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How to write a comparative essay

A step-by-step guide with instructions, outlines, and samples

Quick AnswerVideo

Writing a great comparative essay means highlighting the similarities and differences between two things in a systematic manner. Start by choosing the parameters (items) to compare, write an outline, and fill in the details for each section. Make sure to have an introduction and conclusion.

The comparative essay is one form of document that you will probably be expected to write at some point over the course of your college career. The purpose of this article is to provide you with a thorough overview of the comparative essay. Specific things that will be addressed include:

  • Purpose of the comparative essay
  • Explanation of comparative models
  • How to analyze subjects
  • Elements of a good comparative essay
  • How to write a great comparative essay
  • Samples/examples
  • Best practices and advice
  • Additional information

By the end of this article, you should feel more confident about your own knowledge of what a comparative essay is and the best ways to go about writing one (if you haven't decided to buy a comparative essay from Ultius).

Purpose of the comparative essay

The fundamental purpose of a comparative essay is to elaborate the similarities and differences between two things in a systematic manner.

An effective comparative essay will leave the reader with much greater clarity about the natures and properties of the things that have been compared.

This could potentially serve as a basis for making a decision in favor of one or the other thing.

A comparative essay is different from, for example, an argumentative essay in that the comparative essay does not make a case for either of the two things under comparison. Rather, the point is to simply set up the comparison so that the reader will have as much information about the two things as possible.

Comparative Essay vs. Argumentative Essay
 
Here is a table comparing the comparative essay to the argumentative essay.
 Argumentative essayComparative essay
PurposeTo make a clear case for a position on a given subject or a plan of actionTo highlight the similarities and differences between one object and another object
LanguageObjective, first-person or third-person, appeals to reason and evidence, some subjective anecdote allowedObjective, third-person, appeals to reason and evidence, personal anecdote should be avoided
Example of a claim"The Republican Party is a threat to the long-term stability and well-being of America, so everyone must vote Democrat.""The Republicans and the Democrats disagree on a lot, but they also have some underlying similarities."
Examples of publicationsPhilosophical journals, political magazines, editorialsScholarly journals, more viewpoint-neutral magazines

Why are comparative essays important?

The comparative essay is an important form of document because when you have to make a decision or choose a side in an argument, you will want to know as much as possible about the two options under consideration—and a good comparative essay on the subject can bring out both the similarities and the differences between the options, thereby clarifying the stakes at play.

For example, a comparative essay could address the similarities and differences between any of the following pairs:

  • The Republican Party and the Democratic Party
  • Christianity and Marxism
  • The Big Bang and creationism
  • The Light or Dark side of the Force from Star Wars
  • The revolutionary and the reformist perspectives on social change

By developing a comparative essay on any of these pairs, you can not only understand each item of under comparison is a more thorough way, you can also get closer to figuring out which item you prefer.

For example, a solid comparative essay on revolution vs. reformism could not only help you understand what each of these items entails, it can also help you figure out whether you would rather be a revolutionary or a reformist. Likewise, if you only have time to binge watch one show, then a comparative essay could help you figure out whether you would prefer to go with Game of Thrones or Westworld.

Explanation of comparative models

When writing a comparative essay, there are several models you can use in order to ensure that you set up your comparison as effectively as possible.

Venn diagram

The Venn diagram is a classic, and surely, you're familiar with it. This is the model of two overlapping circles, where each circle belongs to one item of comparison: features shared by both items (similarities) go in the overlapping middle zone, whereas features that are not shared go in the outer areas. For example, here is a Venn diagram that compares humans against gorillas.

A Venn Diagram of Humans vs. Gorillas
 
A Venn Diagram can show the similarities and differences between two different subjects

When using the Venn diagram model, it is important to note that the differences must be symmetrical. In other words, every difference you list on one side of the comparison must be matched by a difference on the other side.

For example, if you were comparing Apple and Amazon, then for the parameter of "founder," you can list "Steve Jobs" in one circle and "Jeff Bezos" in the other. But it wouldn't make sense if you just listed one or the other: you must list something for each of the items of comparisons under the selected parameter of comparison.

In the Venn diagram above, the first parameter is "language," so for humans it is listed that we have a capacity of language, whereas for gorillas it is listed that they do not.

