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How To Write A Compare And Contrast Research Essay

Throughout the course of your education and career (if you choose to become a writer), you’ll have the opportunity to work on different writing assignments and, of course, essays are inevitable. The essay is a piece of writing that methodically analyzes and evaluates a topic or issue. That’s why there are different types of essays, used to discuss, analyze, evaluate, or compare different situations or subjects e.g. argumentative essay, cause and effect essay, and compare and contrast essay. Your ability to create an excellent paper depends on structuring a perfect outline. Throughout this post, I’m going to show you how to compose an outline for compare and contrast essay to get good grades (or positive feedback from the client) every time.

Compare and contrast essay outline

The easiest definition of compare and contrast essay that explore both the similarities and differences between two subjects by comparing or contrasting them. It’s very easy to mistake this style of essay writing for a simple comparison between some topics or subjects, but that’s not entirely correct. Always bear in mind that your essay has to serve a larger purpose and include the following:

  • Demonstrate that one thing is superior to another
  • Identify and clarify common misunderstandings
  • Provide a new way of doing or understanding something
  • State, elaborate, discuss something unknown
  • Support every claim with facts and accurate, reliable sources

When it comes to structuring the outline for this kind of essay, there are different methods you can follow depending on the organization.

Point-by-point pattern (organization by criteria)

This outline is primarily used to compare items or subjects that are almost similar or when you plan (or have to) evaluate only a few characteristics or criteria when comparing them. Use the diagram below to create the outline for the point-by-point pattern.

Block pattern (organization by item)

In instances when you have to compare items, situations, or topics that are entirely different or when there are multiple criteria to involve, the point-by-point pattern doesn’t function quite well. That’s why you should opt for block pattern or organization by item.

Why? The reason is simple; the same criteria don’t apply to different topics, people, objects, events, and so on. When the essay requires a multitude of approaches to explore, it’s important to learn how to organize it properly in a bid to ensure easy reading. Create the outline based on the diagram below.

Block pattern can be structured in a different manner as well. Instead of the separate paragraph for each point, you compare, you can set out one section to name their similarities and a second paragraph to analyze dissimilarities point by point.

Now that you know how to create a functional outline, you’re ready to move on to the essay writing process.

Introduction

The intro for this kind of essay doesn’t differ much from other types. It’s the part where you introduce the overall subject of the piece and specific items, situations, or events you have to compare and/or contrast. As seen in diagrams, the introduction should feature:

  • The mentioning of the main topic – begin with a hook sentence and detail specific to the topic itself. Your hook can be a quote, question, anecdote, anything you see fit for the particular subject you have to write about
  • Specific subjects to compare and contrast – of course, you can’t start writing about similarities and differences between two items out of the blue. That’s why you should set out a sentence or two to mention specific topics you’ll compare under the central theme
  • Thesis statement – it marks the tone of the essay and catches reader’s attention. Last sentence (or two) of your paper should account for a specific and concise thesis. There’s no need for wordiness in this part because thesis, as the entire introduction, shouldn’t be too long.

Once you’re done with the intro, you’re ready to move on to the body paragraphs.

Body paragraphs

A total number of paragraphs in the body section depends on a number of aspects or criteria you have to discuss. For example, if you have to make a comparison between two different events through two aspects, you’ll need two paragraphs. Three criteria require three paragraphs, and so on. Sometimes, you’ll get the amount of aspects to use for comparison/contrast from your professor or a client, while in other instances, you’ll just have to determine the number yourself during the research process.

When you get the title and aspects to compare but without a certain number of criteria to cover similarities and differences, you have to brainstorm. Take a blank piece of paper and write the first item in the left corner, the second item in the right corner. Make a Venn diagram and start analyzing.

REMEMBER: Typically, you don’t need more than three aspects to cover, unless otherwise noted.

When you start brainstorming and researching the topic, the chances are high you’ll find a wide array of differences and similarities. However, your essay has to be well-crafted, and you can’t include absolutely everything you find (that way you’d write forever). To determine what to compare or differentiate answer these questions:

  • Is this relevant for my course?
  • What matters to the argument I’m going to take (or I’m given)?
  • What’s informative and interesting?
  • What’s relevant to my assignment?

Each paragraph in the body should start with a topic sentence (point 1, criterion 1/item A, B) focused on the aspect you’re about to compare/contrast. Then, you proceed with details you find when conducting research. Remember, just like in other types of essays, thorough research is highly relevant here, too.

It’s not just about mentioning differences and similarities one by one and stating your opinion or argument about them. Every detail you find should be supported by substantial evidence, statistics, studies, official data, and so on.

To show comparisons and emphasize the overall effect, don’t forget to use some connectors such as:

  • At the same time, as well as
  • Both
  • Compared to
  • Correspondingly
  • In addition
  • In the same way
  • Just as
  • Likewise
  • Same as
  • Similarly

Of course, you can include connectors to express or heighten the contrasting effect. For example:

  • Conversely
  • Even though, although
  • However
  • In contrast
  • Meanwhile
  • Nevertheless
  • On the contrary
  • On the other hand
  • Unlike

For the best possible result and successful completion of the essay, the body paragraphs should be analyzed from the perspective of an independent analytic. Ideally, your paper shouldn’t be biased. You don’t want the reader of your paper to assume what item you prefer or despise automatically.

Conclusion

At this point, you have the introduction and body paragraphs, which indicates you’re ready to conclude the essay. Generally, this is the easiest part, but you should ensure it’s properly structured as well. Here’s what your conclusion should contain:

  • Summary of main points – at the very beginning of this part, you should summarize the main points you’ve made throughout the essay. It’s important to synthesize your thesis with info in body paragraphs
  • Evaluation – provide a short analysis of what you discussed in the paper or mention possible solutions. The approach depends on the nature of your subject
  • Significance – not only do you have to clarify the importance of the main topic, but also mention the significance of comparisons or contrasts. How to do this? It’s not that difficult; answer the What was my goal in showing similarities/differences between these items? Your response indicates their significance.

Post-writing stage

You finished writing the paper, but your work isn’t over just yet. Before sending or submitting the essay, it’s necessary to proofread and edit the paper to eliminate all mistakes and unwanted parts.

Proofreading isn’t only necessary for correcting typos or grammar, these seemingly unimportant errors that “everyone makes” break the reader from the flow of the paper and undermine its power of persuasion. When you finish the essay, read your work from top to bottom without doing anything. You’ll probably spot some mistakes, but don’t rush correcting them immediately. Then, start reading again and correct typos, grammar errors, and sentence constructions. Don’t resist the urge to rewrite some sentences for better effect.

Nowadays, in the era of technology, you might feel tempted to download software (or find grammar/spelling checker online) and let it do the work for you. First of all, they aren’t always correct, and secondly, your critical thinking skills will improve only when you do it yourself. The software can be used as additional essay help. Another useful idea is to ask a family member or a friend to read the essay and see if they can spot some mistakes.

You’re almost ready to submit your essay, check whether you included references (if not, do so) and you’re done.

Bottom line

Compare, and contrast essay is concerned with evaluating differences and similarities between given items or topics. It’s not just a mere comparison; the essay requires thorough evaluation and analysis supported by reliable data. This post explained how to create the outline properly, and all you have to do is to write according to the structure provided. Remember, once you create the structure and choose the adequate pattern (point-by-point or block), you just have to fill in the missing detail with results of your search.

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