What is a comparative essay?
A comparative essay asks that you compare at least two (possibly more) items. These items will differ depending on the assignment. You might be asked to compare
- positions on an issue (e.g., responses to midwifery in Canada and the United States)
- theories (e.g., capitalism and communism)
- figures (e.g., GDP in the United States and Britain)
- texts (e.g., Shakespeare’s Hamletand Macbeth)
- events (e.g., the Great Depression and the global financial crisis of 2008–9)
Although the assignment may say “compare,” the assumption is that you will consider both the similarities and differences; in other words, you will compare and contrast.
Make sure you know the basis for comparison
The assignment sheet may say exactly what you need to compare, or it may ask you to come up with a basis for comparison yourself.
- Provided by the essay question: The essay question may ask that you consider the figure of the gentleman in Charles Dickens’s Great Expectations and Anne Brontë’s The Tenant of Wildfell Hall. The basis for comparison will be the figure of the gentleman.
- Developed by you: The question may simply ask that you compare the two novels. If so, you will need to develop a basis for comparison, that is, a theme, concern, or device common to both works from which you can draw similarities and differences.
Develop a list of similarities and differences
Once you know your basis for comparison, think critically about the similarities and differences between the items you are comparing, and compile a list of them.
For example, you might decide that in Great Expectations, being a true gentleman is not a matter of manners or position but morality, whereas in The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, being a true gentleman is not about luxury and self-indulgence but hard work and productivity.
The list you have generated is not yet your outline for the essay, but it should provide you with enough similarities and differences to construct an initial plan.
Develop a thesis based on the relative weight of similarities and differences
Once you have listed similarities and differences, decide whether the similarities on the whole outweigh the differences or vice versa. Create a thesis statement that reflects their relative weights. A more complex thesis will usually include both similarities and differences. Here are examples of the two main cases:
- Differences outweigh similarities:
While Callaghan’s “All the Years of Her Life” and Mistry’s “Of White Hairs and Cricket” both follow the conventions of the coming-of-age narrative, Callaghan’s story adheres more closely to these conventions by allowing its central protagonist to mature. In Mistry’s story, by contrast, no real growth occurs.
- Similarities outweigh differences:
Although Darwin and Lamarck came to different conclusions about whether acquired traits can be inherited, they shared the key distinction of recognizing that species evolve over time.
Come up with a structure for your essay
- Alternating method: Point-by-point patternIn the alternating method, you find related points common to your central subjects A and B, and alternate between A and B on the basis of these points (ABABAB …). For instance, a comparative essay on the French and Russian revolutions might examine how both revolutions either encouraged or thwarted innovation in terms of new technology, military strategy, and the administrative system.
A Paragraph 1 in body new technology and the French Revolution B Paragraph 2 in body new technology and the Russian Revolution A Paragraph 3 in body military strategy and the French Revolution B Paragraph 4 in body military strategy and the Russian Revolution A Paragraph 5 in body administrative system and the French Revolution B Paragraph 6 in body administrative system and the Russian Revolution
Note that the French and Russian revolutions (A and B) may be dissimilar rather than similar in the way they affected innovation in any of the three areas of technology, military strategy, and administration. To use the alternating method, you just need to have something noteworthy to say about both A and B in each area. Finally, you may certainly include more than three pairs of alternating points: allow the subject matter to determine the number of points you choose to develop in the body of your essay.
When do I use the alternating method? Professors often like the alternating system because it generally does a better job of highlighting similarities and differences by juxtaposing your points about A and B. It also tends to produce a more tightly integrated and analytical paper. Consider the alternating method if you are able to identify clearly related points between A and B. Otherwise, if you attempt to impose the alternating method, you will probably find it counterproductive.
- Block method: Subject-by-subject patternIn the block method (AB), you discuss all of A, then all of B. For example, a comparative essay using the block method on the French and Russian revolutions would address the French Revolution in the first half of the essay and the Russian Revolution in the second half. If you choose the block method, however, do not simply append two disconnected essays to an introductory thesis. The B block, or second half of your essay, should refer to the A block, or first half, and make clear points of comparison whenever comparisons are relevant. (“Unlike A, B . . .” or “Like A, B . . .”) This technique will allow for a higher level of critical engagement, continuity, and cohesion.
A Paragraphs 1–3 in body How the French Revolution encouraged or thwarted innovation B Paragraphs 4–6 in body How the Russian Revolution encouraged or thwarted innovation
When do I use the block method? The block method is particularly useful in the following cases:
- You are unable to find points about A and B that are closely related to each other.
- Your ideas about B build upon or extend your ideas about A.
