How to Write an Effective Compare and Contrast Paper
While you may believe that a compare and contrast paper is the easiest type to write by simply comparing things that are alike and things that are different, there’s more to it than that. The whole point of the exercise is to have you explain why the similarities and differences matter. Your ultimate goal is to create meaningful connections to a larger issue, using your comparisons or contrasts as a means to argue a case. Your professors may ask you to find the differences or similarities between two things, or they may ask for the differences and similarities. Once your subject has been defined, create your thesis statement containing the idea or claim that unites the discussion and includes the argument that you are making in support of the claim.
Choose Your Organizational Style
You can arrange your ideas in a compare and contrast paper using either the alternating or tandem style. There is no rule about selecting one method over another, but for papers over five or six pages you should probably use the alternating style. This will help the reader follow the pertinent information about each side of your argument more easily. The tandem pattern is suitable for shorter papers.
The Alternating Style
This style is also known as the point-by-point style and is usually written in five or more paragraphs. Let’s suppose you are writing a paper comparing the differences between attending a major university versus a local community college. Start with your opening paragraph, which will include your thesis. Then write a paragraph about the first difference between the university and the community college in the same sentence. For example, a sizable university may offer a prestigious course study while a community college may provide a smaller class size and more affordable tuition. Discuss the point, comparing backwards and forwards between the university and the community college in each sentence. The following paragraph will address the next difference or similarity. Use as many paragraphs as you need to discuss each point.
The Tandem Style
The tandem style of organization, also known as the block style, is often written in four paragraphs. To demonstrate, let’s use our example of comparing attending a major university versus a local community college. When using the tandem style, start with your opening paragraph, which again must include your thesis. Then, write about attending the university in the second paragraph and enrolling in the community college in the third. Any point you make in the paragraph about the university you must also make in the paragraph about the community college and in the same order. For example, you may discuss the large class size of a major university in one paragraph followed by a paragraph discussing the smaller class sizes of a community college. Finish with your concluding paragraph, which generally reaffirms your thesis in new words and demonstrates how you’ve proven it.
Support your analysis by providing textual support for each point you address. You can either use direct quotes from text or you can paraphrase, but you must remember to cite each source correctly. A compare and contrast paper often requires that you use the MLA formatting style. However, make sure you confirm which citation style your professor requires. If you aren’t up to speed on the latest MLA formatting guidelines, there is software available for you to apply the most current guidelines with just a couple of clicks of your mouse, helping you to avoid any deduction in points for formatting issues.
David Plaut is the founder of Reference Point Software (RPS). RPS offers a complete suite of easy-to-use formatting template products featuring MLA and APA style templates, freeing up time to focus on substance while ensuring formatting accuracy. For more information, log onto http://www.referencepointsoftware.com/ or write to:
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Reference Point Software is not associated with, endorsed by, or affiliated with the American Psychological Association (APA) or with the Modern Language Association (MLA).
Writing in Literature: Writing the Prompt Paper
These sections describe in detail the assignments students may complete when writing about literature. These sections also discuss different approaches (literary theory/criticism) students may use to write about literature. These resources build on the Writing About Literature materials.
Contributors: J. Case Tompkins
Last Edited: 2013-12-06 10:29:39
Whether you are given a selection of prompts to choose from or just one, knowing something about the various sorts of writing prompts can help you understand what your teacher expects and how you should approach the project.
“Compare and Contrast”
This classic writing prompt can be quite challenging because it sounds almost as if you are being asked to compile a list of similarities and differences. While a list might be of use in the planning stage, this prompt asks you to use what you discover to arrive at a conclusion about the two works under discussion.
Example: “Compare and contrast the two endings for Dickens’ Great Expectations paying special attention to the situation of Stella at the close of the novel.”
- Find three or four elements from the texts upon which to base your comparison.
- Examine possible connections and determine a thesis.
- Base your outline around the elements you’ve chosen, remembering to give equal coverage to each side.
“Discuss the theme of x as it appears in works a, b, and c.”
This is an extended or re-named compare and contrast prompt. In this situation, you are given a general theme, such as “loss of innocence” or “self-revelation.” Your job is to use the instances of that theme to arrive at some general conclusions regarding how the theme works in the text you are analyzing.
Example: “Discuss the ways in which Shakespeare talks about the passing of time in three of the sonnets we read for class.”
- Re-read carefully the selected works looking specifically for the theme or motif in question. Then research the ways in which other critics have examined this theme.
- Determine your argument. Will you make a claim for similarity (“A, b, and c use x in much the same way.”), difference (“A, b, and c, when dealing with x, take highly individual approaches.”), or superiority (“While a and b deal with x, c clearly demonstrates a richer, more nuanced treatment.”)?
- Organize your paper around the works, making each point deal thoroughly with a discrete work. Remember that connections are of the utmost importance for this paper, so pay close attention to your transitions.
“What is the role of women/the role of class/the role of the Other as presented in this work?”
All three examples above serve as first steps to the larger world of literary theory and criticism. Writing prompts like this ask you to examine a work from a particular perspective. You may not be comfortable with this new perspective. Chances are that since your instructor has given you such an assignment, the issues in question will be at least partially covered in class.
Example: “Discuss the ways in which the outsider or Other is dealt with in James Joyce’s story “The Dead.”
- Categorize the persons or characters in the piece. What are they in the most general, stereotypical way? Male or female? Lower or upper class? Natives or foreigners? Strangers or friends?
- Examine the ways in which the characters you’ve categorized fit or don’t fit into the boxes you’ve assigned them. Do they support or undermine the categories, and what do others (including the author) say about them and their place in the world?
- Write your paper as if you were giving a new definition (or an amended definition)of the category in question using the text as your guide. Your main points should highlight the ways in which the text uses or discards the accepted categories.
“Critic A has famously said “B” about this work. In light of our study of the piece in question, would you agree or disagree, why or why not?”
This sort of question is often asked as an in-class essay, but can appear as a prompt for larger papers. The goal of a question like this is to give you the opportunity to deal with the critical voices of others in your own writings.
Example: “C.S. Lewis has said that Chaucer is “our foremost poet of joy” in the English language, and in this field he “has few equals and no masters.” Discuss how this applies to the ending of “The Knight’s Tale” from The Canterbury Tales.”
- Read and re-read the quote from the prompt several times. Ask yourself what seems to be the quote’s central claim.
- Apply that claim to the relevant passage or work. In a way, you are being asked not to examine the literature so much as the claim about the literature. Does it hold up to scrutiny in light of the actual text?
- Your instructor would be equally pleased whether you agree or disagree with the critic’s views as long as you do so in a scholarly fashion. Structure your paper around the claims made by the quote and use lines from the text to support your own reaction.