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.
This post about preparing for Common Core assessments offers new material developed by Sarah Tantillo, the author of Literacy and the Common Core: Recipes for Action (Jossey-Bass, 2014) and The Literacy Cookbook (Jossey-Bass, 2012). Be sure to browse her links to other PARCC Prep articles at the end of this post. And check out her website, The Literacy Cookbook, and her TLC Blog.
by Sarah Tantillo
In the PARCC literary analysis task, students must closely analyze two literary texts—often focusing on their themes or points of view—and compare and contrast these texts.
In previous posts, I’ve proposed a lesson series to tackle this task and a tool for teaching students how to infer theme, which is a common requirement since Common Core Reading Anchor Standard #2 is “Determine central ideas or themes of a text and analyze their development; summarize the key supporting details and ideas.”
This post deals with the challenge of how to organize a compare-and-contrast essay. Many students struggle with this task, I believe, for two reasons:
(1) Teachers often rely on Venn diagrams to teach the concept of “compare and contrast,” and Venn diagrams are not a useful way to organize writing. They were meant for discussions around set theory, not for essay writing. Seriously. Could you write an essay from notes inserted into this?
(2) Teachers tend to assume that students can transfer their “understandings” from Venn diagrams into full-blown essays, so they don’t spend enough time explaining how to outline and develop the evidence and explanation needed.
Use charts, not Venns
As I’ve noted previously (here and here), instead of trying to fill in Venn diagrams, students should annotate texts with charts that have either two or three columns, depending on the number of texts. For literary analysis, it’s two; for research writing, it’s two texts and a video. Students then put checkmarks next to items that the texts have in common. What remains unchecked should be dealt with in the “contrast” paragraphs.
But you can’t easily write an essay from those notes. You have to organize your ideas.
Here is a simple graphic organizer to help students turn those notes into an outline for writing (click on the image to download a student-friendly PDF version).
As always, students will need lots of modeling and practice to master this step.
Editor’s note: Sarah Tantillo has agreed to share her other PARCC Prep materials with our readers. Just click to access these various posts at her blog. Visit her TLC “PARCC Prep” page to stay up to date with her Common Core assessment materials.
PARCC Prep READING RESOURCES:
PARCC Prep WRITING RESOURCES:
Research Writing Tasks:
Narrative Writing Tasks:
Literary Analysis Writing Tasks:
Sarah Tantillo writes frequently for MiddleWeb about literacy and the Common Core. She is the author of Literacy and the Common Core: Recipes for Action and The Literacy Cookbook: A Practical Guide to Effective Reading, Writing, Speaking, and Listening Instruction. Sarah consults with schools on literacy instruction, curriculum development, data-driven instruction, and school culture-building. Sarah has taught high school English and Humanities in both suburban and urban public schools, including the high-performing North Star Academy Charter School of Newark. Visit her website.