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- Comparing and contrasting in an essay | Tips & examples
Comparing and Contrasting in an Essay | Tips & Examples
Published on August 6, 2020 by Jack Caulfield . Revised on July 23, 2023.
Comparing and contrasting is an important skill in academic writing . It involves taking two or more subjects and analyzing the differences and similarities between them.
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When should i compare and contrast, making effective comparisons, comparing and contrasting as a brainstorming tool, structuring your comparisons, other interesting articles, frequently asked questions about comparing and contrasting.
Many assignments will invite you to make comparisons quite explicitly, as in these prompts.
- Compare the treatment of the theme of beauty in the poetry of William Wordsworth and John Keats.
- Compare and contrast in-class and distance learning. What are the advantages and disadvantages of each approach?
Some other prompts may not directly ask you to compare and contrast, but present you with a topic where comparing and contrasting could be a good approach.
One way to approach this essay might be to contrast the situation before the Great Depression with the situation during it, to highlight how large a difference it made.
Comparing and contrasting is also used in all kinds of academic contexts where it’s not explicitly prompted. For example, a literature review involves comparing and contrasting different studies on your topic, and an argumentative essay may involve weighing up the pros and cons of different arguments.
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As the name suggests, comparing and contrasting is about identifying both similarities and differences. You might focus on contrasting quite different subjects or comparing subjects with a lot in common—but there must be some grounds for comparison in the first place.
For example, you might contrast French society before and after the French Revolution; you’d likely find many differences, but there would be a valid basis for comparison. However, if you contrasted pre-revolutionary France with Han-dynasty China, your reader might wonder why you chose to compare these two societies.
This is why it’s important to clarify the point of your comparisons by writing a focused thesis statement . Every element of an essay should serve your central argument in some way. Consider what you’re trying to accomplish with any comparisons you make, and be sure to make this clear to the reader.
Comparing and contrasting can be a useful tool to help organize your thoughts before you begin writing any type of academic text. You might use it to compare different theories and approaches you’ve encountered in your preliminary research, for example.
Let’s say your research involves the competing psychological approaches of behaviorism and cognitive psychology. You might make a table to summarize the key differences between them.
Or say you’re writing about the major global conflicts of the twentieth century. You might visualize the key similarities and differences in a Venn diagram.
These visualizations wouldn’t make it into your actual writing, so they don’t have to be very formal in terms of phrasing or presentation. The point of comparing and contrasting at this stage is to help you organize and shape your ideas to aid you in structuring your arguments.
When comparing and contrasting in an essay, there are two main ways to structure your comparisons: the alternating method and the block method.
The alternating method
In the alternating method, you structure your text according to what aspect you’re comparing. You cover both your subjects side by side in terms of a specific point of comparison. Your text is structured like this:
Mouse over the example paragraph below to see how this approach works.
One challenge teachers face is identifying and assisting students who are struggling without disrupting the rest of the class. In a traditional classroom environment, the teacher can easily identify when a student is struggling based on their demeanor in class or simply by regularly checking on students during exercises. They can then offer assistance quietly during the exercise or discuss it further after class. Meanwhile, in a Zoom-based class, the lack of physical presence makes it more difficult to pay attention to individual students’ responses and notice frustrations, and there is less flexibility to speak with students privately to offer assistance. In this case, therefore, the traditional classroom environment holds the advantage, although it appears likely that aiding students in a virtual classroom environment will become easier as the technology, and teachers’ familiarity with it, improves.
The block method
In the block method, you cover each of the overall subjects you’re comparing in a block. You say everything you have to say about your first subject, then discuss your second subject, making comparisons and contrasts back to the things you’ve already said about the first. Your text is structured like this:
- Point of comparison A
- Point of comparison B
The most commonly cited advantage of distance learning is the flexibility and accessibility it offers. Rather than being required to travel to a specific location every week (and to live near enough to feasibly do so), students can participate from anywhere with an internet connection. This allows not only for a wider geographical spread of students but for the possibility of studying while travelling. However, distance learning presents its own accessibility challenges; not all students have a stable internet connection and a computer or other device with which to participate in online classes, and less technologically literate students and teachers may struggle with the technical aspects of class participation. Furthermore, discomfort and distractions can hinder an individual student’s ability to engage with the class from home, creating divergent learning experiences for different students. Distance learning, then, seems to improve accessibility in some ways while representing a step backwards in others.
