Writing Comparison Essay Ap

Let's talk about compare/contrast essays. Now, I find these to be some of the most difficult types of essays to write because it's hard to know where you're going and exactly how you're going to tell the similarities and differences between two things. So a couple of vocabulary things to straighten out first. When you're given an essay, if you're asked just to compare, all they want to know is the similarities, so compare means how they're the same. If you're asked to contrast two things, then you're being asked to tell people how they are different. So just be aware, when you're doing compare/contrast, sometimes you may be asked to compare or contrast, sometimes you may be asked to do both. So you've got to really be aware of your prompt there.
Here are the steps that I tend to go through when I'm working compare/contrast; the first thing that I do is select my topics and make sure I understand the task. So that is selecting which two things I'm going to use in my essay and then understanding am I being asked to compare, contrast or do both of those. So that's the first important step. And then the next step is to pre-write and develop categories. So obviously if we're talking about how things are similar and different, we are going to start categorizing the ways that they are similar or different. For instance, if we are comparing pizzas, we might say crust is one category that we're going to look at, sauce might be another and the variety of toppings might be another. So you can start thinking about what those categories should be.
My two favorite modes of pre-writing for compare/contrast is a Venn diagram and you may remember that from math class, the two circles that run together, you can put topic one here, topic two here and then how they're different in here and how they're similar in the middle, so that's one. I'm also a chart person so I don't mind chart especially if I've got a lot of categories and my chart might look something like this and I will have a row for each particular category. So crust, sauce and then I divide it down the middle and I seal those in. So it depends on how you like to look at things, I tend to be a little bit more organized so I like the chart the best but after I've got all these ideas down here, now I want to develop a thesis. And this is really the critical part in compare/contrast because it's really easy to say, "Well, Monical's pizza has thin crust and Giodonalds pizza has thick crust, but you want to make sure that you're answering the 'so what?' question. So you've got to come to some sort of conclusion, it's not just about saying how things are similar or how they are different but why is that important. So maybe Giodonalds is a better place to entertain people or to take people from out of town because you can get thin crust pizza anywhere. Whatever it is you've got to come to that conclusion so you can insert it in your thesis and then after that you've got to think about how you're going to organize your essay. And let's take a look at the two different ways that you can organize a compare/contrast essay.
Now, the first one is point by point. And essentially what that means is it's going to be guided by those categories that you created. So you're going to have multiple sections of your paper; one for each of the categories that you have and in each section you're going to use examples from both topics. So you might talk about crust here, and in this paragraph or set of paragraphs you're going to talk about the crust at Giodonalds and you're going to talk about the crust at Monical's. And then you move on to the next category and so on and so forth until you've talked about all your categories and given all your examples. The important thing to remember if you choose point by point is that you're going to want to make sure you do analysis within each category; so once you talk about crust, you're going to have to come to a conclusion about crust, once you talk about sauce, come to that conclusion that all goes back to your thesis. So the analysis goes throughout.
Now, some of you guys may choose block formatting. And block formatting simply means that it's guided by topic rather than category. So you're going to start with an introduction and then you're going to introduce topic one. So in this case it might be Monical's, which is my favorite kind of pizza. And what you're going to do in this area, and it could consist of multiple paragraphs, is you're going to give multiple examples from just that one topic. So the first part of my paper is going to be focused on Monical's whereas the second will be focused on Giodonalds, and I'm going to give multiple examples about Giodonalds here. One thing to know then is because you're not doing much analysis inside these paragraphs because you're sticking to just one topic, you're conclusion has got to include your analysis where you're really coming down to that 'so what?' question you're answering now, the one that you answered in your thesis statement you're repeating down here. So those are the two ways to organize compare/contrast. Make sure again that you understand the task, know are you being asked to compare or contrast or do both and hopefully this will help you get started.

Throughout your academic career, you'll be asked to write papers in which you compare and contrast two things: two texts, two theories, two historical figures, two scientific processes, and so on. "Classic" compare-and-contrast papers, in which you weight A and B equally, may be about two similar things that have crucial differences (two pesticides with different effects on the environment) or two similar things that have crucial differences, yet turn out to have surprising commonalities (two politicians with vastly different world views who voice unexpectedly similar perspectives on sexual harassment).

In the "lens" (or "keyhole") comparison, in which you weight A less heavily than B, you use A as a lens through which to view B. Just as looking through a pair of glasses changes the way you see an object, using A as a framework for understanding B changes the way you see B. Lens comparisons are useful for illuminating, critiquing, or challenging the stability of a thing that, before the analysis, seemed perfectly understood. Often, lens comparisons take time into account: earlier texts, events, or historical figures may illuminate later ones, and vice versa.

