The Compare and Contrast Technique

In this article, we’ll first help you determine whether a particular assignment is asking for a comparison/contrast. Then, we’ll guide you through generating a list of similarities and differences, deciding which to focus on, and organizing your paper to be clear and effective. This article will also explain how you can develop a thesis that goes beyond the basic, “Idea 1 and Idea 2 are similar in many ways but different in others.”

Introduction

As a student, you’re sure to encounter many types of writing assignments, and each comes with its own requirements. The comparison/contrast piece is one of the most common. In this type of essay, you focus on the ways in which specific things or ideas (typically two of them) are similar and different from each other. Similarities are the comparison, and differences are the contrast. 

When your instructors assign this type of essay, they’re encouraging you to make connections, engage your critical thinking skills, and generate an interesting analysis. When you reflect on the similarities and differences between two ideas, you gain a fuller understanding of the items themselves, their relationship with each other, and the most important aspects of them.

Recognizing Comparison/Contrast in Assignments

Sometimes it’s easy to see that assignments are asking you to compare and contrast because they’ll use words like “similarities” and “differences.” Here are some examples of comparison/contrast assignments:

  • Compare and contrast Animal Farm and Brave New World.
  • Compare the Vietnam War and the Korean War, noting similarities in the causes, development, and outcomes of each war.
  • Contrast Anton Chekhov and Arthur Miller; what are the major differences in their plays?

Related: Is it compared TO or compared WITH

As you can see, some topics ask for comparison, others for contrast, and others for both comparison and contrast. But it’s not always this simple to see whether an assignment is asking you to include comparison/contrast. In some situations, comparison/contrast only makes up one part of the essay. You may start by comparing and contrasting two or more ideas, and then move on to using what you’ve learned to construct an evaluation or argument. Take a look at these examples. Note the language used to ask for the comparison/contrast and whether it is part of a larger assignment. 

  • Choose a specific idea or theme, such as nature, romantic love, or death, and analyze how it is treated in two poems from the Romantic movement.
  • How do the authors we have studied so far define and describe freedom?
  • Compare Bartky’s and Frye’s accounts of oppression. What does each imply about women’s involvement in their own oppression? Which account is more accurate?
  • In the texts we’ve covered in class, soldiers who served in different wars offer different accounts of their feelings and experiences both during and after the fighting. What commonalities do these accounts have? What factors are to blame for their differences?

Using Comparison/Contrast for Various Types of Writing Projects

You might want to use comparison/contrast techniques in your pre-writing work in order to generate ideas that you can use for an assignment later, even in cases where comparison/contrast isn’t officially required. For instance, maybe you want to argue that Frye’s account of oppression is better than both Bartky’s and de Beauvoir’s. In this situation, comparing and contrasting the main arguments of these authors can help you construct an evaluation. However, the lists you create of similarities and differences may not make their way into your paper’s final draft. 

Discovering Similarities and Differences

A quick and efficient way to compare and contrast two or more ideas is to make a chart or Venn diagram. To create a Venn diagram, draw some circles that overlap (one circle per item you’re considered). In the spot where the circles overlap, write down all of the shared traits for the items. Then, assign each of the areas that don’t overlap to an individual item and list what makes that item different from the others. 

Here’s a simple example using two restaurants:

Venn diagram showing the compare and contrast technique by indicating that both Restaurant X and Restaurant Y are in Downtown Brooklyn and have similar menus and prices, despite not having the same seating, deliver and wine list options.

To create a chart, identify the criteria you wish to focus on. Along the left side, list each piece of criteria. Then, list the items or ideas across the top. Now, you should have a box per item for each piece of criteria. You can then fill in the boxes and survey your discoveries. 

Here’s an example using three restaurants:

 
Restaurant X Restauran Y Restaurant Z
Location
Price
Delivery
Ingredients
Service
Seating/eating in
Coupons

 

As you come up with points of comparison, think about the purpose and content of the assignment, as well as the class’s overall focus. What does the professor want you to learn through this comparison/contrast? How does it link to other information you’ve studied so far? How does it connect to other course assignments? Can you identify any clues that let you know what to focus on in the assignment?