You don't need to worry about this kind of symmetry when it comes to the similarities, since you will list the same thing for both items of comparison (which means you only have to list it once, in the overlapping zone). In the example, above, the fact that both humans and gorillas are mammals is thus listed just once in the middle.

The dialectical method

The dialectical method is important within the discipline of philosophy, and it has been used to great effect by thinkers such as Socrates and Hegel and Kierkegaard.

This involves holding two ideas or items in tension with each other, to better clarify not only the ideas themselves but also the dynamic relationship that exist between the ideas. The first idea is called the thesis, and the second idea is called the antithesis.

For example, Romanticism could be dialectically compared against the Enlightenment that came before it, because Romanticism was in some ways a rejection of the previous worldview.

Need help? Essay writing services from Ultius can help you produce a great sample compare and contrast essay.

So, by setting up a comparison between Romanticism and the Enlightenment, it becomes possible to see both the continuities (or similarities) between the one and the other, as well as the contradictions (or differences) between them.

Romanticism vs. the Enlightenment
 
The table below breaks down the differences between the two periods and styles.
 EnlightenmentRomanticism
Epistemologyreason, logicimagination, passion
Where did it happen?Western EuropeWestern Europe
Valuesscience, rationality, objective truthpoetry, enchantment, subjective truth
Emerged in response to . . .superstitious religionoverbearing rationality
Did it produce great artists?yesyes

Source(s)

Berlin, Isaiah. The Roots of Romanticism. Princeton: Princeton U P, 2013. Print.

From the table above, it is clear that we are able to understand both Romanticism and the Enlightenment better if we set them up in terms of dialectical contrast.

Clearly, they are different in some important ways (logic vs. passion, for example), but we can also see that they are in continuity with each other (both happened in Western Europe and responded to previous developments). This comparison also leads one to wonder about whether it would be possible to make a synthesis that takes the best from both the thesis and the antithesis

A good comparative essay can lead one to ask such questions and pursue such lines of inquiry.

How to analyze subjects

To analyze your subjects for a comparative essay, you need to identify clear parameters, or axes, in terms of which your two selected items can be compared. For example, in the table above, Romanticism and the Enlightenment were compared along the axis of "epistemology". But that axis won't be relevant to all subjects.

Your job when preparing to write a comparative essay is to identify the specific axes that are relevant for the items that you are comparing. Why is the comparison interesting, and what insights are you trying produce? The answers to those questions will determine how you decide to frame your comparison.

For example, we could compare the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) against the Democratic Party in terms of the axis of membership. This would reveal that the DSA has far fewer registered members than does the Democratic Party.

We could also compare them on the axis of healthcare policy, where it may be found that the DSA and the Democratic Party agree about the importance of universal coverage. When we look at the axis of economics, though, we may find that the DSA is much more radical in its proposals than the Democratic Party.

Romanticism vs. the Enlightenment
 
The table below breaks down the differences between the two periods and styles.
AxisDSADemocratic Party
Membershiprelatively few membersone of the major parties
Healthcare policyvalues universal coveragevalues universal coverage
Economic policycalls for a radical restructuring of all economic relationstends to seek reform and regulation within capitalism

Source(s)

DSA

The problem of identifying relevance

In principle, any one thing in the world could be compared with any other thing in the world. For example, you could compare your shoe with the moon, and conclude that one similarity is that they both exist within the Milky Way galaxy.

But this would be a meaningless point (even if it may make for some interesting poetry). It is important for you to figure out what exactly you are trying to determine through your comparative essay. What is your purpose for writing it?

This will help you choose two items where setting up a dialectical contrast between them will produce actual insight, and it will also help you to choose the proper parameters by which to compare those items.

For example, suppose that you are running a business, and there are two expansion options open in front of you. It would be logical for you to compare and contrast these options, since this will help ensure that you are making your decision with as much knowledge and insight as possible.

Comparing and contrasting
 
Businesses compare and contrast data all the time in order to make decisions that are best for a company.

Likewise, one parameter that you are sure to consider is: which option will make your business the most money? If you pick parameters that are meaningless, then you will obtain no real insight that can help you make the important decision.

Using a rubric

Once you have identified both the two items of comparison and the axes along which they will be compared, you can proceed to analyze the items by applying the axes in the form of a table or rubric.

This is what has been done, for example, in the tables that have been developed above in this article. In the left-most column, list the parameters you have selected in order to compare your items. Then, in the top-most row, list the items.

