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Comparison Essays Edu

LEO: Literacy Education Online

Comparison/Contrast Essays

When you compare things, you show their similarities; when you contrast things, you show their differences.

We can really understand only those things that are familiar to us or similar to things we already understand, so comparing and contrasting the unfamiliar with the familiar is one of the most important techniques for writing. You can, and probably do, use comparison and contrast to describe things, to define things, to analyze things, to make an argument -- to do, in fact, almost any kind of writing.

When they are comparing and contrasting, for example, two ideas, like corsets and footbinding, most writers structure their essays one of four ways.

  1. First compare, then contrast (or vice versa).
  2. First do one idea, then do the other.
  3. Write only about the comparable and contrastable elements of each idea.
  4. Only compare or only contrast.

  1. First compare, then contrast (or vice versa).
  2. Writers using a comparison/contrast structure might begin by discussing the ways in which corsets are similar to footbinding, then they move to a description of the ways in which the two ideas are different. This method is probably the one used most commonly.

      I. introduction
     II. Corsets and footbinding are similar.
    III. Corsets and footbinding are different.
    IV. conclusion

    A quick outline comparing and then contrasting corsets and footbinding shows one way that such a paper might be structured.

    This structure focuses on the comparison and contrast instead of on the two ideas (e.g., corsetry and footbinding) being compared and contrasted.

    Clearly, the sequence is important. If you begin with the comparison, then the contrast will get emphasis - the logical movement is from thinking about similarities to thinking about differences. If you begin by contrasting the ideas (and then move toward a comparison), the similarities get emphasis.

  3. First do one idea, then do the other.
  4. Writers might compare and contrast ideas by treating one idea thoroughly before taking up the second one. This method is probably the one most students try first, but many evolve past it into something more flexible.

    similarities (or differences)
    differences (or similarities)

    A quick outline that treats first corsets and then footbinding shows one way that such a paper might be structured.

    A structure like this one seems more focused on the ideas being compared and contrasted than on the comparison and contrast itself. The similarities and differences between the ideas do not begin to emerge until the writer gets to the second idea. It is as if the writer is comparing and contrasting (for example) footbinding to corsetry, instead of corsetry and footbinding to each other.

  5. Write only about the comparable and contrastable elements of each idea.
  6. Writers might compare and contrast ideas by taking important specific elements and looking at their similarities and differences. This method requires real control over your subject.

    element #1
    element #2
    element #3
    . . .

    A quick outline that compares and contrasts only relevant aspects of corsets and footbinding shows one way that such a paper might be structured.

    A comparison/contrast essay like this one would probably focus only on those elements of the ideas that are explicitly comparable or contrasting.

  7. Only compare or only contrast.

    It is always possible, of course, to write an essay that treats only the similarities or differences between ideas.

    • Writers who only compare two ideas sometimes briefly mention the contrast in the introduction and then move on so that they don't lead readers to think they can't make relevant distinctions.
    • Writers who only contrast ideas sometimes briefly summarize similarities in the conclusion so they don't leave the impression that they are thinking in opposites.

Comparison/contrast is useful for more than an essay topic.

Many teachers assign topics that ask writers to write an essay comparing and contrasting two or more ideas, but besides its value in organizing an essay, comparison/contrast is also useful as a technique
  • to structure a paragraph
  • to work within other techniques or modes
    • to define a complex idea (by comparing to something similar and contrasting it with its opposite)
    • to think about one thing in terms of another (like the present in terms of the past or the past in terms of the future or humans in terms of primates)
    • to make an argument, first describing what people shouldn't do and then ending - with a bang! - with what they should.

Other, related concepts to think about and places to look

Return to the discussion of how comparison and contrast can be used beyond structure for an essay.

A quick outline of how a paper comparing and then contrasting corsets and footbinding might look.

  1. Introduction
  2. Corsets and footbinding are similar
    • Both practiced in the far past, through the 19th century, and into the 20th.
    • Both restrict women's movement and impair health.
    • Both practiced by women of all classes, though most people imagine tight-lacing and footbinding were limited to the upper class.
    • To use Veblen's argument, both enhance man's value in the culture to be responsible for women who were too delicate to work.
    • Both practiced by women on women. Women laced corsets; women bound feet.
  3. Corsets and footbinding are different
    • Chinese culture is radically different from that of western Europe and America.
    • Every Chinese woman so bound was deformed for life; only most extreme cases of tight-lacing did permanent damage.
    • Corsets trivialized by everybody since the end of the dress reform movement.
  4. Conclusion
Return to the discussion of comparison/contrast essays.

A quick outline of how a paper treating one topic and then the other might look.