Below you’ll find general questions regarding various kinds of things you may have to compare. These lists are not complete or definitive; they’re simply meant to give you some ideas. You can absolutely come up with your own questions for these, as well as other types of comparison.

You might want to ask with the traditional report questions: Who, what, when, where, why, and how?

If you’re discussing objects, you might also consider general properties like shape, size, shape, sound color, taste, weight, smell, texture, duration, number, and location.

Two Events or Historical Periods

  • When did the events occur? What were the date and the duration? What took place or changed during each? What makes them significant?
  • What types of work did people do? What types of relationships did they have? What was most important to them?
  • What kinds of governments existed? Who were the most important people involves?
  • What was responsible for events in these periods? What consequences resulted later on?

Two Ideas or Theories

  • What are the ideas or theories about?
  • When did the ideas originate?
  • Who created the ideas? Who uses or defends the ideas?
  • What is the main goal, claim, or focus of each? What conclusions does each idea offer?
  • How are the ideas applied to people, situations, and things?
  • Which idea is more plausible to you, and why? How broad is its scope?
  • What type of evidence is offered for these ideas?

Two Pieces of Writing or Art

  • What are the titles? What do the pieces depict or describe?
  • What is the tone or mood? What is the form?
  • Who created the pieces? When were the pieces created? Why were they created in the way they were? What themes do the pieces address?
  • Do you believe one piece has greater merit than the other? Why?
  • When comparing writing, what setting, plot, theme, tone, characterization, and narration are used?

Two People

  • Where are the people from? What are their ages? What are their races, genders, classes, and other distinguishing features?
  • What are the people known for? Do they have any form of relationship?
  • What are the people like? What did/do the people do? What do the people believe? Why are the people interesting?
  • What makes each person stand out?

Deciding What to Focus On

At this point, you probably have a long list of similarities and differences. Now it’s time to decide which of them are the most important, interesting, and relevant to your assignment. 

Ask yourself these questions:

  • What’s relevant to the course and assignment?
  • What’s informative and interesting?
  • What is important to the argument you wish to make?
  • What’s central or basic and should be mentioned even if it’s obvious?
  • What is more important, the similarities or the differences?

Let’s imagine you’re writing a paper comparing two novels. Most literature classes will disregard the fact that they both use the Caslon type because this is not relevant. Whether one book has more illustrations than the other isn’t relevant either. Literature classes usually focus on subjects like language, characterization, setting, plot, the author’s style and intentions, central themes, etc. But if you were writing a paper for a class on typesetting or illustration, then the typeface or number of illustrations might be a critical piece of your final paper.  

You may come across points of comparison or contrast that are relevant but not especially interesting. Let’s say you’re writing a paper about Coleridge’s “Frost at Midnight” and Wordsworth’s “Tintern Abbey.” The fact that they both have nature as a central theme is relevant but not very interesting. It’s likely your class has already had multiple discussions regarding Romantics’ fondness for nature. Discussing the various ways that nature is depicted or the aspects of nature that are emphasized can be more interesting. It also displays a more sophisticated understanding of the poetry. 

Your Thesis

Your thesis is very important to your comparison/contrast paper. It helps you create a focused argument while giving your reader a road map, so they don’t get lost in the various points you’re about to make. Just like in any paper, it’s important to replace vague reports of your general topic with something that is more detailed and specific.

General: This paper will compare and contrast two pizza restaurants.

Specific: Pepper’s and Amante’s have comparable prices and ingredients, but their willingness to deliver and overall atmospheres set them apart. 

Watch out, though; even though this thesis is specific and proposes a simple argument (that delivery and atmosphere make the pizza restaurants different), your teacher is sure to be looking for additional analysis. In this case, the question is, “Why should the reader care that the pizza restaurants are different in this way?” Or a person might wonder why the writer selected these particular restaurants. Considering the context of the class can help you answer these questions and strengthen your argument. Here’s a revision of the specific these from above:

  • Pepper’s and Amante both have a larger variety of ingredients than other Chapel Hill/Carrboro pizza places, but the lively and funky atmosphere at Pepper’s makes it a better place to give visitors to the town a taste of the local culture.

