Comparative Essays

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What is a comparative essay?

A comparative essay asks that you compare at least two (or possibly more) items. These items will differ depending on the assignment. You might be asked to compare

Although the assignment may say “compare,” the assumption is that you will consider both the similarities and differences; in other words, you will compare and contrast.

Make sure you know the basis for comparison

The assignment sheet may say exactly what you need to compare, or it may ask you to come up with a basis for comparison yourself.

Develop a list of similarities and differences

Once you know your basis for comparison, think critically about the similarities and differences between the items you are comparing, and compile a list of them. For example, you might decide that in Great Expectations, being a true gentleman is not a matter of manners or position but morality, whereas in The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, being a true gentleman is not about luxury and self-indulgence but hard work and productivity. Your list is not yet your outline for the essay, but it should provide you with enough similarities and differences to construct an initial plan.

Develop a thesis based on the relative weight of similarities and differences

Once you have listed similarities and differences, decide whether the similarities on the whole outweigh the differences or vice versa. Create a thesis statement that reflects their relative weights. A more complex thesis will usually include both similarities and differences and will argue that one of them (either the similarities or the differences) outweighs the other.

Come up with a structure for your essay

Alternating method: Point-by-point pattern

In the alternating method, you find points common to your central subjects A and B, and alternate between A and B on the basis of these points (ABABAB …). For instance, a comparative essay on the French and Russian revolutions might examine how both revolutions either encouraged or thwarted innovation in terms of new technology (body paragraphs 1 and 2), military strategy (body paragraphs 3 and 4), and the administrative system (body paragraphs 5 and 6).

Two notes about the alternating method:
When do I use the alternating method?

The alternating method generally does a better job of highlighting similarities and differences between A and B. It also tends to produce a more tightly integrated and analytical paper. Consider the alternating method if you are able to identify clearly related points between A and B. Otherwise, if you attempt to impose the alternating method, you will probably find it counterproductive.

Block method: Subject-by-subject pattern

In the block method (AB), you discuss all of A, then all of B. For example, a comparative essay using the block method on the French and Russian revolutions would address the French Revolution in the first half of the essay and the Russian Revolution in the second half. If you choose the block method, however, make sure they are connected! The B block should refer to the A block and make clear points of comparison whenever comparisons are relevant: (“Unlike A, B . . .” or “Like A, B . . .”). This technique will allow for a higher level of critical engagement, continuity, and cohesion.

When do I use the block method?

The block method is particularly useful in the following cases:

Adapted from the University of Toronto, https://advice.writing.utoronto.ca/types-of-writing/comparative-essay/, 2020.