Gather Some Ideas
With any essay, it is helpful to invest some time in prewriting. The process of prewriting helps a person think about a particular topic and collect her ideas before trying to organize them into a logical essay. A Venn diagram is a good way to prewrite for a compare/contrast essay. To make a Venn diagram, draw two circles of the same size with part of the circles overlapping. Each circle will represent one item that your student will compare in the essay. Label each circle for one of the two items, and then in each circle, write ideas about that item. Where the circles overlap, write ideas that are true of both of the items. If your students do this correctly, they will have all the similarities in the overlapping section of the diagram, and the places that do not overlap will have the differences. Then students should select three or four key points on which to compare the two items. If an essay contains more points than that it may become too lengthy or disconnected, so students should choose those points which will support their thesis most clearly.
Organize, Organize, Organize
There are 2 ways to successfully organize a compare/contrast essay.
☛The first structure is called block organization. With block organization, your essay will have four paragraphs. The first paragraph will be the introduction. The second paragraph will discuss all the points about one item. For example, give all the pertinent information about apples, their nutritional content, popularity and availability. The third paragraph will discuss all the points about the second item, in this case oranges, again examining their nutritional content, popularity and availability. Students should present the points about the two items in the same order in the two body paragraphs so that the essay has unity and parallel structure. The final paragraph is the conclusion. Block organization is most effective when there is not a large amount of information included in the essay. If a student tries to put too much information in block organization, the overall essay will seem disjointed and lacking in coherence.
☛ The second method of organization for a compare/contrast essay is called point-by-point organization. This structure will elicit an essay with five or six paragraphs depending on how many points of comparison your student has chosen. The first paragraph is again the introduction. The second paragraph will discuss one point and how it factors into both items. For example, one paragraph may discuss the nutritional content of both the apple and the orange. The third paragraph will then discuss another point about both items. Here it may examine the popularity of both the apple and the orange. The fourth paragraph does the same with the third point, and if there is a fourth point of comparison it is examined in the fifth paragraph. The final paragraph is again the conclusion. The advantage to point-by-point organization is the two items are examined simultaneously, and the reader gets a clearer value judgment for each point. Using this type of organization can make body paragraphs unusually short if students to not elaborate adequately, so encourage students to have at least four sentences in each of these paragraphs.
Compare and contrast is a common form of academic writing, either as an essay type on its own, or as part of a larger essay which includes one or more paragraphs which compare or contrast. This page gives information on what a compare and contrast essay is, how to structure this type of essay, how to use compare and contrast structure words, and how to make sure you use appropriate criteria for comparison/contrast. There is also an example compare and contrast essay on the topic of communication technology, as well as some exercises to help you practice this area.
What are compare & contrast essays?
To compare is to examine how things are similar, while to contrast is to see how they differ. A compare and contrast essay therefore looks at the similarities of two or more objects, and the differences. This essay type is common at university, where lecturers frequently test your understanding by asking you to compare and contrast two theories, two methods, two historical periods, two characters in a novel, etc. Sometimes the whole essay will compare and contrast, though sometimes the comparison or contrast may be only part of the essay. It is also possible, especially for short exam essays, that only the similarities or the differences, not both, will be discussed. See the examples below.
There are two main ways to structure a compare and contrast essay, namely using a block or a point-by-point structure. For the block structure, all of the information about one of the objects being compared/contrasted is given first, and all of the information about the other object is listed afterwards. This type of structure is similar to the block structure used for cause and effect and problem-solution essays. For the point-by-point structure, each similarity (or difference) for one object is followed immediately by the similarity (or difference) for the other. Both types of structure have their merits. The former is easier to write, while the latter is generally clearer as it ensures that the similarities/differences are more explicit.
The two types of structure, block and point-by-point, are shown in the diagram below.
Object 1 - Point 1
Object 1 - Point 2
Object 1 - Point 3
Object 2 - Point 1
Object 2 - Point 2
Object 2 - Point 3
Compare and Contrast Structure Words
Compare and contrast structure words are transition signals which show the similarities or differences. Below are some common examples.
Criteria for comparison/contrast
When making comparisons or contrasts, it is important to be clear what criteria you are using. Study the following example, which contrasts two people. Here the criteria are unclear.
Although this sentence has a contrast transition, the criteria for contrasting are not the same. The criteria used for Aaron are height (tall) and strength (strong). We would expect similar criteria to be used for Bruce (maybe he is short and weak), but instead we have new criteria, namely appearance (handsome) and intelligence (intelligent). This is a common mistake for students when writing this type of paragraph or essay. Compare the following, which has much clearer criteria (contrast structure words shown in bold).
Below is a compare and contrast essay. This essay uses the point-by-point structure. Click on the different areas (in the shaded boxes to the right) to highlight the different structural aspects in this essay, i.e. similarities, differences, and structure words. This will highlight not simply the paragraphs, but also the thesis statement and summary, as these repeat the comparisons and contrasts contained in the main body.
Title: There have been many advances in technology over the past fifty years. These have revolutionised the way we communicate with people who are far away. Compare and contrast methods of communication used today with those which were used in the past.
Before the advent of computers and modern technology, people communicating over long distances used traditional means such as letters and the telephone. Nowadays we have a vast array of communication tools which can complete this task, ranging from email to instant messaging and video calls. While the present and previous means of communication are similar in their general form, they differ in regard to their speed and the range of tools available.
One similarity between current and previous methods of communication relates to the form of communication. In the past, both written forms such as letters were frequently used, in addition to oral forms such as telephone calls. Similarly, people nowadays use both of these forms. Just as in the past, written forms of communication are prevalent, for example via email and text messaging. In addition, oral forms are still used, including the telephone, mobile phone, and voice messages via instant messaging services.
However, there are clearly many differences in the way we communicate over long distances, the most notable of which is speed. This is most evident in relation to written forms of communication. In the past, letters would take days to arrive at their destination. In contrast, an email arrives almost instantaneously and can be read seconds after it was sent. In the past, if it was necessary to send a short message, for example at work, a memo could be passed around the office, which would take some time to circulate. This is different from the current situation, in which a text message can be sent immediately.
Another significant difference is the range of communication methods. Fifty years ago, the tools available for communicating over long distances were primarily the telephone and the letter. By comparison, there are a vast array of communication methods available today. These include not only the telephone, letter, email and text messages already mentioned, but also video conferences via software such as Skype or mobile phone apps such as Wechat, and social media such as Facebook and Twitter.
In conclusion, methods of communication have greatly advanced over the past fifty years. While there are some similarities, such as the forms of communication, there are significant differences, chiefly in relation to the speed of communication and the range of communication tools available. There is no doubt that technology will continue to progress in future, and the advanced tools which we use today may one day also become outdated.
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Below is a checklist for compare and contrast essays. Use it to check your own writing, or get a peer (another student) to help you.
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