  1. Introduction
  2. Corsetry
    • Practiced in Sumaria, Crete, millennia ago; focus in Western world.
    • Corsetry not exactly the same as tight-lacing.
    • Effects on health: tight-lacing vs stays.
    • Henri II's queen: 15-inch waist with the help of the King's armorer.
    • Dress Reform movement.
    • 1880s and 1890s, when women were looking at the possibilities of real contributions to the political debate.
  3. Footbinding
    • Earliest references.
    • Survival rates and the effects on health.
    • Our misconceptions about class -- women plowing fields in mud up to their ankles.
    • Any girl whose female relatives thought she might be able to marry up would bind her feet.
    • Simone de Beauvior saw some; Life magazine's photos.
    • When the government made it illegal. Also, how women whose feet had been bound couldn't really unbind.
  4. Conclusion
Return to the discussion of comparison/contrast essays.

A quick outline of how a paper treating only comparable and contrasting elements might look.

  1. Introduction
  2. Restrictions on women's movements.
  3. Effects on women's health.
  4. Economic and cultural value of a helpless female to a powerful male.
  5. Women's contributions to their own weakening.
  6. Cultural movements against tight-lacing and footbinding.
  7. Socio-economic class and tight-lacing and footbinding.
  8. Lasting into 20th century.
  9. Eastern and western cultures.
  10. Extreme cases vs. most women.
  11. Conclusion
Return to the discussion of comparison/contrast essays.
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© 1995, 1996, 1997 The Write Place
This handout was written by Sharon Cogdill for the Write Place, St. Cloud State University, St. Cloud, MN, and may be copied for educational purposes only. If you copy this document, please include our copyright notice and the name of the writer; if you revise it, please add your name to the list of writers.

Last update: 28 September 1997

URL: http://leo.stcloudstate.edu/acadwrite/comparcontrast.html

Types of Papers: Compare/Contrast

To write a compare/contrast essay, you’ll need to make NEW connections and/or express NEW differences between two things.  The key word here…is NEW!

  1. Choose 2 things that could go in the same category, but are also quite different. Good choices might be:
    • Basketball & Football (both sports)
    • Horses & Cats (both animals, but different in many ways)
    • Writing & Singing (both art forms, but different in many ways)
  2. Gather your ideas by writing down characteristics of each thing.  Note the differences and similarities between them.
  3. Ask yourself these important questions before you begin writing your draft:

Does my instructor want me to compare AND contrast, or am I only being asked to do one of those things?

Some instructors prefer that you only write about the differences between two things, while others want you to focus on explaining the similarities as well.  Either way, you'll need to make sure that your thesis statement reflects your instructor's expectations. For example, if I wanted to write about Social Networking sites, I'd need to write different thesis statements depending on my compare/contrast assignment.  

Sample thesis statement for contrast paper:  In terms of social networking sites, Facebook focuses on presenting your daily life to others, whereas MySpace allows you to focus more on demonstrating your personal style.

Sample thesis statement for compare/contrast paper:  While both Facebook and MySpace allow you to meet other users who have similar interests, only MySpace allows you to demonstrate your personal style.       

Are these 2 things similar and/or different, in at least one meaningful way?

If you want to write a successful compare/contrast essay, you'll need to avoid writing about really obvious differences and similarities.  For example:

  • We all know that horses are larger than cats.
  • We also know that basketball teams contain less players than football teams.

Tell us something we don't know (or might not notice)!

It would be better to write about how sensitive both horses and cats are to human needs and emotions.  You could also suggest that though both basketball and football require a lot of teamwork, basketball players are expected to be a lot more versatile than football players.

You don't have to be a genius to write an interesting compare/contrast essay--you just have to look at ordinary things in a new way!

Do I know enough about my topic to write an effective compare/contrast essay?

Unless you're being asked to do some research as part of your compare/contrast project, make sure that you choose 2 things that you feel comfortable discussing, at length.

Your instructor may ask for multiple similarities and differences--make sure you're prepared to write a well-developed, meaningful essay on a topic that you know well before you get started!   

Organizing Your Compare and Contrast Paper

There are two primary ways to organize your compare and contrast paper.

Chunking: placing all of the information for each individual subject in one place (chunk), and then using similarities as transitions.

Here’s a sample outline:

  1. Jane is distinct because…
  2. Jane is similar to Alice in these ways
  3. Alice is distinct because…

Piecing: giving pieces of the information for each individual subject in each paragraph—arranging the information by topic rather than by subject.

Here’s a sample outline:   

  1. Differences and Similarities in Jane and Alice’s appearances
  2. Differences and Similarities in Jane and Alice’s backgrounds
  3. Differences and Similarities in Jane and Alice’s interests

Sample Papers

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