Note that these two methods can be combined; these two example paragraphs could both be part of the same essay, but it’s wise to use an essay outline to plan out which approach you’re taking in each paragraph.
If you want to know more about AI tools , college essays , or fallacies make sure to check out some of our other articles with explanations and examples or go directly to our tools!
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Some essay prompts include the keywords “compare” and/or “contrast.” In these cases, an essay structured around comparing and contrasting is the appropriate response.
Comparing and contrasting is also a useful approach in all kinds of academic writing : You might compare different studies in a literature review , weigh up different arguments in an argumentative essay , or consider different theoretical approaches in a theoretical framework .
Your subjects might be very different or quite similar, but it’s important that there be meaningful grounds for comparison . You can probably describe many differences between a cat and a bicycle, but there isn’t really any connection between them to justify the comparison.
You’ll have to write a thesis statement explaining the central point you want to make in your essay , so be sure to know in advance what connects your subjects and makes them worth comparing.
Comparisons in essays are generally structured in one of two ways:
- The alternating method, where you compare your subjects side by side according to one specific aspect at a time.
- The block method, where you cover each subject separately in its entirety.
It’s also possible to combine both methods, for example by writing a full paragraph on each of your topics and then a final paragraph contrasting the two according to a specific metric.
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26 Compelling Compare and Contrast Essay Examples
Topics cover education, technology, pop culture, sports, animals, and more.
Do your writers need some inspiration? If you’re teaching students to write a compare and contrast essay, a strong example is an invaluable tool. This round-up of our favorite compare and contrast essays covers a range of topics and grade levels, so no matter your students’ interests or ages, you’ll always have a helpful example to share. You’ll find links to full essays about education, technology, pop culture, sports, animals, and more. (Need essay ideas? Check out our big list of compare and contrast essay topics! )
What is a compare and contrast essay?
When choosing a compare and contrast essay example to include on this list, we considered the structure. A strong compare and contrast essay begins with an introductory paragraph that includes background context and a strong thesis. Next, the body includes paragraphs that explore the similarities and differences. Finally, a concluding paragraph restates the thesis, draws any necessary inferences, and asks any remaining questions.
A compare and contrast essay example can be an opinion piece comparing two things and making a conclusion about which is better. For example, “Is Tom Brady really the GOAT?” It can also help consumers decide which product is better suited to them. Should you keep your subscription to Hulu or Netflix? Should you stick with Apple or explore Android? Here’s our list of compare and contrast essay samples categorized by subject.
Education and Parenting Compare and Contrast Essay Examples
Private school vs. public school.
“Deciding whether to send a child to public or private school can be a tough choice for parents. … Data on whether public or private education is better can be challenging to find and difficult to understand, and the cost of private school can be daunting. … According to the most recent data from the National Center for Education Statistics, public schools still attract far more students than private schools, with 50.7 million students attending public school as of 2018. Private school enrollment in the fall of 2017 was 5.7 million students, a number that is down from 6 million in 1999.”
Which parenting style is right for you?
Sample lines: “The three main types of parenting are on a type of ‘sliding scale’ of parenting, with permissive parenting as the least strict type of parenting. Permissive parenting typically has very few rules, while authoritarian parenting is thought of as a very strict, rule-driven type of parenting.”
Masked Education? The Benefits and Burdens of Wearing Face Masks in Schools During the Current Corona Pandemic
Sample lines: “Face masks can prevent the spread of the virus SARS-CoV-2. … However, covering the lower half of the face reduces the ability to communicate. Positive emotions become less recognizable, and negative emotions are amplified. Emotional mimicry, contagion, and emotionality in general are reduced and (thereby) bonding between teachers and learners, group cohesion, and learning—of which emotions are a major driver. The benefits and burdens of face masks in schools should be seriously considered and made obvious and clear to teachers and students.”
