The Purpose of Comparison and Contrast in Writing
Comparison in writing discusses elements that are similar while contrast in writing discusses elements that are different. A compare-and-contrast essay, then, analyzes two subjects by comparing them, contrasting them, or both.
The key to a good compare-and-contrast essay is to choose two or more subjects that connect in a meaningful way. The purpose of comparing or contrasting two items/ideas is not to state the obvious but rather to illuminate subtle differences or unexpected similarities. For example, if you wanted to focus on contrasting two items you would not pick English and math; rather, you might choose to compare and contrast two styles of English (academic writing and creative writing) or math (calculus and college algebra) to highlight subtle differences. For example, academic writing depends on developing a foundation of argument based on research and logic, while creative writing has a foundation developed on things like characters, plots, and world-building. Drawing distinctions between elements in a similar category will increase the audience’s understanding of that category, which is the purpose of the compare-and-contrast essay.
Similarly, to focus on comparison, choose two subjects that seem at first to be unrelated. For a comparison essay, you likely would not choose two types of writing styles or two fields of math because they share so many of the same properties already. Rather, you might try to compare how English and math are quite similar. The more divergent the two subjects initially seem the more interesting a comparison essay will be.
Writing beyond College
Comparing and contrasting is also an evaluative tool. In order to make accurate evaluations about a given topic, you must first know the critical points of similarity and difference. Comparing and contrasting is a primary tool for many workplace assessments. You have likely compared and contrasted yourself to other colleagues. Employee advancements, pay raises, hiring, and firing are typically conducted using comparison and contrast. Comparison and contrast could be used to evaluate companies, departments, or individuals.
Brainstorm an essay that leans toward contrast. Choose one of the following three categories. Pick two examples from each. Then come up with one similarity and three differences between the examples.
- Romantic comedies
- Internet search engines
- Cell phones
Brainstorm an essay that leans toward comparison. Choose one of the following three items. Then come up with one difference and three similarities.
- Department stores and discount retail stores
- Fast food chains and fine dining restaurants
- Dogs and cats
The Structure of a Comparison and Contrast Essay
The compare-and-contrast essay starts with a thesis that clearly states the two subjects that are to be compared, contrasted, or both and the reason for doing so. The thesis could lean more toward comparing, contrasting, or both. Remember, the point of comparing and contrasting is to provide useful knowledge to the reader. Take the following thesis as an example that leans more toward contrasting.
Thesis statement: Organic vegetables may cost more than those that are conventionally grown, but when put to the test, they are definitely worth every extra penny.
Here the thesis sets up the two subjects to be compared and contrasted (organic versus conventional vegetables), and it makes a claim about the results that might prove useful to the reader.
You may organize compare-and-contrast essays in one of the following two ways:
- According to the subjects themselves, discussing one then the other
- According to individual points, discussing each subject in relation to each point
See Figure 2.8.1 “Comparison and Contrast Diagram”, which diagrams the potential ways to organize a paper using the organic versus conventional vegetable thesis.
Figure 2.8.1 Comparison and Contrast Diagram
The organizational structure you choose depends on the nature of the topic, your purpose, and your audience.
Given that compare-and-contrast essays analyze the relationship between two subjects, it is helpful to have some phrases on hand that will cue the reader to such analysis. See Table 2.8.2 “Phrases of Comparison and Contrast” for examples.
Table 2.8.2 Phrases of Comparison and Contrast
Create an outline for each of the items you chose in “Exercise 1” and “Exercise 2”. Use the point-by-point organizing strategy for one of them, and use the subject organizing strategy for the other.
Practicing Peer Review
Share your plans with a peer. Are there flaws? Is one syle of organization clearer than the other? What aspects about the organization are clearest?
Writing a Comparison and Contrast Essay
First choose whether you want to compare seemingly disparate subjects, contrast seemingly similar subjects, or compare and contrast subjects. Once you have decided on a topic, introduce it with an engaging opening paragraph. Your thesis should come at the end of the introduction, and it should establish the subjects you will compare, contrast, or both as well as state what can be learned from doing so.
The body of the essay can be organized in one of two ways: by subject or by individual points. The organizing strategy that you choose will depend on, as always, your audience and your purpose. You may also consider your particular approach to the subjects as well as the nature of the subjects themselves; some subjects might better lend themselves to one structure or the other. Make sure to use comparison and contrast phrases to cue the reader to the ways in which you are analyzing the relationship between the subjects.
After you finish analyzing the subjects, write a conclusion that connects the main points of the essay and reinforces your thesis.
Writing beyond College
Many business presentations are conducted using comparison and contrast. The organizing strategies—by subject or individual points—could also be used for organizing a presentation. Keep this in mind as a way of organizing your content the next time you or a colleague have to present something at work.
- A compare-and-contrast essay analyzes two subjects by either comparing them, contrasting them, or both.
- The purpose of writing a comparison or contrast essay is not to state the obvious but rather to illuminate subtle differences or unexpected similarities between two subjects.
- The thesis should clearly state the subjects that are to be compared, contrasted, or both, and it should state what is to be learned from doing so.
There are two main organizing strategies for compare-and-contrast essays.
- Organize by the subjects themselves, one then the other.
- Organize by individual points, in which you discuss each subject in relation to each point.
- Use phrases of comparison or phrases of contrast to signal to readers how exactly the two subjects are being analyzed.
- 2.8 (except where otherwise noted) was borrowed with edits and additions from Writing for Success which was adapted from a work produced and distributed under a Creative Commons license (CC BY-NC-SA) in 2011 by a publisher who has requested that they and the original author not receive attribution. This adapted edition is produced by the University of Minnesota Libraries Publishing. ↵