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Comparison/Contrast Essays


When you compare things, you show their similarities; when you contrast things, you show their differences.

We can really understand only those things that are familiar to us or similar to things we already understand, so comparing and contrasting the unfamiliar with the familiar is one of the most important techniques for writing. You can, and probably do, use comparison and contrast to describe things, to define things, to analyze things, to make an argument -- to do, in fact, almost any kind of writing.

When they are comparing and contrasting, for example, two ideas, like corsets and footbinding, most writers structure their essays one of four ways.

  1. First compare, then contrast (or vice versa).

  2. First do one idea, then do the other.

  3. Write only about the comparable and contrastable elements of each idea.

  4. Only compare or only contrast.


  1. First compare, then contrast (or vice versa).

    Writers using a comparison/contrast structure might begin by discussing the ways in which corsets are similar to footbinding, then they move to a description of the ways in which the two ideas are different. This method is probably the one used most commonly.

      I. introduction
     II. Corsets and footbinding are similar.
    III. Corsets and footbinding are different.
    IV. conclusion

    A quick outline comparing and then contrasting corsets and footbinding shows one way that such a paper might be structured.

    This structure focuses on the comparison and contrast instead of on the two ideas (e.g., corsetry and footbinding) being compared and contrasted.

    Clearly, the sequence is important. If you begin with the comparison, then the contrast will get emphasis - the logical movement is from thinking about similarities to thinking about differences. If you begin by contrasting the ideas (and then move toward a comparison), the similarities get emphasis.


  2. First do one idea, then do the other.

    Writers might compare and contrast ideas by treating one idea thoroughly before taking up the second one. This method is probably the one most students try first, but many evolve past it into something more flexible.

    introduction
    similarities (or differences)
    differences (or similarities)
    conclusion

    A quick outline that treats first corsets and then footbinding shows one way that such a paper might be structured.

    A structure like this one seems more focused on the ideas being compared and contrasted than on the comparison and contrast itself. The similarities and differences between the ideas do not begin to emerge until the writer gets to the second idea. It is as if the writer is comparing and contrasting (for example) footbinding to corsetry, instead of corsetry and footbinding to each other.


  3. Write only about the comparable and contrastable elements of each idea.

    Writers might compare and contrast ideas by taking important specific elements and looking at their similarities and differences. This method requires real control over your subject.

    introduction
    element #1
    element #2
    element #3
    . . .
    conclusion

    A quick outline that compares and contrasts only relevant aspects of corsets and footbinding shows one way that such a paper might be structured.

    A comparison/contrast essay like this one would probably focus only on those elements of the ideas that are explicitly comparable or contrasting.


  4. Only compare or only contrast.

    It is always possible, of course, to write an essay that treats only the similarities or differences between ideas.

    • Writers who only compare two ideas sometimes briefly mention the contrast in the introduction and then move on so that they don't lead readers to think they can't make relevant distinctions.

    • Writers who only contrast ideas sometimes briefly summarize similarities in the conclusion so they don't leave the impression that they are thinking in opposites.


Comparison/contrast is useful for more than an essay topic.

Many teachers assign topics that ask writers to write an essay comparing and contrasting two or more ideas, but besides its value in organizing an essay, comparison/contrast is also useful as a technique

Other, related concepts to think about and places to look

Return to the discussion of how comparison and contrast can be used beyond structure for an essay.


A quick outline of how a paper comparing and then contrasting corsets and footbinding might look.

  1. Introduction
  2. Corsets and footbinding are similar
  3. Corsets and footbinding are different
  4. Conclusion
Return to the discussion of comparison/contrast essays.


A quick outline of how a paper treating one topic and then the other might look.

  1. Introduction
  2. Corsetry
  3. Footbinding
  4. Conclusion
Return to the discussion of comparison/contrast essays.


A quick outline of how a paper treating only comparable and contrasting elements might look.

  1. Introduction
  2. Restrictions on women's movements.
  3. Effects on women's health.
  4. Economic and cultural value of a helpless female to a powerful male.
  5. Women's contributions to their own weakening.
  6. Cultural movements against tight-lacing and footbinding.
  7. Socio-economic class and tight-lacing and footbinding.
  8. Lasting into 20th century.
  9. Eastern and western cultures.
  10. Extreme cases vs. most women.
  11. Conclusion
Return to the discussion of comparison/contrast essays.


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© 1995, 1996, 1997 The Write Place
LEO: Literacy Education Online
This handout was written by Sharon Cogdill for the Write Place, St. Cloud State University, St. Cloud, MN, and may be copied for educational purposes only. If you copy this document, please include our copyright notice and the name of the writer; if you revise it, please add your name to the list of writers.

Last update: 28 September 1997

URL: http://leo.stcloudstate.edu/acadwrite/comparcontrast.html