Technology Compare and Contrast Essay Examples
Netflix vs. hulu 2023: which is the best streaming service.
Sample lines: “Netflix fans will point to its high-quality originals, including The Witcher , Stranger Things , Emily in Paris , Ozark , and more, as well as a wide variety of documentaries like Cheer , The Last Dance , My Octopus Teacher , and many others. It also boasts a much larger subscription base, with more than 222 million subscribers compared to Hulu’s 44 million. Hulu, on the other hand, offers a variety of extras such as HBO and Showtime—content that’s unavailable on Netflix. Its price tag is also cheaper than the competition, with its $7/mo. starting price, which is a bit more palatable than Netflix’s $10/mo. starting price.”
Kindle vs. Hardcover: Which is easier on the eyes?
Sample lines: “In the past, we would have to drag around heavy books if we were really into reading. Now, we can have all of those books, and many more, stored in one handy little device that can easily be stuffed into a backpack, purse, etc. … Many of us still prefer to hold an actual book in our hands. We love how books feel. We love how books smell (especially old books). We love books, period. … But, whether you use a Kindle or prefer hardcover books or paperbacks, the main thing is that you enjoy reading. A story in a book or on a Kindle device can open up new worlds, take you to fantasy worlds, educate you, entertain you, and so much more.”
iPhone vs. Android: Which is better for you?
“The iPhone vs. Android comparison is a never-ending debate on which one is best. It will likely never have a real winner, but we’re going to try and help you to find your personal pick all the same. The latest version of both operating systems—iOS 16 and Android 13—are both excellent, but in slightly different ways. Many of their features overlap, but design-wise they look quite different, aside from the basic touchscreen-focused layout. … Owning an iPhone is a simpler, more convenient experience. … Android-device ownership is a bit harder. …”
Cutting the cord: Is streaming or cable better for you?
Sample lines: “Cord-cutting has become a popular trend in recent years, thanks to the rise of streaming services. For those unfamiliar, cord cutting is the process of canceling your cable subscription and instead, relying on streaming platforms such as Netflix and Hulu to watch your favorite shows and movies. The primary difference is that you can select your streaming services à la carte while cable locks you in on a set number of channels through bundles. So, the big question is: should you cut the cord?”
PS5 vs. Nintendo Switch
Sample lines: “The crux of the comparison comes down to portability versus power. Being able to migrate fully fledged Nintendo games from a big screen to a portable device is a huge asset—and one that consumers have taken to, especially given the Nintendo Switch’s meteoric sales figures. … It is worth noting that many of the biggest franchises like Call of Duty, Madden, modern Resident Evil titles, newer Final Fantasy games, Grand Theft Auto, and open-world Ubisoft adventures like Assassin’s Creed will usually skip Nintendo Switch due to its lack of power. The inability to play these popular games practically guarantees that a consumer will pick up a modern system, while using the Switch as a secondary device.”
What is the difference between Facebook and Instagram?
Sample lines: “Have you ever wondered what is the difference between Facebook and Instagram? Instagram and Facebook are by far the most popular social media channels used by digital marketers. Not to mention that they’re also the biggest platforms used by internet users worldwide. So, today we’ll look into the differences and similarities between these two platforms to help you figure out which one is the best fit for your business.”
Digital vs. Analog Watches—What’s the Difference?
Sample lines: “In short, digital watches use an LCD or LED screen to display the time. Whereas, an analog watch features three hands to denote the hour, minutes, and seconds. With the advancement in watch technology and research, both, analog and digital watches have received significant improvements over the years. Especially, in terms of design, endurance, and accompanying features. … At the end of the day, whether you go analog or digital, it’s a personal preference to make based on your style, needs, functions, and budget.”
Pop Culture Compare and Contrast Essay Examples
Christina aguilera vs. britney spears.
