Middle school and high school students often receive assignments that explicitly require a compare and contrast essay. In college, the professors ask for comparisons more obliquely, posing questions like, “How do Jane Austen’s and Charles Dickens’ descriptions of gender differ?” or “Choose a theme, such as time, charity, or bravery, and describe how it is treated in two French novels.” Whether a teacher asks for a compare and contrast essay directly or indirectly, it’s helpful for students to understand how to write one. A good compare and contrast essay usually consists of an introductory paragraph, body paragraphs, and a conclusion. Typically, the body paragraphs follow either a block structure or a point-by-point structure. No matter which structure you choose, you can use the following steps to write a comparison essay.
Step One: Brainstorming
Begin by creating a Venn diagram with two (or three) overlapping circles. Label each circle as one of your subjects, then mark the area where the circles overlap as the similarities between the subjects. Try to fill the circles with as many descriptions as possible. The following questions may help you to brainstorm:
- What is the time period for the two subjects?
- How does language differ between Subject 1 and Subject 2?
- What tools do the subjects rely on?
- Are there more similarities or differences?
- How do the subjects differ in terms of class, race, ethnicity, social status, or goals?
- What are obvious differences and similarities in terms of form, structure, length, size, or tone?
These are just a few examples, and you would obviously adjust the descriptions, depending on whether you’re comparing people, paintings, wars, musical recordings, or authors. Nevertheless, before you begin, it’s important to brainstorm as many similarities and differences as you can during the planning phase.
Step Two: Select an Organizational Structure
Next, look over your Venn diagram and decide what structure you want to use. Decide whether you plan to argue that the subjects have more in common or more that divides them. Edit your list of descriptions and decide which ones suit your argument best. If you opt to write a compare and contrast paper with a block structure, also known as a subject-by-subject structure, you’ll discuss one subject at a time in your body paragraphs. You may include multiple paragraphs about your first subject before moving on to the second subject. Then, you could move on to an optional analysis in which you compare (or contrast) the two, or you may introduce a third subject for comparison.
On the other hand, in an essay with a point-by-point structure, you would address each point of similarity or difference before moving on to the next. Point-by-point structure generally works well for longer essays, since it’s hard to address more than three points of comparison in a five paragraph essay. As an example, in a college essay, it’s common to use the point-by-point structure in such a way that each point of comparison receives two paragraphs. So, you might write a paragraph about how Author 1 uses diction, then follow it with a paragraph about how Author 2 uses diction differently.
As you decide which structure to use, keep the ideal length of your finished essay in mind. Before you begin your outline, you’ll also want to think about what argument you plan to use for your thesis statement. In academic writing, a thesis statement provides the framework for your essay, letting the reader know what opinion you plan to share and how you’ve structured your argument.
Step Three: Write an Outline
Now that you’ve chosen a structure, you can write an essay outline with your introduction, body paragraphs, and conclusion. Be sure to include your thesis statement in the introduction. Each paragraph should have a topic sentence that explains the main point you’re trying to make. In your outline, it can be helpful to include your entire topic sentence for each body paragraph.
Let’s assume you’ve chosen the block method for your essay structure. An outline for a five paragraph essay might look like this:
Thesis statement: Compared to Charles Dickens, Jane Austen wrote more about women’s lives and gave a more complex picture of gender dynamics.
- Body Paragraph One: Charles Dickens
Topic sentence: Charles Dickens wrote many popular novels, but he mainly wrote about male protagonists.
- Body Paragraph Two: Jane Austen
Jane Austen featured a number of well-rounded, rich female characters in her body of work.
- Body Paragraph Three: Comparison
Although both authors wrote novels about similar themes, Jane Austen gave female characters more of a voice in her novels, including richer female characters and a greater quantity of female characters.
Restated thesis: While both Charles Dickens and Jane Austen wrote about the relationships between men and women, the authors handled the subject of gender differently in their works.
Draft the Essay
After completing your outline, you’ll need to flesh out each paragraph. Usually, each body paragraph should include at least five sentences, giving evidence to support the topic sentence. Evidence may involve quotations, paraphrases, examples, statistics, and more. In addition, you should add transition words at the beginning of the body paragraphs and the conclusion. Transition words help a reader to follow your logic as you move from one topic to the next. As with all good essay writing, make sure to begin your introduction with a sentence that will capture the reader’s interest and end your arguments with your most compelling evidence.
When you complete a first draft of your comparative essay, the next step in the writing process requires spell-checking and grammar-checking. You should also read your essay aloud to see whether you’ve made your important points clearly and tied it all together with a strong conclusion. As you read aloud, mark any places where you may be able to improve the essay. At this phase, you may want to ensure that the transitions to the next paragraphs sound smooth. If you find that your evidence is weak, you can add more examples. On the other hand, you may want to improve your analysis with some critical thinking. Be sure to describe the complex relationship between Topic A and Topic B for your reader.
Ask for Help
Many schools offer writing services to help students with research papers and essays when they get stuck. No matter what kind of essay you are writing, be sure to take advantage of all the tools your professor and school have offered, such as office hours and tutoring centers. Your teacher or professor needs to see that you’ve mastered the class material, and, usually, that matters more than your essay-writing prowess.
Avoid plagiarism. It’s much more important to write an original essay than a perfect essay. Most schools have a zero tolerance policy for anyone who submits an academic paper with unoriginal content. As long as you can make a Venn diagram, you have the skills needed to master the compare and contrast essay.