How to Write a Compare and Contrast Essay

The purpose of compare and contrast essay is to analyze differences and/or similarities between two distinct subjects. Good compare/contrast essay doesn’t only out how your subjects are similar or different (or even both!). It uses those points to make a meaningful argument about each subject. While it can also be a little intimidating to approach this type of essay, with a little work and practice, you can write a great compare-and-contrast essay!

Formulating Your Argument

1. Pick two subjects that can be compared and contrasted

The first step to writing successful compare and contrast essay is to pick two subjects that are different enough to be compared. There are several things to consider when choosing your subjects:

  • You could pick two subjects that are in same “category” but have differences that are significant in some way. You could choose “homemade pizza vs. frozen grocery store pizza.”
  • You could pick two subjects that don’t appear to have anything in common but that have surprising similarity.

2. Your subjects can be discussed in a meaningful way. A good compare and contrast essay will help your readers understand why it’s useful or interesting these two subjects together.

  • Ask yourself: What can we learn by thinking about The Hunger Games and Battle Royale together that we would miss out on if we thought about them separately?
  • It can be helpful to consider “So what?” question when deciding whether your subjects have meaningful comparisons and contrast to be made. If you say “The Hunger Games and Battle Royale are both similar and different,” and your friend asked you “So what?”.

3. This will help you see which points are major ones you want to focus on, and can help guide you when you formulate your thesis.

  • A “Venn diagram” can be helpful when brainstorming. This set of overlapping circles can help you visualize where your subjects are similar and where they differ. In outer edges of the circle, you write what is different; in an overlapping middle area, you write what’s similar.
  • You can also just draw out a list of all of the quality or characteristics of each subject. Once you’ve done that, start looking through the list for traits that both subjects share.

4. You won’t be able to provide a list of every single way in which your subjects are similar and/or different in your essay. Instead, choose a few points that seem to be particularly important.

  • If you are comparing and contrasting cats and dogs, you might notice that both are common household pets, fairly easy to adopt, and don’t usually have any special care needs. These are points of comparison (ways they are similar).
  • You might note that cats are usually more independent than dogs, that dogs may not provoke allergies as much as cats do, and that cats don’t get as big as many dogs do. These are points of contrast (ways they are different).
  • These points of contrast can be good places to start thinking about your thesis, or argument.

5. There are many directions a compare-and-contrast thesis can take, but it should always make an argument that explains why it’s useful for these two subjects together.

  • Show readers why one subject is more desirable than the other. Example: “Cats are better pets than dogs because they require less maintenance, are more independent, and are more adaptable.”
  • Help readers make a meaningful comparison between two subjects. Example: “New York City and San Francisco are both great cities for young professionals, but they differ in their job opportunities, social environment, and living conditions.”
  • Show readers how two subjects are similar and different. Example: “While both The Catcher in the Rye and To Kill a Mockingbird explore the themes of loss of innocence and the deep bond between siblings, To Kill a Mockingbird is more concerned with racism while The Catcher in the Rye focuses on the prejudices of class.”
  • In middle school and high school, the standard format for essays is the “5-paragraph form,” with an introduction, 3 body paragraphs, and a conclusion. If your teacher recommends this form, go for it. You should be aware that especially in college, teachers and professors tend to want students to break out of this limited mode. Don’t get locked into having “three main points” that you forget to fully explore your topic.

Outline your body paragraphs based on the point-by-point comparison. This is the more common method used in the comparison and contrast essay. You could write one paragraph describing the weather in the woods at the beach, one paragraph describing the activities in each location, and a third describing the facilities in both. Here’s how the essay could look:

  • Introduction
  • A Body Paragraph 1: Discuss the difference between woods and beaches: climate/weather.
    • Woods
    • Beach
  • Body Paragraph 2: Discuss the second difference between woods and beaches: types of activities.
    • Woods
    • Beach
  • Body Paragraph 3: Discuss the third difference between woods and beaches: available facilities.
    • Woods
    • Beach
  • Conclusion

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 don’t overlap; in those areas, you can list the traits that make the things different.

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. 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

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 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 why? For writing: what plot, characterization, setting, theme, tone, and type of narration are used?

Two people

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 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?

Contrast Essay Topics For Your Writing Paper

The thesis of your comparison/contrast paper is very important: it can help you create a focused argument and give your reader a roadmap 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 with something more detailed and specific. Here you can read some of the popular historical topics for comparison essays:

  1. Compare religious beliefs of Greeks and Egyptians.
  2. Comparative analysis of monarchy in Scandinavian countries.
  3. Compare the codes of Hammurabi and Manu.
  4. Compare historical concepts of Kant and Schiller.
  5. Find similarities and differences between Ancient Greek and Ancient Roman deities.
  6. Compare the geography of Egypt and Mesopotamia.
  7. Comparative analysis of Christianity and Judaism.
  8. Analyze the ethics of Protestantism and ethics of the Old Believers.
  9. Comparative analysis of US and Soviet economic policy of 1947-1973.
  10. Comparative analysis of the culture of the Middle Ages and the Renaissance.
  11. You may find our handout constructing thesis statements useful at this stage.

Organizing Your Paper

There are many different ways to organize a comparison and contrast essay outline. Here are two:

Subject-by-subject:

Begin by saying everything you have to say about the 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, 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 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 ambiance. Then you’d have three similar paragraphs about Amante, followed by your conclusion.

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 the one you are reading on your own. It might make sense to give a brief summary of your main ideas about the poem (this would be your 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.

Point-by-point:

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 part 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 body paragraph for the clientele at Amante; then I would move on and do two more paragraphs discussing my next part of comparison/contrast — like the ingredients available at each restaurant.

There are no hard and fast rules about organizing a comparison/contrast paper. If you are writing a comparison/contrast in service of an argument, keep in mind that the last part you make is the one you are leaving your reader with.

Our handout on the organization can help you write good topic sentences and transitions and you have a good overall structure in place for your paper.

Putting It All Together

1. Use your brainstorming ideas to fill in your outline.

  • If you are having trouble finding evidence to support your argument, back to your original texts and try the brainstorming process again.

2. A common error many writers make the comparisons and contrasts “speak for themselves,” rather than explaining why it’s helpful or important to put them together. Don’t just provide a list of “ways Topic A and Topic B are similar and different.” In your body paragraph as well as your conclusion, remind your readers of the significance of your evidence and argument.

3. Come up with a title. “Essay Number One” may say exactly what the paper is, but it’s not going to win any points for style. A good essay title will preview something about the paper’s argument or topic. Depending on your audience and the situation, you may make a pun, ask a question, or provide a summary of your main point.

4. Take a break. One of the most common mistakes student writers make is to not give themselves enough time to take a step back from their essays for a day or two. Start early that you can your finished draft sit for a day or a few hours. Then, come back to it with fresh eyes. You’ll find it easier to see holes in your logic or organizational flaws if you’ve had time to take a break.

  • Reading your essay aloud can also help you find problem spots.

5. Look out for any grammatical errors, confusing phrasing, and repetitive ideas. Here are some things to consider before you turn in your paper:

  • Don’t use overly negative or defamatory language to show why a subject is unfavorable; use solid evidence to prove your points instead.
  • Avoid first-person pronouns unless told otherwise. Your teacher may encourage you to use “I” and “you” in your essay. If the assignment or your teacher doesn’t mention it, stick with third-person instead, like “one may see” or “people may enjoy.” This is common practice for formal academic essays.
  • Proofread! Spelling and punctuation errors happen to everyone, but not catching them can make you seem lazy. Go over your essay carefully, and ask a friend to help if you’re not confident in your own proofreading skills.

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