Sample lines: “Britney Spears vs. Christina Aguilera was the Coke vs. Pepsi of 1999 — no, really, Christina repped Coke and Britney shilled for Pepsi. The two teen idols released debut albums seven months apart before the turn of the century, with Britney’s becoming a standard-bearer for bubblegum pop and Aguilera’s taking an R&B bent to show off her range. … It’s clear that Spears and Aguilera took extremely divergent paths following their simultaneous breakout successes.”
Harry Styles vs. Ed Sheeran
Sample lines: “The world heard our fantasies and delivered us two titans simultaneously—we have been blessed with Ed Sheeran and Harry Styles. Our cup runneth over; our bounty is immeasurable. More remarkable still is the fact that both have released albums almost at the same time: Ed’s third, Divide , was released in March and broke the record for one-day Spotify streams, while Harry’s frenziedly anticipated debut solo, called Harry Styles , was released yesterday.”
The Grinch: Three Versions Compared
Sample lines: “Based on the original story of the same name, this movie takes a completely different direction by choosing to break away from the cartoony form that Seuss had established by filming the movie in a live-action form. Whoville is preparing for Christmas while the Grinch looks down upon their celebrations in disgust. Like the previous film, The Grinch hatches a plan to ruin Christmas for the Who’s. … Like in the original Grinch, he disguises himself as Santa Claus, and makes his dog, Max, into a reindeer. He then takes all of the presents from the children and households. … Cole’s favorite is the 2000 edition, while Alex has only seen the original. Tell us which one is your favorite.”
Historical and Political Compare and Contrast Essay Examples
Malcom x vs. martin luther king jr.: comparison between two great leaders’ ideologies .
Sample lines: “Although they were fighting for civil rights at the same time, their ideology and way of fighting were completely distinctive. This can be for a plethora of reasons: background, upbringing, the system of thought, and vision. But keep in mind, they devoted their whole life to the same prospect. … Through boycotts and marches, he [King] hoped to end racial segregation. He felt that the abolition of segregation would improve the likelihood of integration. Malcolm X, on the other hand, spearheaded a movement for black empowerment.”
Contrast Between Obama and Trump Has Become Clear
Sample lines: “The contrast is even clearer when we look to the future. Trump promises more tax cuts, more military spending, more deficits and deeper cuts in programs for the vulnerable. He plans to nominate a coal lobbyist to head the Environmental Protection Agency. … Obama says America must move forward, and he praises progressive Democrats. … With Obama and then Trump, Americans have elected two diametrically opposed leaders leading into two very different directions.”
Sports Compare and Contrast Essay Examples
Lebron james vs. kobe bryant: a complete comparison.
Sample lines: “LeBron James has achieved so much in his career that he is seen by many as the greatest of all time, or at least the only player worthy of being mentioned in the GOAT conversation next to Michael Jordan. Bridging the gap between Jordan and LeBron though was Kobe Bryant. … Should his name be mentioned more though? Can he compare to LeBron or is The King too far past The Black Mamba in historical rankings already?”
NFL: Tom Brady vs. Peyton Manning Rivalry Comparison
Sample lines: “Tom Brady and Peyton Manning were largely considered the best quarterbacks in the NFL for the majority of the time they spent in the league together, with the icons having many head-to-head clashes in the regular season and on the AFC side of the NFL Playoffs. Manning was the leader of the Indianapolis Colts of the AFC South. … Brady spent his career as the QB of the AFC East’s New England Patriots, before taking his talents to Tampa Bay.”
Lifestyle Choices Compare and Contrast Essay Examples
Mobile home vs. tiny house: similarities, differences, pros & cons.
Sample lines: “Choosing the tiny home lifestyle enables you to spend more time with those you love. The small living space ensures quality bonding time rather than hiding away in a room or behind a computer screen. … You’ll be able to connect closer to nature and find yourself able to travel the country at any given moment. On the other hand, we have the mobile home. … They are not built to be moved on a constant basis. … While moving the home again *is* possible, it may cost you several thousand dollars.”