- You are comparing three or more subjects as opposed to the traditional two.
Comparative essays are among the most common types of writing you will do in school. And there’s good reason for that. Not only does it help you develop a valuable skill (critically comparing different aspects of various items), they’re also one of the most helpful types of essays you can write.
Contrary to what the name might suggest, comparative essays don’t just compare — they also contrast. That is, you consider both their similarities and differences. The items you’re comparing can be, practically, anything, from political theories to literary works to reality shows on cable TV. And don’t assume you’re always going to compare and contrast two things — a comparative essay can work just as well for examining similarities and differences among three, four or more items.
Why Comparative Essays?
Compared to other types of essays, comparative essays makes it easier to clearly communicate with readers. Rather than provide examples or illustrations, the comparison with another object alone can be enough (not always, but some of the time) to create a clearer picture in the reader’s mind. As a result, they’re an excellent way to convey information — something that will come handy in your communications whether in school or in whatever industry you end up working at.
Reading the Assignment
Before doing anything else, make sure to read the assignment. The last thing you want to do is put in hours of work only to realize later you’re not following instructions. Read everything carefully and take notes, so you’ll know exactly what’s required.
Basis of Comparison
Most of the time, the essay assignment brief will say exactly what items you need to compare, like “the role of women in three works of Shakespeare” or “the youth-orientedness in Obama’s and Romney’s respective campaigns.” In some cases, however, you’ll simply be told to “compare three works of Shakespeare” or “compare Obama and Romney’s respective campaigns.” When that happens, you have to develop your own basis of comparison, so you’ll need to research a bit for themes, concerns, devices, or issues present in the items concerned. In particular, pay attention to those where there are ample similarities and differences that could be worth writing about (i.e. interesting, significant).
Build a List
Once you have a basis of comparison, you can now come up with a list of similarities and differences that fall under it. Make sure to do this before proceeding, since a well thought-out list can really help simplify all the succeeding steps in writing your essay.
Think critically abouit the similarities and differences between the items in question. Make the list as exhaustive as possible. If the list is too long for the prescribed length of the paper, it’s not a problem — you can always trim the less important attributes later.
Do note that this isn’t supposed to be a proper outline, so don’t worry about that yet. You will still organize and fix up the list later.
Develop a Thesis
Once you have a list of similarities and differences, you can then decide which way you’re going to go with your main thesis. Do the similarities carry more weight? Or do the differences outweigh the former? Your main thesis should reflect that.
Create a Structure
Once you have a thesis in place, it should be clearer which materials should comprise your essay. You can then trim down the list you made into those which will be relevant to the thesis.
When it comes to your outline, there are, generally, three standard structures used in comparative essays. Just choose one of them to design your outline and, afterwards, finish your writing.
1. Mixed paragraphs. Here, you address both similarities and differences regarding an aspect of the subject in each paragraph. Every time you need to address a different point, you start a new paragraph and so on. Doing this keeps the comparison at the forefront of the reader’s mind, making sure they connect the relationships themselves through the entire reading.
2. Alternating paragraphs. In this method, you split each point into two paragraphs: one for the similarities and the other for the differences. You do this for every aspect of the subject you want to cover. This creates the same results as mixed paragraphs, but can make the entire thing easier to read, since comparisons and contrasts are separated.
3. One subject at a time. Here, you devote the first set of paragraphs to discussing every aspect of the first item you want to compare. Only when that’s done do you talk about the second item. And only when that’s done do you start about the third and so on. This method is recommended for short essays, but will likely make the reader forget about your comparisons in longer works (especially ones where multiple items are compared). It can also be confusing if you don’t handle your references well.
1. Research thoroughly, but keep the material tight. It’s important for you, as the writer, to have a thorough understanding of the different issues in the assignment. Your reader, however, probably won’t need as much. Compare only as many aspects of the subjects as your readers need to make your essay’s argument convincing.
2. Make the parameters of your argument very specific. Sometimes, it can get very difficult to lead the reader to an obvious conclusion despite the amount of comparisons you make. When you get more specific with your topic, however, the easier that will be to accomplish.
3. Strive for a 50/50 comparison. That is, you present both items fairly. Some readers don’t appreciate unbalanced comparisons and become suspicious of your intentions. This is true, of course, provided that the subjects being compared aren’t overtly imbalanced (e.g. comparing the effects of a presidential election against a high school student body election).
4. Never conclude with “similar yet different.” While it may be true in your analysis of the subjects, it’s a little too cliche of a conclusion for a comparative essay. More likely than not, doing so will simply leave your reader underwhelmed and dissatisfied with your ending.