Then go ahead and list the relevant details for each parameter for each of the two items. This will produce a table where you can see how each item measures up against the other for each parameter.

Standard Format for a comparative rubric in business
 
Businesses often have to explore various solutions to problems they wish to solve
Business axisMarketingHuman Resources
ProfitsRaise pricesCut staff
Increase customer basePursue advertisingHire expert
Saving moneyCut ad budgetCut/reduce staff

The important thing is to be systematic when you are making your comparison: it should not seem random or arbitrary. Thus, it is important to carefully select both the items and the parameters for comparison, and then to proceed to address each item/parameter combo in turn.

Elements of a good comparative essay

There are several elements that are a part of any good comparative essay.

Effective selection of items

A strong comparative essay has well-chosen items for comparison, with the comparison producing actual insights of value through the juxtaposition of the two items. If the items appear to be chosen for no apparent reason, or if the comparison does not in fact produce insight, then the comparative essay would be quite weak (or at any rate pointless).

The comparative essay is not meant to make an argument in favor of one thing or another, but it is meant to produce knowledge and insight about the two things under comparison. In order to compare and contrast items in an effective way, the two items must be different enough from each other, but they should also not be so different that it just feels absurd to even compare them at all.

Good and bad selection of items
 
Ideally, the items you select for comparison will be substantially different from each other but still part of the same general "class" of items.
ItemsGood or bad?Rationale
Democracy and communismGoodThey belong to the same class (ideology), but they are substantially different on some parameters (like liberty)
Democracy and potatoesBadThey don't belong to the same class, so there is no natural basis for comparison
Potatoes and riceGoodThey belong to the same class (food), and there's an obvious axis of comparison (nutrition)

Effective selection of parameters of comparison

A good comparative essay not only includes well-selected items of comparison, it also includes well-selected parameters of comparison. Between any two selected items, you could theoretically make an endless number of comparisons.

But a good comparative essay identifies parameters of comparative in terms of salience, or the reasons why anyone would be interested in the comparison in the first place. This can be difficult, because in principle, any comparison could be interesting, depending on the audience of the comparative essay and the intended purpose of the essay.

For example, one could use the parameter of zodiac sign to compare Romantic artists against Enlightenment artists.

This could be very interesting to people who are very serious about the zodiac, but it would probably seem ridiculous to just about everyone else.

But if you were writing for an audience of zodiac fanatics, then this comparison could actually be a success.

So, there is no parameter of comparison that is "inherently" bad. Rather, the point is to find parameters that highlight specific salient aspects of the selected items.

For example, when comparing Romanticism against the Enlightenment, core values would be a solid parameter of comparison, because that will surely help produce insights about how worldviews changed from the one paradigm to another.

Strong organizational structure

If you want your comparative essay to be a success, then it absolutely must have strong organizational structure. This is because an effective comparison must be easy for your reader to follow. It can't just jump all over the place at random, which not only be confusing but could also result in the reader forgetting what the point of the comparison was in the first place.

In general, there are two ways in which you can organize your comparative essay. In the first format, each of the parameters would be considered in the section for similarities and the section for differences.

In the first format the comparative essay is organized in terms of similarities and differences, whereas in the second format the essay is organized in terms of parameters of comparison.

Comparative essay organization (first format)
 
The first format organizes the essay in terms of comparing the similarities and differences between subjects.

In the second format, both similarities and differences would be considered within each of the parameter sections.

Comparative essay organization (second format)
 
The second format organizes the essay by considering the parameters of both the similarities and differences.

Both these are formats are good, and a strong comparative essay could be built around either one.

The important thing is to have a clear system and to not make your comparisons random.

There needs to be an organizational structure that your reader can easily follow.

How to write a great comparative essay

There are steps you can follow in order to ensure that your comparative essay has all the elements that will be required in order to make it great.

Ask yourself about your intention

If you have selected two items for your comparative essay, then you should start by asking yourself why you selected those two items. What is it about the two items that made you think it would be a good idea to compare them? (Or if you were assigned the two items, then why do you think those items were selected by your professor?)

The point here is that the items selected for a comparative essay are non-random. They are selected because that specific comparison should be able to yield interesting insights (unlike research papers).

For example, if you are writing a comparative essay on the dogs vs. cats, then are you writing this from the perspective of evolutionary biology? Or are you perhaps writing it in order to inform potential pet owners who are debating whether they want a dog or a cat?

