Writing a "Compare and Contrast" essay requires you to:
- Choose two subjects to compare
- Identify a topic to focus on for your comparison
- Argue that the subjects are either similar or different with regard to that topic
Note: The following is an outline for a "point-by-point" comparison essay, which works best for a 5-paragraph essay. Another option is a "subject-by-subject" comparison essay, which works best for longer essays.
For an assignment, you likely had the subjects chosen for you but still need to find a focus for your comparison.
To do that, think about all the similarities and differences between the two subjects, then select a theme that interests you most or you think you can argue best.
If I were asked to write a comparison paper about dogs and cats, I might consider the differences and similarities in their anatomy, hunting behavior, temperaments and their relationships with humans.
I chose the topic of their relationships with humans for my (imaginary) essay: Having a dog as a pet is different from having a cat. My purpose is not to prove that owning one kind of pet is better than owning another kind of pet; it is to prove that they are different experiences by showing how they are different.
The thesis statement should touch on the topics that you will cover in your essay. For example, the thesis for mine might read, "Both dogs and cats make great pets, but they are very different experiences: owning a dog requires more responsibility, is often more expensive, and provides more interaction than owning a cat."
Your introduction gives you a chance to explain why you've chosen the subjects you have. Here's an example of how that might look:
- Hook: Give a frame of reference for the topic that will pique the reader's interest and let them know why you've chosen this topic. Perhaps I would start with saying how many people in the United States own a pet and name a few universal benefits to pet ownership, like improved emotional and physical health.
- Grounds for comparison: Tell the reader why you've chosen to compare the topics that you have. I might use a statistic to show that dogs and cats are, overwhelmingly, the most popular pets in the country.
- Thesis: Make your argument about why the two subjects you've chosen are either similar or different. (In my case, different.)
In a five-paragraph essay, the three body paragraphs in the middle will elaborate on the claims you've made in your thesis and give evidence for those claims.
The first body paragraph corresponds to the first topic touched on in the intro: In my case, "Owning a dog requires more responsibility than owning a cat."
Restate that argument in a topic sentence and then give two well-cited examples that prove the topic sentence to be true, giving equal attention to each subject. Link the subjects using "transitional expressions" that show comparison. From the Harvard College Writing Center:
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).
For my essay, the evidence might show that:
- Dogs need to be walked or let out several times a day. Cats, on the other hand, can use a litter box that only needs cleaning every few days and never need to be walked.
- Dogs need a lot of attention and become distressed when they do not receive it, while cats prefer solitude much of the time.
For each of these bullet points, I would include an expert quote or a statistic from an academic study to prove that the evidence is solid.
The end of the paragraph should draw a conclusion based on the evidence, linking the topic sentence back to the paper's thesis, and lead into the next paragraph.
Follow this same structure for the other topics you named in the thesis. In my case, I would write a body paragraph giving evidence for each of these two topic sentences:
- Dogs are often more expensive to own than cats.
- Owning a dog provides more interaction than owning a cat.
Finally, write a conclusion that follows the reverse structure of the introduction paragraph.
- Summarize: Restate your thesis and the basics of your argument. ("Restate," of course, doesn't mean "copy and paste.")
- Evaluate: What does your conclusion mean in a broader context? My essay comparing dogs and cats might help people choose which pet is best for them, so I might say, "Either a dog or a cat might be an ideal pet for someone, depending on their lifestyles and needs. Considering the responsibilities and benefits of each type of pet can help people make the best choice for themselves and the animal."
- Show significance: Why does it matter? In my case, I might cite numbers of dogs and cats currently living in shelters to conclude my essay and say, "Whether they choose a dog or cat, a person can make a big difference by giving a home to an animal in need."
When you read over your essay, you should see a strong argument for either the similarity or difference between your two subjects, with evidence provided for all the claims you have made. You should be able to identify a thesis at the end of the introduction and a topic sentence at the beginning of each body paragraph.