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How to Write a Comparison Essay

A comparison essay compares and contrasts two things. That is, it points out the similarities and differences (mostly focusing on the differences) of those two things. The two things usually belong to the same class (ex. two cities, two politicians, two sports, etc.). Relatively equal attention is given to the two subjects being compared. The essay may treat the two things objectively and impartially. Or it may be partial, favoring one thing over the other (ex. "American football is a sissy's game compared to rugby").

The important thing in any comparison essay is that the criteria for comparison should remain the same; that is, the same attributes should be compared. For example, if you are comparing an electric bulb lamp with a gas lamp, compare them both according to their physical characteristics, their history of development, and their operation.

electric bulb lamp
physical characteristics
duration of light 
brightness 
noise 
materials that compose it

gas lamp
physical characteristics
duration of light 
brightness 
noise 
materials that compose it

history of development 
inventor
dates of invention and development 
process of development 
first models
acceptance by society

history of development
inventor 
dates of invention and development
process of development 
etc.

operation (how it works)
type of energy 
how the energy is used

operation
ditto
ditto


tomato plant

physical description
leaves
stem
flowers
fruit


corn plant

ditto

growth requirements
type of soil needed

ditto

amount of
"
"
"
light
heat
water
fertilizer

BE FOCUSED

Narrow Your Focus (in this essay, as in any essay). For example, if you compare two religions, focus on one particular aspect which you can discuss in depth and detail, e.g., sin in Buddhism vs. sin in Christianity, or salvation in two religions. Or if your topic is political, you might compare the Conservative attitude to old growth logging vs. the Green Party's attitude to old growth logging, or the Conservative attitude to the Persian Gulf War vs. the NDP attitude to the same war.

Each paragraph should deal with only one idea and deal with it thoroughly. Give adequate explanation and specific examples to support each idea. The first paragraph introduces the topic, captures the reader's attention, and provides a definite summary of the essay. It may be wise to end the first paragraph with a thesis statement that summarizes the main points of difference (or similarity). For example, "Submarines and warships differ not only in construction, but in their style of weapons and method of attack." This gives the reader a brief outline of your essay, allowing him to anticipate what's to come. Each middle paragraph should begin with a topic sentence that summarizes the main idea of that paragraph (ex. "The musical styles of Van Halen and Steely Dan are as differing in texture as are broken glass and clear water"). An opening sentence like this that uses a metaphor or simile not only summarizes the paragraph but captures the reader's attention, making him want to read on. Avoid a topic sentence that is too dull and too broad (ex. "There are many differences in the musical styles of Van Halen and Steely Dan").

VARY THE STRUCTURE

The structure of the comparison essay may vary. You may use simultaneous comparison structure in which the two things are compared together, feature by feature, point by point. For example, "The electric light bulb lasts 80 hours, while the gas lamp lasts only 20 hours . . . ." Or as in this example (comparing two American presidents):

Consider how perfectly Harding met the requirements for president. Wilson was a visionary who liked to identify himself with "forward-looking men"; Harding was as old-fashioned as those wooden Indians which used to stand in front of cigar stores, "a flower of the period before safety razors." Harding believed that statemanship had come to its apogee in the days of McKinley and Foraker. Wilson was cold. Harding was an affable small-town man, at ease with "folks"; he was an ideal companion to play poker with all Saturday night. Wilson had always been difficult of access; Harding was accessible to the last degree. etc.

Don't use simultaneous structure all the way through the essay, however. It becomes monotonous. Use it sparingly. For most of the essay, use parallel order structure.

In parallel order structure you compare the two things separately but take up the same points in the same order. For example, you may spend half a paragraph on "thing A" and the other half of the paragraph on the corresponding characteristics of "thing B." Or, if you have enough material, devote one paragraph to the physical characteristics of an electric bulb lamp, and the next paragraph to the physical characteristics of the gas lamp.

Or say everything there is to say about the electric bulb lamp (its physical characteristics, history of development and operation), followed by everything there is to say about the gas lamp.

For the sake of variety you may switch to simultaneous comparison at one point in the essay, and then switch back to parallel order structure for the rest of the essay. In fact, there are many ways to structure a comparison essay; use whichever organization works best for your particular paper. Here are a few sample organizational methods. "A" stands for "thing A" (ex. electric lamp) and "B" stands for "thing B" (ex. gas lamp). Each number (1,2,3, etc.) stands for a different aspect of that thing (ex. physical characteristics, operation, history of development).

A1

A1 A1  
B1 A2 B1  
A2 A3 B2 Each separate line stands
B2 B1 A2 for a separate paragraph
A3 B2 A3  
B3 B3 B3