Whole Foods vs. Walmart: The Story of Two Grocery Stores
Sample lines: “It is clear that both stores have very different stories and aims when it comes to their customers. Whole Foods looks to provide organic, healthy, exotic, and niche products for an audience with a very particular taste. … Walmart … looks to provide the best deals … and every big brand for a broader audience. … Moreover, they look to make buying affordable and accessible, and focus on the capitalist nature of buying.”
Artificial Grass vs. Turf: The Real Differences Revealed
Sample lines: “The key difference between artificial grass and turf is their intended use. Artificial turf is largely intended to be used for sports, so it is shorter and tougher. On the other hand, artificial grass is generally longer, softer and more suited to landscaping purposes. Most homeowners would opt for artificial grass as a replacement for a lawn, for example. Some people actually prefer playing sports on artificial grass, too … artificial grass is often softer and more bouncy, giving it a feel similar to playing on a grassy lawn. … At the end of the day, which one you will choose will depend on your specific household and needs.”
Minimalism vs. Maximalism: Differences, Similarities, and Use Cases
Sample lines: “Maximalists love shopping, especially finding unique pieces. They see it as a hobby—even a skill—and a way to express their personality. Minimalists don’t like shopping and see it as a waste of time and money. They’d instead use those resources to create memorable experiences. Maximalists desire one-of-a-kind possessions. Minimalists are happy with duplicates—for example, personal uniforms. … Minimalism and maximalism are about being intentional with your life and belongings. It’s about making choices based on what’s important to you.”
Healthcare Compare and Contrast Essay Examples
Similarities and differences between the health systems in australia & usa.
Sample lines: “Australia and the United States are two very different countries. They are far away from each other, have contrasting fauna and flora, differ immensely by population, and have vastly different healthcare systems. The United States has a population of 331 million people, compared to Australia’s population of 25.5 million people.”
Universal Healthcare in the United States of America: A Healthy Debate
Sample lines: “Disadvantages of universal healthcare include significant upfront costs and logistical challenges. On the other hand, universal healthcare may lead to a healthier populace, and thus, in the long-term, help to mitigate the economic costs of an unhealthy nation. In particular, substantial health disparities exist in the United States, with low socio-economic status segments of the population subject to decreased access to quality healthcare and increased risk of non-communicable chronic conditions such as obesity and type II diabetes, among other determinants of poor health.”
Animals Compare and Contrast Essay Examples
Compare and contrast paragraph—dogs and cats.
Sample lines: “Researchers have found that dogs have about twice the number of neurons in their cerebral cortexes than what cats have. Specifically, dogs had around 530 million neurons, whereas the domestic cat only had 250 million neurons. Moreover, dogs can be trained to learn and respond to our commands, but although your cat understands your name, and anticipates your every move, he/she may choose to ignore you.”
Giddyup! The Differences Between Horses and Dogs
Sample lines: “Horses are prey animals with a deep herding instinct. They are highly sensitive to their environment, hyper aware and ready to take flight if needed. Just like dogs, some horses are more confident than others, but just like dogs, all need a confident handler to teach them what to do. Some horses are highly reactive and can be spooked by the smallest things as are dogs. … Another distinction between horses and dogs … was that while dogs have been domesticated , horses have been tamed. … Both species have influenced our culture more than any other species on the planet.
Exotic, Domesticated, and Wild Pets
Sample lines: “Although the words ‘exotic’ and ‘wild’ are frequently used interchangeably, many people do not fully understand how these categories differ when it comes to pets. ‘A wild animal is an indigenous, non-domesticated animal, meaning that it is native to the country where you are located,’ Blue-McLendon explained. ‘For Texans, white-tailed deer, pronghorn sheep, raccoons, skunks, and bighorn sheep are wild animals … an exotic animal is one that is wild but is from a different continent than where you live.’ For example, a hedgehog in Texas would be considered an exotic animal, but in the hedgehog’s native country, it would be considered wildlife.”
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Comparing and Contrasting
What this handout is about.
