A compare and contrast essay is a form of academic writing that is built around an examination of at least two items. There are two kinds of compare and contrast essays: one where you focus more on the similarities of chosen items, and one that contrasts their differences. Depending on your emphasis, the paper can be more of a comparison essay, or more of a contrast essay.
Steps for Writing a Compare and Contrast Essay
- Decide on the two or more items you plan to discuss. Make sure they have similar and dissimilar qualities, so there is enough material to focus on.
- Make an outline, sketching out the points you plan to focus on in your essay.
- Decide which organizational structure you will use for your compare and contrast essay. There are two basic approaches for the main body. You can either focus on the similarities first and then go to the differences (it can be in reverse order as well)—this is called point-by-point arrangement; or you can first focus on the qualities of one item (in a paragraph or two), and then move onto analyzing the other item (normally comparing the same set of qualities)—this is called a block arrangement of ideas.
- Write an introduction. Make sure to finish it with a clear thesis sentence where you give the main reason for choosing whichever items you chose.
- Write the main body paragraphs in accordance with the structure you chose when making an outline—either block or point-by-point arrangement.
- Write a conclusion. Make sure to go back to your initial thesis sentence and rephrase it, finalizing the result of your comparison or contrast writing and answering the main question you initially had in mind.
- Lay your essay aside for a day or two and then thoroughly proofread it.
Compare and Contrast Essay Topics
There are limitless points you can compare or contrast in your essay. It can be anything related to natural phenomena, food, lifestyle, sports, gender issues, hobbies, literary forms and so on—anything people can have viewpoints on.
The only concept you have to consider when choosing the subjects for your compare and contrast essay is that what you compare or contrast needs to be of the same kind, type, or category, which means they need to have some basics in common. For instance, you cannot compare a tornado to being a vegetarian, or a movie to the choice of a profession.
Below are several examples of topics for a compare and contrast essay.
- “Gone with the Wind” and “The Thorn Birds”
- Your family home and the house of your dreams
- A big college campus to a small college campus
- A female friend and a male friend
- A good boss and a bad boss
- A real vacation and a dream vacation
- A starting pitcher and a reliever
- Abolishment of slavery and anti-segregation laws
- Abraham Lincoln with Thomas Jefferson
- Acting to lying
- Reading a book or watching a movie
- Modern art vs. classical art: aesthetics and meaning
- Halloween or Christmas: which holiday is more fun?
- Acting and lying: are they really the same thing?
- What is the difference between prejudice and discrimination?
- Choosing a pet: dog vs. cat
- Why public schools are better for children than private schools?
- Playing video games vs. outdoor activities with friends
- Dieting and anorexia: are they really that far apart?
- City life or country life?
- Forward or defender: which soccer position contributes more to a win?
- Which is a better place to go on vacation: the beach or mountains?
Key Points to Consider
- The main rule when writing compare and contrast essays is paying attention to details. The items you compare might be what we do or watch or talk about every day. You have to take your time, brainstorm for ideas and take a fresh look at the subject you plan to discuss or come up with a different perspective from the one you normally have.
- The key to a successful compare and contrast essay is following the selected organizational structure (either block or point-by-point) precisely, since this is normally one of the main criteria your instructor will check when grading the paper.
- Think of a particular audience you are addressing. Sketch the list of major qualities or peculiarities of this audience and make sure you address the subject that is important to your readers, noting what your audience normally values and is interested in.
- When making an outline for the items you chose to compare or contrast, ask yourself this question: “Will the result of your comparison have any significant practical value or meaning for you or your readers?” If the answer is “no,” then it is better to change your topic at this point.
Do and Don’t
Common Mistakes When Writing a Compare and Contrast Essay
– Starting your essay without a clear idea in mind. You need to decide whether you will focus on proving the similarities or the differences of the items you compare, and only then can you move onto creating an outline and starting your draft.
– Choosing a topic that is too general or is widely discussed. It is difficult to create an original and plagiarism-free essay when you select a topic that has already been discussed a million times.
– Selecting two equally good/bad/useful/advantageous items to compare. If you yourself cannot answer your thesis question (“Which item is a better choice?”), then you will fail to produce a successful compare and contrast essay.
– Using charts or tables in your paper. Despite the fact that it might be easier to list similar or discrepant qualities by organizing them into some sort of graphic structure, this is not an appropriate idea when you are writing an essay. You can still create a chart or a table for your own purposes to help you organize your thoughts and prepare a outline.
Now that you have acquainted yourself with the basic compare and contrast essay writing tips and rules, you can check out our compare and contrast essay samples to link theory with practice.
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Samples for Writing a Compare and Contrast Essay
Major Differences in Hospitals Today and 100 Years Ago
The Differences Between Procrastination and Laziness
Connoisseurship and Condescension
Throughout your academic career, you'll be asked to write papers in which you compare and contrast two things: two texts, two theories, two historical figures, two scientific processes, and so on. "Classic" compare-and-contrast papers, in which you weight A and B equally, may be about two similar things that have crucial differences (two pesticides with different effects on the environment) or two similar things that have crucial differences, yet turn out to have surprising commonalities (two politicians with vastly different world views who voice unexpectedly similar perspectives on sexual harassment).