Organizing Your Paper

Of the multiple ways to organize a comparison/contrast essay, here are two of the most common.

Subject-by-Subject

Start out by discussing everything you want to say about the first topic. Next, make all the points needed for your second topic, and so on. Depending on the length of the paper, you might be able to fit all the points regarding each topic into a single paragraph. However, it’s more likely you’ll have multiple paragraphs per item. 

Let’s use our pizza restaurant comparison/contrast as an example. After the introduction, you may have a paragraph regarding the ingredients available at Pepper’s, a paragraph regarding its location, and a paragraph regarding its ambiance. Three similar paragraphs about Amante would follow. Finally, you’d add a conclusion.

The potential issue with subject-by-subject organization is that it can read like a list of points about one subject, then a list of points about another. In college especially, this isn’t what professors are looking for in a paper. Instead, they’ll prefer that you compare and contrast things more directly instead of listing the traits and expecting the reader to reflect on them and why they matter. If you use the subject-by-subject form, then you’ll want to have a strong and analytical thesis, plus at least one body paragraph that ties all your points together. 

Sometimes, a subject-by-subject structure can be a logical choice for a “lens” comparison. This is a comparison in which you use one item that isn’t your main topic to better understand your main topic. 

For instance, you might compare a poem you’ve covered in class with one you’re reading on your own. You could first give a short summary of your main ideas regarding the first poem (which acts as the lens). Then, you could spend the majority of your paper discussing how those points are similar to or different from your ideas regarding the second poem.

Point-by-Point

Instead of addressing things one subject at a time, you might want to discuss one point of comparison at a time. There are two main ways this can play out, depending on how much you have to discuss regarding each of the things you’re comparing. 

You could use a single paragraph to detail how a certain point of comparison/contrast relates to each item you’re discussing. For instance, you could use one paragraph to describe the prices at Pepper’s as well as Amante’s. In the next paragraph, you could compare available ingredients. In the third paragraph, you could contrast the restaurants’ atmospheres. 

Let’s say you had much more to say about the items you’re comparing and contrasting. In this case, you could devote an entire paragraph to the ways in which each point relates to each item. You might have a paragraph about the clientele at Pepper’s, followed up by a paragraph regarding Amante’s clientele. Next, you could move on and write two more paragraphs discussing the next point of comparison/contrast, such as the available ingredients.

There are no specific rules about organizing a comparison/contrast paper. The most important thing is to be sure that your reader can easily understand what’s going on! Be aware of the placement of your points as well. 

If you’re writing a comparison/contrast in service of an argument, note that the last point you make is the one you want to leave your reader with. For instance, if I’m arguing that Amante is better than Pepper’s, I’d end with a contrast that leaves Amante sounding good, instead of a point of comparison that makes Pepper’s sound better. 

If you believe the differences between the items are most important, you’ll want to end with them. The opposite also applies; if you’ve decided the similarities are most important, end with them.

Cue Words and Other Tips

You can help your reader keep track of the comparison/contrast process by ensuring that your topic sentences and transitions are particularly strong. Your thesis will have already given readers a preview of the points and organization of the piece, but you can add extra cues as well. Here are some words that can signal your intentions:

  • also, similar to, like, similarly, unlike, likewise, in the same way, compared to, again, in contrast, contrasted with, in like manner, on the contrary, although, however, yet, still, even though, but conversely, nevertheless, regardless, at the same time, despite, on the one hand … on the other hand, while

Related: What is a simile? 

For instance, you might have a topic sentence like one of these:

  • Compared to Amante, Pepper’s is quite lively.
  • Like Amante, Pepper’s offers Italian sausage as a topping.
  • Despite their varying locations (downtown Chapel Hill and downtown Carrboro), Pepper’s and Amante are both fairly easy to get to using public transportation.

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