This handout will help you first to determine whether a particular assignment is asking for comparison/contrast and then to generate a list of similarities and differences, decide which similarities and differences to focus on, and organize your paper so that it will be clear and effective. It will also explain how you can (and why you should) develop a thesis that goes beyond “Thing A and Thing B are similar in many ways but different in others.”
In your career as a student, you’ll encounter many different kinds of writing assignments, each with its own requirements. One of the most common is the comparison/contrast essay, in which you focus on the ways in which certain things or ideas—usually two of them—are similar to (this is the comparison) and/or different from (this is the contrast) one another. By assigning such essays, your instructors are encouraging you to make connections between texts or ideas, engage in critical thinking, and go beyond mere description or summary to generate interesting analysis: when you reflect on similarities and differences, you gain a deeper understanding of the items you are comparing, their relationship to each other, and what is most important about them.
Recognizing comparison/contrast in assignments
Some assignments use words—like compare, contrast, similarities, and differences—that make it easy for you to see that they are asking you to compare and/or contrast. Here are a few hypothetical examples:
- Compare and contrast Frye’s and Bartky’s accounts of oppression.
- Compare WWI to WWII, identifying similarities in the causes, development, and outcomes of the wars.
- Contrast Wordsworth and Coleridge; what are the major differences in their poetry?
Notice that some topics ask only for comparison, others only for contrast, and others for both.
But it’s not always so easy to tell whether an assignment is asking you to include comparison/contrast. And in some cases, comparison/contrast is only part of the essay—you begin by comparing and/or contrasting two or more things and then use what you’ve learned to construct an argument or evaluation. Consider these examples, noticing the language that is used to ask for the comparison/contrast and whether the comparison/contrast is only one part of a larger assignment:
- Choose a particular idea or theme, such as romantic love, death, or nature, and consider how it is treated in two Romantic poems.
- How do the different authors we have studied so far define and describe oppression?
- Compare Frye’s and Bartky’s accounts of oppression. What does each imply about women’s collusion in their own oppression? Which is more accurate?
- In the texts we’ve studied, soldiers who served in different wars offer differing accounts of their experiences and feelings both during and after the fighting. What commonalities are there in these accounts? What factors do you think are responsible for their differences?
You may want to check out our handout on understanding assignments for additional tips.
Using comparison/contrast for all kinds of writing projects
Sometimes you may want to use comparison/contrast techniques in your own pre-writing work to get ideas that you can later use for an argument, even if comparison/contrast isn’t an official requirement for the paper you’re writing. For example, if you wanted to argue that Frye’s account of oppression is better than both de Beauvoir’s and Bartky’s, comparing and contrasting the main arguments of those three authors might help you construct your evaluation—even though the topic may not have asked for comparison/contrast and the lists of similarities and differences you generate may not appear anywhere in the final draft of your paper.
Discovering similarities and differences
Making a Venn diagram or a chart can help you quickly and efficiently compare and contrast two or more things or ideas. To make a Venn diagram, simply draw some overlapping circles, one circle for each item you’re considering. In the central area where they overlap, list the traits the two items have in common. Assign each one of the areas that doesn’t overlap; in those areas, you can list the traits that make the things different. Here’s a very simple example, using two pizza places:
To make a chart, figure out what criteria you want to focus on in comparing the items. Along the left side of the page, list each of the criteria. Across the top, list the names of the items. You should then have a box per item for each criterion; you can fill the boxes in and then survey what you’ve discovered.
As you generate points of comparison, consider the purpose and content of the assignment and the focus of the class. What do you think the professor wants you to learn by doing this comparison/contrast? How does it fit with what you have been studying so far and with the other assignments in the course? Are there any clues about what to focus on in the assignment itself?
Here are some general questions about different types of things you might have to compare. These are by no means complete or definitive lists; they’re just here to give you some ideas—you can generate your own questions for these and other types of comparison. You may want to begin by using the questions reporters traditionally ask: Who? What? Where? When? Why? How? If you’re talking about objects, you might also consider general properties like size, shape, color, sound, weight, taste, texture, smell, number, duration, and location.
