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UMGC Effective Writing Center Writing to Compare or Contrast

It's a typical Saturday at the mall. You're trying on new jeans. Let's see, slim cut or relaxed fit? Stone washed or dark? At work on Monday your boss asks you to research and recommend a notebook computer for the entire sales staff--by Friday. That night in criminal justice class, you're reminded that you have a term paper due, comparing organized crime in modern Italy, Japan, and Russia.

The act of comparing and contrasting is basic to our lives at home, work, and school. In the examples above, comparing and contrasting is done for purposes such as making a decision, solving a problem, or finding an answer.

When writing this type of essay, it’s important to avoid comparisons and contrasts that do not serve a purpose.  

A Purpose: Get One

Therefore, in this type of writing, one of your first tasks is to determine what purpose the comparisons and the contrasts will serve. Consider this example:

Ignorant or Illiterate?
A Comparison of Two Essays

Let's say that you've been asked to write a compare and contrast essay about two articles,  “Is Google Making Us Stoopid?” by Nicholas Carr and “Three Tweets for the Web” by Tyler Cowen. Both essays discuss the same topic—the effects of the Internet on our lives. So the potential list of similarities and differences is long. But what purpose will the list serve?

Finding a Thesis

That's where the thesis comes in--the overall point you wish to make as you conduct a compare and contrast analysis. For example, in our comparison of two essays about the Internet’s effects, your thesis could be one of these:

  • Unlike television, the Internet increases our understanding of the world and our ability to communicate about it. (Purpose of essay: to assure readers that the Internet does not pose a danger to their IQ or emotional stability)
  • Many fear the Internet for invalid reasons, thus missing out on its potential benefits. (Purpose of essay: to teach the fearful how the Internet can enrich their lives)
  • The only overall decline caused by the Internet has been the decline in boredom. (Purpose: to satirize the unfounded fears of parents, teachers and experts about the so-called declines caused by the Internet) 

Once you have a clear thesis, then and only then can you go about the important task of outlining your essay as you select and arrange details that allow you to achieve your writing purpose.

The Rules of Fair Play

As you craft your outline and first draft, keep in mind these guidelines for "fair play" when it comes to writing a compare/contrast analysis.

  • Rule #1: When analyzing your subjects, use the same criteria for each. If you talk about attention span, information literacy and brain rewiring for the first essay, you must also discuss those same criteria for the second essay, in the same order.
  • Rule #2:  Don't try to tilt the outcome. It's fine to have a preference, but it’s not fine to omit or to puff up information. Conduct the comparison in a balanced, objective manner and let the facts speak for themselves.
  • Rule #3:  Recognize that any comparison will produce similarities and differences. What you write should reflect, to some extent, this reality. So, for example, if your paper will focus mainly on the differences between the two essays, you could perhaps begin by first pointing to a similarity.

Organizing the Compare-Contrast Essay

You will find these Fair Play rules at work in the two arrangements most often used in compare-contrast essays: the subject-by-subject pattern and the point-by-point pattern.

The subject-by-subject pattern focuses on each subject, one at a time. For example, after an introduction paragraph that provides the thesis of the comparison, the two essays would be discussed separately. Note that the same criteria are used for each essay, in the same order:

Subject-by-Subject Pattern

  1. Introduction + thesis statement
  2. "Is Google Making Us Stoopid?"
    1. Attention span
    2. Information literacy
    3. Brain rewiring
  3. "Three Tweets for the Web"
    1. Attention span
    2. Information literacy
    3. Brain rewiring
  4. Conclusion

A point-by-point pattern, on the other hand, provides a side-by-side analysis of the two essays, and might look something like the outline below. Note that the same criteria for discussion now have their own paragraphs--attention span, information access, and brain rewiring.  

Point-by-Point Pattern

  1. Introduction + thesis statement
  2. Attention span
    1. "Is Google Making Us Stoopid?"
    2. "Three Tweets for the Web"
  3. Information Literacy
    1. "Is Google Making Us Stoopid?"
    2. "Three Tweets for the Web"
  4. Brain Rewiring
    1. "Is Google Making Us Stoopid?"
    2. "Three Tweets for the Web"
  5. Conclusion

Also note that “Is Google Making Us Stoopid?” always comes first in the analysis provided by each paragraph, followed by “Three Tweets for the Web.”

Which Pattern is Better to Use?

The pattern you choose--subject-by-subject or point-by-point--depends on two factors: length of the paper and complexity of the subject matter. A subject-by-subject approach provides a strong overview and simple organization. However, in a more complex analysis, the point-by-point approach helps to keep both subjects in continuous focus and makes technical analyses more understandable for the reader by breaking them down, point by point, and discussing only one point at a time.

Transition Words and Phrases

Finally, don't forget the key transition words and phrases that you will need as you weave back and forth in your analysis. Likewise, in comparison, in contrast, on the other hand, however, on the contrary, and many more help your reader follow along as you navigate between the topics in your compare and contrast essay.

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