How to Write a Compare & Contrast Essay

Instructor: Michael Bruder
What kind of essay now!? There are many kinds of essays, but in this lesson you will learn what a compare and contrast essay is and how to write one effectively.

What is a Compare and Contrast Essay?

Have you ever been accused of comparing apples to oranges and wondered what that meant? Rachel has, and now her English teacher is asking for a compare and contrast essay.

Understanding what a compare and contrast essay is makes it much easier to write one! A compare and contrast essay is an essay in which at least two subjects (characters, themes, movies) are discussed in terms of their similarities and differences in order to describe a relationship among them.

Rachel could write a compare and contrast essay describing the similarities and differences between two rival sports teams, or two fictional characters, or two books. She could, theoretically, write a compare and contrast essay about a pencil and Thor, but compare and contrast essays work out best when the two subjects belong to the same broader category.

Let's briefly review general essay structure, then discuss what is specific to a compare and contrast essay.

Essay Structure Review

An essay is a way of organizing writing to support or prove a point, called the thesis. The most common essay structure discussed in schools is the five paragraph essay. In this structure the essay begins with:

  1. an introduction that describes what the essay will be about and also states the thesis.
  2. three(ish) body paragraphs, each about a specific point that supports the thesis.
  3. a conclusion that restates the thesis and supporting points.

This general essay structure can be used for a number of different purposes; to persuade, to describe, or to compare and contrast.

Compare and Contrast Structure

Now let's discuss what is specific to a compare and contrast essay. Most people simply use the word 'compare' when they mean both compare and contrast but the two words actually have specific, separate, and opposite meanings.

  • To compare means to talk about two (or more) different things in terms of their similarities.
  • To contrast means to talk about two (or more) things in terms of their differences.

A good compare and contrast essay engages the reader by showing how these points enrich the way we think about the two subjects. Focus on similarities and differences that are relevant and significant.

For example, say Rachel is writing a compare and contrast essay on the two fictional characters Hamlet and Homer Simpson. Her points should go beyond the obvious or superficial. She wouldn't write an essay arguing that these two characters are similar because they are both human males, yet different because they live on different continents.

However, she might argue that they are similar because they are both motivated by their appetites and lack long-term planning skills, but are differentiated by their relationships to their families.

Choosing a Topic

Keep the essay's length in mind when choosing a topic. It is better to have too much information and need to be selective, than having too little to say. Look for subjects that could have interesting, unusual, or unexpected similarities and differences.

A Venn diagram is a brainstorming tool where commonalities are listed where the circles overlap
Venn Diagram

Use a brainstorming technique such as mind-mapping or a Venn diagram to help you write down and organize your ideas at this stage. Write down any points of comparison or contrast as they occur. Then select body paragraph topics from among these points and conduct research on these.

Organizing Body Paragraphs

After choosing the topic, consider the body paragraph organization. There are two general methods for organizing your compare and contrast body paragraphs.

Block Method

The block method involves having two large body paragraphs. One will be the comparison paragraph that describes all of the points of comparison between the two essay subjects. The other will be the contrast paragraph that describes all points of contrast.

The general rule for ordering paragraphs in any essay is to end on the strongest paragraph, so order the two body paragraphs accordingly.

Each of these two paragraphs will likely have 2-3 points of comparison or contrast. Organize them with the strongest point coming last, the second strongest first, and the others organized logically in between.

Point by Point Method

The point by point method has the standard three (or more) body paragraphs, each discussing both subjects in terms of a single point, either a comparison or a contrast. In each paragraph discuss both subjects (Hamlet and Homer in the example), but only a single point - either a comparison or a contrast.

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