Two historical periods or events
- When did they occur—do you know the date(s) and duration? What happened or changed during each? Why are they significant?
- What kinds of work did people do? What kinds of relationships did they have? What did they value?
- What kinds of governments were there? Who were important people involved?
- What caused events in these periods, and what consequences did they have later on?
Two ideas or theories
- What are they about?
- Did they originate at some particular time?
- Who created them? Who uses or defends them?
- What is the central focus, claim, or goal of each? What conclusions do they offer?
- How are they applied to situations/people/things/etc.?
- Which seems more plausible to you, and why? How broad is their scope?
- What kind of evidence is usually offered for them?
Two pieces of writing or art
- What are their titles? What do they describe or depict?
- What is their tone or mood? What is their form?
- Who created them? When were they created? Why do you think they were created as they were? What themes do they address?
- Do you think one is of higher quality or greater merit than the other(s)—and if so, why?
- For writing: what plot, characterization, setting, theme, tone, and type of narration are used?
- Where are they from? How old are they? What is the gender, race, class, etc. of each?
- What, if anything, are they known for? Do they have any relationship to each other?
- What are they like? What did/do they do? What do they believe? Why are they interesting?
- What stands out most about each of them?
Deciding what to focus on
By now you have probably generated a huge list of similarities and differences—congratulations! Next you must decide which of them are interesting, important, and relevant enough to be included in your paper. Ask yourself these questions:
- What’s relevant to the assignment?
- What’s relevant to the course?
- What’s interesting and informative?
- What matters to the argument you are going to make?
- What’s basic or central (and needs to be mentioned even if obvious)?
- Overall, what’s more important—the similarities or the differences?
Suppose that you are writing a paper comparing two novels. For most literature classes, the fact that they both use Caslon type (a kind of typeface, like the fonts you may use in your writing) is not going to be relevant, nor is the fact that one of them has a few illustrations and the other has none; literature classes are more likely to focus on subjects like characterization, plot, setting, the writer’s style and intentions, language, central themes, and so forth. However, if you were writing a paper for a class on typesetting or on how illustrations are used to enhance novels, the typeface and presence or absence of illustrations might be absolutely critical to include in your final paper.
Sometimes a particular point of comparison or contrast might be relevant but not terribly revealing or interesting. For example, if you are writing a paper about Wordsworth’s “Tintern Abbey” and Coleridge’s “Frost at Midnight,” pointing out that they both have nature as a central theme is relevant (comparisons of poetry often talk about themes) but not terribly interesting; your class has probably already had many discussions about the Romantic poets’ fondness for nature. Talking about the different ways nature is depicted or the different aspects of nature that are emphasized might be more interesting and show a more sophisticated understanding of the poems.
The thesis of your comparison/contrast paper is very important: it can help you create a focused argument and give your reader a road map so she/he doesn’t get lost in the sea of points you are about to make. As in any paper, you will want to replace vague reports of your general topic (for example, “This paper will compare and contrast two pizza places,” or “Pepper’s and Amante are similar in some ways and different in others,” or “Pepper’s and Amante are similar in many ways, but they have one major difference”) with something more detailed and specific. For example, you might say, “Pepper’s and Amante have similar prices and ingredients, but their atmospheres and willingness to deliver set them apart.”
Be careful, though—although this thesis is fairly specific and does propose a simple argument (that atmosphere and delivery make the two pizza places different), your instructor will often be looking for a bit more analysis. In this case, the obvious question is “So what? Why should anyone care that Pepper’s and Amante are different in this way?” One might also wonder why the writer chose those two particular pizza places to compare—why not Papa John’s, Dominos, or Pizza Hut? Again, thinking about the context the class provides may help you answer such questions and make a stronger argument. Here’s a revision of the thesis mentioned earlier:
Pepper’s and Amante both offer a greater variety of ingredients than other Chapel Hill/Carrboro pizza places (and than any of the national chains), but the funky, lively atmosphere at Pepper’s makes it a better place to give visiting friends and family a taste of local culture.
