination of the other subject. A subject-by-subject comparison is best used for less complex arguments that have fewer points, so that the reader can remember the points made about the first subject while learning about the second. method.

In the point-by-point method, the writer outlines the major points of comparison between the two subjects, and then addresses both subjects for each major point. In the subject-by-subject method, the writer first discusses important aspects of one of the subjects, then those same aspects for the other subject. These points must be parallelUsing the same pattern of words to describe ideas in order to create balance in a writing. Parallel structure can be at the word-, phrase-, clause-, sentence-, and even paragraph-level., meaning that all aspects addressed with one subject need to also be addressed with the other subject in the same order. This is also known as the block method.

Point-by-point outline

  1. Introductory Paragraph
    1. Hook
    2. Tone
    3. Background
    4. Thesis
  2. Body Paragraphs
    1. Point of comparison 1
      1. Subject A
      2. Subject B
    2. Point of comparison 2
      1. Subject A
      2. Subject B
    3. Point of comparison 3
      1. Subject A
      2. Subject B
  3. Concluding Paragraph

Subject-by-subject outline

  1. Introductory Paragraph
    1. Hook
    2. Tone
    3. Background
    4. Thesis
  2. Body Paragraphs
    1. Subject A
      1. Point of comparison 1
      2. Point of comparison 2
      3. Point of comparison 3
    2. Subject B
      1. Point of comparison 1
      2. Point of comparison 2
      3. Point of comparison 3
  3. Concluding Paragraph

 

The format to follow is really up to you. Writers often find that the point-by-point essay makes the connections between the points of comparison clearer and easier for the reader to understand. It is better for longer essays with more complicated ideas. Your points of comparison should generally be organized from most to least important (though all of them should be important!) so that you can hook your reader with your most compelling ideas first. A subject-by-subject outline might be better if you are writing an explanatory, rather than an evaluative, essay. It is often used for shorter essays. Whichever you choose, make sure that you are consistent with the format throughout your essay.

Step 5: Develop paragraphs that support your thesis.

The paragraphs in the bodyThe main portion of a writing that contains the main ideas and supporting details of the writing. This is where the author's purpose and thesis statement are supported and/or developed. of your essay must support your thesis as it is stated in the introduction. In addition, they should adhere to the MEAL conceptAn acronym that describes a method of organizing the paragraphs in an essay. Under this plan, each paragraph should have a Main point, Evidence, Analysis, and a Link to the next paragraph.:

Main IdeaThe most important or central thought of a reading selection. It also includes what the author wants the reader to understand about the topic he or she has chosen to write about.: your topic sentence, comprising either one of the subjects (for subject-by-subject comparison) or one of the points of comparison (for a point-by-point comparison)

EvidenceFacts, statistics, or expert testimony that supports a claim.: points of comparison (for subject-by-subject comparison) or the subjects (for a point-by-point comparison)

AnalysisTo analyze is to make a thoughtful and detailed study of something. An analysis is the end result of analyzing.: explaining how the comparison is valid and/or unexpected

LinkTo connect ideas together within a paragraph or to create a transition from one paragraph to the next, as well as back to the thesis.: a transition from the paragraph, as well as back to the thesis

There may be more than one piece of evidence or point of analysis in a paragraph, but every paragraph should have all four of these elements.

Step 6: Write a conclusion.

The conclusion The end portion of a writing that contains a summary or synthesis of the idea in the work. This includes a recap of key points and reminders of the author's purpose and thesis statement.of your essay must synthesizeTo combine ideas, as in the writing at the end of an essay that ties all the discussion and evidence together into a unified concept. , or bring together, the critical details of your essay. It should try to give the reader a new way of looking at your main idea. It reminds the reader of your thesis and reinforces the main points you have made.

Step 7: Write an introduction.

There are four elements of an effective introductionThe first paragraph of an essay. It must engage the reader, set the tone, provide background information, and present the thesis.:

  1. HookIn writing, a device used to grab a readers' attention, often in the form of interesting, surprising, or provocative information.
  2. ToneThe feeling or attitude that a writer expresses toward a topic. The words the writer chooses express this tone. Examples of tones can include: objective, biased, humorous, optimistic, and cynical, among many others.
  3. BackgroundInformation that describes the history or circumstances of a topic.
  4. ThesisAn overall argument, idea, or belief that a writer uses as the basis for a work.

An effective introduction hooks the reader with a compelling idea, sets the tone for the rest of the essay, provides any necessary background or contextThe larger setting in which something happens; the "big picture." for the reader, and presents the thesis.

Step 8: Revise your essay.

When you have a draft of your essay, ask yourself these questions:

Review your entire essay with these questions in mind. Remember, you may need to add information, remove information, or reorganize your writing. Being a careful reviewer of your own work is key to a quality essay. When you have completed this step, be sure to go back one more time to verify that your grammarA set of rules about how words are used in a particular language., spelling, and punctuationMarks such as such as a comma (,), period (.), question mark (?), and exclamation mark (!), among others, that help break a writing into phrases, clauses, and sentences. Different types of punctuation marks give the reader different impressions of the writer’s purpose in that sentence. are correct.

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