In the "lens" (or "keyhole") comparison, in which you weight A less heavily than B, you use A as a lens through which to view B. Just as looking through a pair of glasses changes the way you see an object, using A as a framework for understanding B changes the way you see B. Lens comparisons are useful for illuminating, critiquing, or challenging the stability of a thing that, before the analysis, seemed perfectly understood. Often, lens comparisons take time into account: earlier texts, events, or historical figures may illuminate later ones, and vice versa.
Faced with a daunting list of seemingly unrelated similarities and differences, you may feel confused about how to construct a paper that isn't just a mechanical exercise in which you first state all the features that A and B have in common, and then state all the ways in which A and B are different. Predictably, the thesis of such a paper is usually an assertion that A and B are very similar yet not so similar after all. To write a good compare-and-contrast paper, you must take your raw data—the similarities and differences you've observed—and make them cohere into a meaningful argument. Here are the five elements required.
Frame of Reference. This is the context within which you place the two things you plan to compare and contrast; it is the umbrella under which you have grouped them. The frame of reference may consist of an idea, theme, question, problem, or theory; a group of similar things from which you extract two for special attention; biographical or historical information. The best frames of reference are constructed from specific sources rather than your own thoughts or observations. Thus, in a paper comparing how two writers redefine social norms of masculinity, you would be better off quoting a sociologist on the topic of masculinity than spinning out potentially banal-sounding theories of your own. Most assignments tell you exactly what the frame of reference should be, and most courses supply sources for constructing it. If you encounter an assignment that fails to provide a frame of reference, you must come up with one on your own. A paper without such a context would have no angle on the material, no focus or frame for the writer to propose a meaningful argument.
Grounds for Comparison. Let's say you're writing a paper on global food distribution, and you've chosen to compare apples and oranges. Why these particular fruits? Why not pears and bananas? The rationale behind your choice, the grounds for comparison, lets your reader know why your choice is deliberate and meaningful, not random. For instance, in a paper asking how the "discourse of domesticity" has been used in the abortion debate, the grounds for comparison are obvious; the issue has two conflicting sides, pro-choice and pro-life. In a paper comparing the effects of acid rain on two forest sites, your choice of sites is less obvious. A paper focusing on similarly aged forest stands in Maine and the Catskills will be set up differently from one comparing a new forest stand in the White Mountains with an old forest in the same region. You need to indicate the reasoning behind your choice.
Thesis. The grounds for comparison anticipates the comparative nature of your thesis. As in any argumentative paper, your thesis statement will convey the gist of your argument, which necessarily follows from your frame of reference. But in a compare-and-contrast, the thesis depends on how the two things you've chosen to compare actually relate to one another. Do they extend, corroborate, complicate, contradict, correct, or debate one another? In the most common compare-and-contrast paper—one focusing on differences—you can indicate the precise relationship between A and B by using the word "whereas" in your thesis:
Whereas Camus perceives ideology as secondary to the need to address a specific historical moment of colonialism, Fanon perceives a revolutionary ideology as the impetus to reshape Algeria's history in a direction toward independence.
Whether your paper focuses primarily on difference or similarity, you need to make the relationship between A and B clear in your thesis. This relationship is at the heart of any compare-and-contrast paper.
Organizational Scheme. Your introduction will include your frame of reference, grounds for comparison, and thesis. There are two basic ways to organize the body of your paper.
- In text-by-text, you discuss all of A, then all of B.
- In point-by-point, you alternate points about A with comparable points about B.
If you think that B extends A, you'll probably use a text-by-text scheme; if you see A and B engaged in debate, a point-by-point scheme will draw attention to the conflict. Be aware, however, that the point-by- point scheme can come off as a ping-pong game. You can avoid this effect by grouping more than one point together, thereby cutting down on the number of times you alternate from A to B. But no matter which organizational scheme you choose, you need not give equal time to similarities and differences. In fact, your paper will be more interesting if you get to the heart of your argument as quickly as possible. Thus, a paper on two evolutionary theorists' different interpretations of specific archaeological findings might have as few as two or three sentences in the introduction on similarities and at most a paragraph or two to set up the contrast between the theorists' positions. The rest of the paper, whether organized text- by-text or point-by-point, will treat the two theorists' differences.
You can organize a classic compare-and-contrast paper either text-by-text or point-by-point. But in a "lens" comparison, in which you spend significantly less time on A (the lens) than on B (the focal text), you almost always organize text-by-text. That's because A and B are not strictly comparable: A is merely a tool for helping you discover whether or not B's nature is actually what expectations have led you to believe it is.
Linking of A and B. All argumentative papers require you to link each point in the argument back to the thesis. Without such links, your reader will be unable to see how new sections logically and systematically advance your argument. In a compare-and contrast, you also need to make links between A and B in the body of your essay if you want your paper to hold together. To make these links, use transitional expressions of comparison and contrast (similarly, moreover, likewise, on the contrary, conversely, on the other hand) and contrastive vocabulary (in the example below, Southerner/Northerner).
As a girl raised in the faded glory of the Old South, amid mystical tales of magnolias and moonlight, the mother remains part of a dying generation. Surrounded by hard times, racial conflict, and limited opportunities, Julian, on the other hand, feels repelled by the provincial nature of home, and represents a new Southerner, one who sees his native land through a condescending Northerner's eyes.
Copyright 1998, Kerry Walk, for the Writing Center at Harvard University