You may find our handout on constructing thesis statements useful at this stage.
Organizing your paper
There are many different ways to organize a comparison/contrast essay. Here are two:
Begin by saying everything you have to say about the first subject you are discussing, then move on and make all the points you want to make about the second subject (and after that, the third, and so on, if you’re comparing/contrasting more than two things). If the paper is short, you might be able to fit all of your points about each item into a single paragraph, but it’s more likely that you’d have several paragraphs per item. Using our pizza place comparison/contrast as an example, after the introduction, you might have a paragraph about the ingredients available at Pepper’s, a paragraph about its location, and a paragraph about its ambience. Then you’d have three similar paragraphs about Amante, followed by your conclusion.
The danger of this subject-by-subject organization is that your paper will simply be a list of points: a certain number of points (in my example, three) about one subject, then a certain number of points about another. This is usually not what college instructors are looking for in a paper—generally they want you to compare or contrast two or more things very directly, rather than just listing the traits the things have and leaving it up to the reader to reflect on how those traits are similar or different and why those similarities or differences matter. Thus, if you use the subject-by-subject form, you will probably want to have a very strong, analytical thesis and at least one body paragraph that ties all of your different points together.
A subject-by-subject structure can be a logical choice if you are writing what is sometimes called a “lens” comparison, in which you use one subject or item (which isn’t really your main topic) to better understand another item (which is). For example, you might be asked to compare a poem you’ve already covered thoroughly in class with one you are reading on your own. It might make sense to give a brief summary of your main ideas about the first poem (this would be your first subject, the “lens”), and then spend most of your paper discussing how those points are similar to or different from your ideas about the second.
Rather than addressing things one subject at a time, you may wish to talk about one point of comparison at a time. There are two main ways this might play out, depending on how much you have to say about each of the things you are comparing. If you have just a little, you might, in a single paragraph, discuss how a certain point of comparison/contrast relates to all the items you are discussing. For example, I might describe, in one paragraph, what the prices are like at both Pepper’s and Amante; in the next paragraph, I might compare the ingredients available; in a third, I might contrast the atmospheres of the two restaurants.
If I had a bit more to say about the items I was comparing/contrasting, I might devote a whole paragraph to how each point relates to each item. For example, I might have a whole paragraph about the clientele at Pepper’s, followed by a whole paragraph about the clientele at Amante; then I would move on and do two more paragraphs discussing my next point of comparison/contrast—like the ingredients available at each restaurant.
There are no hard and fast rules about organizing a comparison/contrast paper, of course. Just be sure that your reader can easily tell what’s going on! Be aware, too, of the placement of your different points. If you are writing a comparison/contrast in service of an argument, keep in mind that the last point you make is the one you are leaving your reader with. For example, if I am trying to argue that Amante is better than Pepper’s, I should end with a contrast that leaves Amante sounding good, rather than with a point of comparison that I have to admit makes Pepper’s look better. If you’ve decided that the differences between the items you’re comparing/contrasting are most important, you’ll want to end with the differences—and vice versa, if the similarities seem most important to you.
Our handout on organization can help you write good topic sentences and transitions and make sure that you have a good overall structure in place for your paper.
Cue words and other tips
To help your reader keep track of where you are in the comparison/contrast, you’ll want to be sure that your transitions and topic sentences are especially strong. Your thesis should already have given the reader an idea of the points you’ll be making and the organization you’ll be using, but you can help her/him out with some extra cues. The following words may be helpful to you in signaling your intentions:
- like, similar to, also, unlike, similarly, in the same way, likewise, again, compared to, in contrast, in like manner, contrasted with, on the contrary, however, although, yet, even though, still, but, nevertheless, conversely, at the same time, regardless, despite, while, on the one hand … on the other hand.
For example, you might have a topic sentence like one of these:
- Compared to Pepper’s, Amante is quiet.
- Like Amante, Pepper’s offers fresh garlic as a topping.
- Despite their different locations (downtown Chapel Hill and downtown Carrboro), Pepper’s and Amante are both fairly easy to get to.
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