Focus on directive essay words: “compare and contrast”
(Last updated: 13 May 2021)
Compare and contrast essays can be really easy to write because they allow you to demonstrate all of the things that you know about two events, topics, pieces of literature, etc. But the real question is, if compare and contrast essays are so easy, why do so many students struggle with writing good ones? The answer seems to generally lie in poor formatting and organisation of the points, along with the inclusion of too much descriptive information. In this post, we are going to highlight some of the useful strategies you might employ when writing a good compare and contrast essay.
The best place to start...
We would recommend that you begin with your comprehension and planning. As a writer, you must have a plan for where you want to begin. Start with a brainstorm or mind map – even if you are writing a timed essay under exam conditions. An essay that is well organised will be more likely to convince the reader that you actually know what you are talking about when you write. As you are organising your thoughts, remember that the compare and contrast sections do not have to be of equal lengths. That said, you cannot have a whole essay of only comparisons, as this would not meet the essay requirements. See if you can brainstorm two or three comparisons and two or three contrasts. For each of these points, see if you can highlight some examples from the original works in the brainstorm, this will make the writing process much easier once you begin.
Inevitably, there are always going to be some comparisons and contrasts that you feel are really strong and other connections which exist, but are, perhaps, weaker arguments. You are likely better to stick with the strongest arguments, but if you are struggling to get up to the word count and you need to include these weaker arguments, then make sure you embed them somewhere in the middle of your paper where they are surrounded by the strong arguments.
Structuring your essay
Continuing to discuss the organisation of a compare and contrast essay, there are two ways you can approach the essay. You can either write the first half as a comparison (or, arguably the contrast) and for the second half, provide a transition sentence and then talk about contrast (or comparison). The strengths of this type of approach mean that you can focus on making clear claims using evidence from both pieces of literature. You are essentially making one very strong argument at the beginning, telling your reader - ‘look, these pieces of work have a lot in common.’ You then lead your reader on a journey, which then allows them to see that while the two works are similar, they are not necessarily the same, thus the need for a contrast.
As you will have heard repeatedly, there are many ways to write an essay. Another strategy you might employ is to first write the compare paragraph, then you could follow it up with one on contrast. This is a particularly useful strategy when you are arguing for one particular theme where parts of the theme are similar between the two works, but differ in other areas. Using this strategy also avoids repetition and keeps the reader focused on whatever theme you are trying to convince them of.
While the structure of a compare and contrast essay is important, so too is the structure. In this type of essay, you are still looking for strong topic sentences that convey the meaning of the paragraph to the reader. Yet unlike a normal paragraph that would follow up the topic sentence with one really useful example, in a compare and contrast essay, you are generally looking for two examples that will demonstrate the comparison (or contrast). One big challenge with this is that the paragraphs can get really long. Make sure that if you are writing, you are able to keep your paragraphs under one page (typed, double spaced) or at about 250 words. Anything longer than this will just confuse and/or frustrate your reader.
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Finally, you must also consider what the conclusion of a compare and contrast essay looks like. You have likely ended your body paragraph sections with a contrast of some sort and so are leaving the reader with the thought in their head that these two things you are comparing are not very similar. It is important in the conclusion to remind the reader that actually, you have demonstrated similarities as well as differences between the pieces of literature. While not introducing any new information, the point of your conclusion is to remind the reader of the key facts and of your strongest argument. You will have created a thesis statement at the beginning of your paper, so here in the conclusion you are demonstrating that the thesis you initially proposed has been met.
Compare and contrast essays can be fun for a lot of reasons, mainly because you get to demonstrate how much you know about a particular topic. Remember that it is essential to be organised as you work through your essay. The creation of an outline or a mind map is strongly encouraged, even in a timed exam. Provide evidence where you need it and make sure that you do not overwhelm the reader with too many ideas. Finish with a conclusion that wraps up your argument in a nice package, demonstrating to the reader that you not only have confidence in your arguments but that you can present clear and rational points to support them.