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This lesson explains what it is to write a compare and contrast essay. For the student who needs to describe two subjects, a compare and contrast essay offers the opportunity to explore the similarities and differences of a topic.

Why Compare and Contrast?

When studying a particular subject, students are often asked to write essays that compare and contrast various aspects of that area of study. It is common to be assigned to write essays in all areas of study, not just when taking a composition course.

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For example, in a social studies course, a class is working on a unit about the places where people live: rural, urban, and suburban. The instructor assigns everyone a compare and contrast essay on life in a city compared to life on a farm. The instructions are such that the essay must both compare, provide similarities, and contrast, provide differences, for living in both types of areas. How would a student get started? How would this essay be structured? A strong, well-written, and organized compare and contrast essay will show the instructor that the writer understands the differences between life in the city and life on the farm.

Definition

Compare and contrast essays are multi-paragraph compositions that explain ways in which two (or occasionally more) subjects are similar and different.

In these essays, compare means describing similarities between the subjects. The essay on farmlife versus city would provide at least one paragraph on how people’s lives in the city are like the lives of the people that live on a farm. Basically, the comparison tells what they have in common.

When a writer contrasts two things, he or she explains ways in which they are different. After completing a unit of study on where people live, students should be able to provide several details about how life on a farm can be vastly different from life in a city.Again, compare and contrast essays can cover almost any topic and may pop up in a variety of subject areas. In order to make decisions about what to include, writers need to keep one thing in mind: relevance.

Relevance helps determine which characteristics are worth comparing and contrasting. Your thesis will help you determine the relevance, or irrelevance, of facts. That means writers need a strong thesis statement.

This is a sentence that lets the reader know the topic and the argument the writer is making. Something like: While city life and farm life have few similarities, city life provides the hustle and bustle of many people, distinct noises, and social opportunities that are different from that of farm life. If this is the writer’s thesis statement, then the essay should focus on details that are relevant to the hustle and bustle of city life, noises, and social activities available in the city versus on a farm. The thesis statement will help keep the writing focused on just a few ideas that are based on the overall topic.

How to Get Started

The topic for a compare and contrast essay will likely be determined by the subject or course that a student is enrolled. Topic choices for a compare and contrast essay are vast.

In a literature course, topic ideas may include writing about two novels, comparing a novel to the movie version of that same novel, or comparing and contrasting characters, settings, or themes within a novel or from two different novels. In a science course, topics could be based on comparing and contrasting two species of plants or animals, or comparing one theory in a given subject area to another theory. Within a history course, an instructor could assign an essay that compares two historical figures, two time periods, two wars, or even two types of government. The choices for writing or assigning a compare and contrast essay are almost endless.Once the topic or the essay is assigned or chosen, brainstorm the qualities of each subject, then move on to some prewriting. Prewriting allows the writer to get ideas and details down on paper before writing paragraphs.

A Venn diagram can be used to sort the information. A Venn diagram is an organizational tool formed by two overlapping circles that compare two subjects. Each circle represents one subject. Characteristics unique to each subject are written in the non-overlapping parts of the circle, while any similar characteristics are listed in the overlapping part.For the social studies essay, start filling the Venn diagram in with what was learned about farm life and city life. What is true about just farm life? Maybe that list includes items like working with farm animals, working with farm machinery, being outdoors, self-sufficiency, fewer neighbors, etc.

Then, a list would be made of what is true about just city life. The third list and overlapping part of the diagram would be what is true of both ways of living: noisy at times, many different odors, many physical activities, etc.Once your Venn diagram is full, you can start to decide on your thesis statement.

Examine your Venn diagram and ask, ”What does this information tell me?” Develop a statement that tells the readers what this essay is going to focus on. What is the main point about similarities and differences between city life and farm life that the writer is trying to make?The next step is to start writing. Introduce the thesis and main points in the first paragraph, then use the body of the essay to go into detail about each point. It can be effective to use very specific examples, questions, and citations to make a point.A compare and contrast essay is generally structured in one of two ways.

First, the writer could organize the essay by subject. To do this, he or she would describe one subject in the first few paragraphs, then describe the other subject in the remaining paragraphs. An alternative is to organize the essay by characteristics.

In this case, the writer might dedicate one paragraph to each detail that is being compared and contrasted. For example, dedicate one paragraph to noise in the city versus noise on a farm, another to animals on a farm versus the city, and another paragraph to the number of people individuals live near on a farm versus the city.The final paragraph of the essay should be a concluding paragraph, where the writer should find a way to summarize or restate the thesis statement and end the essay with a few strong statements.

Writing on an Unknown Topic

What if the teacher doesn’t assign a topic the writer is familiar with for the essay? Don’t panic.

The process will look pretty similar. However, writing on an unknown subject will require some research.For example, the science teacher assigns a compare and contrast essay on the habitats of reptiles and amphibians.

If the writer feels uncomfortable with his or her current knowledge of this, then hit the textbooks and the Internet. As you research, take notes on a paper with two columns: one for reptiles and one for amphibians.Once there is a good bank of notes, highlight anything similar in both columns. This will be the prewriting and organizing, just like what was done with the Venn diagram. Now the thesis statement can be created, and the specific details can become the paragraphs.

Lesson Summary

Compare and contrast essays give writers the chance to explore two subjects within a single essay. Students may be asked to write essays in almost every area of study. Compare and contrast essays always reveal similarities and differences between the subjects. A Venn diagram is a helpful tool for prewriting and organizing an essay. Essays may require research to either help support the information or to increase the knowledge the writer has on a particular topic.

Once the writer has the information that will go into the essay, he or she should just start writing! The paragraphs in this type of essay can be organized by subject. To do this, write about just one of the ideas being compared first, then switch and write about the second idea. Another way to structure the essay would be to compare and contrast both ideas in a paragraph and tell the similarities and differences of one detail from the topic.A strong essay will have an opening paragraph that includes a thesis statement and a concluding paragraph. While it can be easier to write on a well-known topic, with a bit of research and organization, a writer can create an essay on a variety of subject areas if assigned.

Compare and Contrast Essay Tips

Definitions of compare and contrast
  • A compare and contrast essay involves finding the similarities and differences between two subjects
  • Tools to help prepare for a compare and contrast essay include a Venn diagram and lists
  • Paragraphs in the essay can be organized by subject or by comparing and contrasting different ideas in each paragraph
  • Any compare and contrast essay should include a thesis statement in the opening paragraph and a concluding paragraph

Learning Outcomes

When you are finished, you should be able to:

  • Explain what is expected in a compare and contrast essay
  • Recall the purpose of a Venn diagram in preparing a compare and contrast essay
  • Discuss the ways to structure a compare and contrast essay

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