Faced with a daunting list of seemingly unrelated similarities and differences, you may feel confused about how to construct a paper that isn't just a mechanical exercise in which you first state all the features that A and B have in common, and then state all the ways in which A and B are different. Predictably, the thesis of such a paper is usually an assertion that A and B are very similar yet not so similar after all. To write a good compare-and-contrast paper, you must take your raw data—the similarities and differences you've observed—and make them cohere into a meaningful argument. Here are the five elements required.

Frame of Reference. This is the context within which you place the two things you plan to compare and contrast; it is the umbrella under which you have grouped them. The frame of reference may consist of an idea, theme, question, problem, or theory; a group of similar things from which you extract two for special attention; biographical or historical information. The best frames of reference are constructed from specific sources rather than your own thoughts or observations. Thus, in a paper comparing how two writers redefine social norms of masculinity, you would be better off quoting a sociologist on the topic of masculinity than spinning out potentially banal-sounding theories of your own. Most assignments tell you exactly what the frame of reference should be, and most courses supply sources for constructing it. If you encounter an assignment that fails to provide a frame of reference, you must come up with one on your own. A paper without such a context would have no angle on the material, no focus or frame for the writer to propose a meaningful argument.

Grounds for Comparison. Let's say you're writing a paper on global food distribution, and you've chosen to compare apples and oranges. Why these particular fruits? Why not pears and bananas? The rationale behind your choice, the grounds for comparison, lets your reader know why your choice is deliberate and meaningful, not random. For instance, in a paper asking how the "discourse of domesticity" has been used in the abortion debate, the grounds for comparison are obvious; the issue has two conflicting sides, pro-choice and pro-life. In a paper comparing the effects of acid rain on two forest sites, your choice of sites is less obvious. A paper focusing on similarly aged forest stands in Maine and the Catskills will be set up differently from one comparing a new forest stand in the White Mountains with an old forest in the same region. You need to indicate the reasoning behind your choice.

Thesis. The grounds for comparison anticipates the comparative nature of your thesis. As in any argumentative paper, your thesis statement will convey the gist of your argument, which necessarily follows from your frame of reference. But in a compare-and-contrast, the thesis depends on how the two things you've chosen to compare actually relate to one another. Do they extend, corroborate, complicate, contradict, correct, or debate one another? In the most common compare-and-contrast paper—one focusing on differences—you can indicate the precise relationship between A and B by using the word "whereas" in your thesis:

Whereas Camus perceives ideology as secondary to the need to address a specific historical moment of colonialism, Fanon perceives a revolutionary ideology as the impetus to reshape Algeria's history in a direction toward independence.

Whether your paper focuses primarily on difference or similarity, you need to make the relationship between A and B clear in your thesis. This relationship is at the heart of any compare-and-contrast paper.

Organizational Scheme. Your introduction will include your frame of reference, grounds for comparison, and thesis. There are two basic ways to organize the body of your paper.

  • In text-by-text, you discuss all of A, then all of B.
  • In point-by-point, you alternate points about A with comparable points about B.

If you think that B extends A, you'll probably use a text-by-text scheme; if you see A and B engaged in debate, a point-by-point scheme will draw attention to the conflict. Be aware, however, that the point-by- point scheme can come off as a ping-pong game. You can avoid this effect by grouping more than one point together, thereby cutting down on the number of times you alternate from A to B. But no matter which organizational scheme you choose, you need not give equal time to similarities and differences. In fact, your paper will be more interesting if you get to the heart of your argument as quickly as possible. Thus, a paper on two evolutionary theorists' different interpretations of specific archaeological findings might have as few as two or three sentences in the introduction on similarities and at most a paragraph or two to set up the contrast between the theorists' positions. The rest of the paper, whether organized text- by-text or point-by-point, will treat the two theorists' differences.

You can organize a classic compare-and-contrast paper either text-by-text or point-by-point. But in a "lens" comparison, in which you spend significantly less time on A (the lens) than on B (the focal text), you almost always organize text-by-text. That's because A and B are not strictly comparable: A is merely a tool for helping you discover whether or not B's nature is actually what expectations have led you to believe it is.

Linking of A and B. All argumentative papers require you to link each point in the argument back to the thesis. Without such links, your reader will be unable to see how new sections logically and systematically advance your argument. In a compare-and contrast, you also need to make links between A and B in the body of your essay if you want your paper to hold together. To make these links, use transitional expressions of comparison and contrast (similarly, moreover, likewise, on the contrary, conversely, on the other hand) and contrastive vocabulary (in the example below, Southerner/Northerner).

As a girl raised in the faded glory of the Old South, amid mystical tales of magnolias and moonlight, the mother remains part of a dying generation. Surrounded by hard times, racial conflict, and limited opportunities, Julian, on the other hand, feels repelled by the provincial nature of home, and represents a new Southerner, one who sees his native land through a condescending Northerner's eyes.

Copyright 1998, Kerry Walk, for the Writing Center at Harvard University

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