What is a compare-contrast essay?
Have you encountered an essay prompt that directs you to compare or contrast two elements (e.g., two characters in a story, two different political theories, two different religious doctrines or scientific explanations, two different historical events, and so forth)? This is called a compare-contrast essay, and it is a form you are likely to encounter often.
Comparison essays tend to focus on similarities, while contrast essays focus on differences. Realistically, either type of essay will usually address both similarities and differences.
3 keys to a compare-contrast essay
- Explain precisely what you are comparing, defining terms as necessary
- Narrow your focus; be specific about what you are and are not comparing or contrasting
- Keep the comparison or contrast alive throughout the essay
Example of a compare-contrast essay question
Here is a compare/contrast essay question from Excellence in Literature’s English 3, American Literature, Module 2, considering The Legend of Sleepy Hollow and Miles Standish.
Essay prompt: Write a 750-word essay comparing and contrasting the courtship strategies of Irving’s characters, Ichabod Crane and Brom Bones, with Longfellow’s characters, Miles Standish and John Alden. Be sure to address the following issues:
- What was each man’s strategy and how well did it work?
- In what ways, if any, could the losing candidates have improved their chances for success?
- How did the young ladies who were being courted communicate their preferences to the young man of their choice?
- How did each courtship compare with an ideal courtship?
- Optional: How did the courtships reflect the ideas and concerns of the Romantic era?
- Be sure to use quotations from each work to support your viewpoint.
One way to approach the essay question
You could approach the multi-part question above with a graphic organizer or by charting the answers as in the table below. Just use a notebook, draw a line down the middle of a page and write in the answers to the questions below. The resulting outline can be used as a basis for the essay.
|Ichabod and Brom||Miles and John|
|Courtship strategy: how did Ichabod try to show Katrina that he liked her? Give examples from the text.||Courtship strategy: how did John try to show Priscilla that he liked her? Give examples from the text.|
|Did it work? How do you know? Who actually won?||Did it work? How do you know? Who actually won?|
|What made the winning man’s courtship successful? What could the losing suitor have done differently?||What made the winning man’s courtship successful? What could the losing suitor have done differently?|
|How did Katrina show who she preferred? Were her suitors surprised?||How did Priscilla show who she preferred? Were her suitors surprised?|
|What is an ideal courtship like? How was Ichabod’s or Brom’s courtship different from or similar to an ideal courtship (would you have wanted to be Ichabod or Brom or be courted by either of them)?||What is an ideal courtship like? How was Miles or John’s courtship different from or similar to an ideal courtship (would you have wanted to be John or Miles or be courted by them)?|
Establish a foundation with a thesis
A thesis statement takes a position on a debateable point. It can be a response to an essay prompt or simply a statement of a paper’s argument. In a compare-contrast essay, the thesis can either (1) state a preference for one of the two things being compared or (2) make an interpretative assertion about the differences or similarities between the two.
Example for the essay prompt above: Of the four courtship strategies employed in these two stories, the most effective ones seemed to focus on the young lady in question, and the least successful focused on the suitor himself.
Once the comparison and the basis of the argument have been defined, then you need to organize the sequence of paragraphs in the main body of the argument. In setting up the sequence of the paragraphs, you have some options, as follows:
- Keep the comparison alive in every paragraph, so that the argument discusses each half of the comparison in each paragraph.
- Alternate between the two subjects, point by point.
- State your entire argument for one side first, then consider the other side of the comparison.
Here is another sample outline of a compare contrast essay.
This article was adapted from the Excellence in Literature Handbook for Writers, which is available from Everyday Education, LLC (Janice Campbell’s site).
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A compare-and-contrast essay might seem like the easiest type of paper to write: just find things that are alike and then find things that are different. Piece of cake, right? There’s a catch, however. It is up to you to argue why those similarities and differences matter; otherwise, you don’t have much of a paper. The following 8 easy steps will guide you through the process of writing an effective compare-and-contrast essay that actually has something valuable to say.
1) So they’re alike and they’re different. So what? A good paper will not simply offer a summary of themes, characters, or plot. Your job is to think about how these comparisons and contrasts create meaningful connections to a larger issue.
2) Create an effective thesis statement. Again, you need to say why the comparison and contrast is worthy of note. Let’s say you want to compare and contrast the heroines of Pride and Prejudice and Jane Eyre. Your thesis might be this: “Although Elizabeth Bennet and Jane Eyre are very different on the outside, their shared internal values connects them in literary history and in the fight for women’s rights.” Now you have a reason for your efforts and a compelling case for your audience’s attention.
3) Select a pattern. There are two ways you can write a compare-and-contrast paper. You can present your arguments in a "tandem" pattern or an "alternating" pattern.
- Tandem. Separate your pros and cons into two camps. For example, if you are comparing Jane Austen’s Elizabeth in Pride and Prejudice to the heroine of Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre, you would list all the ways in which the protagonists are similar and different. A rough list might look something like this:
|Upper class||Dirt poor, orphan|
|Resists marriage||Resists marriage|
|Socially inappropriate||Socially awkward|
|Ends up with her man, |
and all is well
|Ends up with her man,|
but only after trauma
Once you have your list, the body of your paper will address everything you have discovered about one character, then everything about the other character.
- Alternating. If you opt for this choice, you will be juxtaposing Elizabeth and Jane’s pros and cons. Creating the list of likeness and differences will be handy here as well, but in using this method, you will continually address the two characters “back and forth” as you compose the body of your paper. For example, you might say, “Elizabeth is easy on the eyes, a traditional beauty, but Brontë’s Jane is continually described as plain and homely.”
4) How to decide on a pattern. While there is no rule about selecting one method over another, for longer papers (those that exceed five or six pages) you should probably go with the alternating pattern. It is hard for the reader to retain all the pertinent information about each side of your argument in lengthier discussions. For shorter papers, the tandem pattern will probably be the best bet.
5) Support with primary text. Support your analysis by providing primary textual support; in this case, the primary sources are the novels Pride and Prejudice and Jane Eyre. For each point you address, whether in a tandem or an alternating pattern, offer textual evidence for your positions either by directly quoting from the text or by paraphrasing. Be sure to properly cite each quote or paraphrase in whatever format your instructor requests (e.g., MLA, Chicago, etc.).
6) Support with secondary sources, if required. Some instructors may ask that you use sources other than the text itself to support your argument. A secondary source is anyone other than the original author. Use secondary sources to provide additional backing for your thesis, especially in arguing for why the compare-and-contrast approach you have selected is valid.
7) Include your own voice. One of the biggest challenges for a writer is to offer his or her own take on a topic. You may feel that everyone else has already said everything there is to say about your subject. Don’t be discouraged! Your own interpretation is what is most valuable in the end.
8) Review. Revise. Repeat. Compare-and-contrast essays can often become convoluted if a tight check is not kept on your writing. Review your work often to make sure you have not suffered the sins of summarizing plot, soapboxing, or wandering pointlessly in the literary woods. Move or delete text if you have to: don’t keep trying to pound a piece into the puzzle if it clearly doesn’t fit.