The purpose of your essay will determine what parameters you will select in order to compare your two items. This means that you should have an intended audience in mind, and you should also have specific questions you would like to know more about.

Parameters for a Comparative Essay on Dogs vs. Cats
 
The parameters you choose will depend on the intention behind your comparative essay.
IntentionExample of an appropriate parameter
To better understand the evolution of dogs and catsBiological taxonomy
To determine whether someone should get a dog or a catRisk of allergies
To evaluate the relative popularity of dogs vs. catsNumber of pet owners in the nation

In short, in order to develop effective parameters for your comparative essay, you have to ask yourself why you are writing it and who would be interested in the insights produced by the essay. This can help ensure you select both appropriate items and appropriate parameters for comparison.

Develop a structural outline

It is very important that you do not just jump into your comparative essay and start writing it without a plan. That is a recipe for disaster, and the comparisons will almost certainly turn out random and confusing. Rather, you should begin with a solid outline.

A good outline will do three main things:

  • 1. Identify the selected items of comparison in the introduction/thesis
  • 2. Utilize one of the two organizational formats described above
  • 3. Provide a roadmap for how you intend to systematically follow through on the comparison

For example, here is how an outline could look for a comparative essay on Romanticism vs. the Enlightenment.

Sample Outline for a Comparative Essay
 
This is a well-structured outline that will result in a successful essay.

In this sample outline, the format that is used dedicates a paragraph to each of three parameters of comparison, and both similarities and differences are addressed for each of those parameters.

This is the kind of logical flow that you will need to have in order for your comparative essay to turn out great.

Write in a systematic way

A comparative essay is not a place to get too creative with your writing, whether in terms of organization or in terms of style.

Rather, you should focus on simply carrying out your comparison, point-by-point and in a way that is easy for your reader to follow. This can get a little tedious, so if that is a problem for you, then you should make sure that you set aside enough time to work on your comparative essay little by little.

For example, if your essay has three parameters, then you could write a section on the first parameter today, the second parameter tomorrow, and the third parameter the next day.

The important thing is for you to ensure that you consider each of your two selected items in terms of each of your selected parameters. This needs to be done in a smooth and logical manner, such that your reader knows where you are in the comparison. There should be no jumping around, and there should be no departure from the basic format or structure.

Example comparative (compare/contrast) essay

 

Best practices/tips

We have now arrived at the end of this guide, and you should have a much better idea of what makes a comparative essay successful and how you can go about writing one. It may be helpful to now summarize some of the main points that have been addressed here.

Let's address five main points.

1. Ensure that you select appropriate items for comparison

The two items that will be compared in your comparative essay should be carefully selected. The items should have some shared features and be in the same "class" of items, but they should also have substantial differences to which you are trying to call attention. If the items are too similar, then there would be no point in the comparison, but if they are too different, that can also make the comparison meaningless.

2. Select effective parameters of comparison

Your comparative essay shouldn't compare anything and everything between your two items; rather, the parameters should be specifically selected to highlight specific, salient similarities and differences. In order to determine what parameters would be effective, you have to ask yourself why you are writing your comparative essay and what sort of insights you intend to produce about the items being compared.

3. Use tools and models in an effective way

The Venn diagram is one tool that can be very helpful in conceptualizing your comparative essay, especially if you are a more visual kind of learner. Tables, rubrics, and outlines will also work to help ensure that you are developing a strong backbone of logic and systematic reasoning for your comparative essay. These and other tools may even help you reconsider your initial choices of items and parameters, if you realize that significant insights are not being produced.

4. Choose an organizational format, and stick with it

There are two main ways in which to structure an effective comparative essay, which have been described above. You can dedicate one section to similarities and one section to differences; or, you can dedicate a section to each of the parameters of comparison. This second option is usually more effective, especially if you are new to comparative essays. But either way, it is crucial that you stick to your chosen format and do not jump around and confuse the reader.

5. Seek assistance if you need it

If you are still uncertain about how to write a successful comparative essay, then Ultius is here to help. Our writer help section has many tools like this one available on various types of essays; we have a huge writer help section that contains all sorts of information on pretty much any writing-related questions you may have; and we also have elite professional writers who can produce a sample comparative essay for you on any subject of your choosing. We are here for you, and if you have any further questions about how to write a comparative essay, then you should feel free to reach out.

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