ENGL 101
English Composition I
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This is the explanation of this type of essay. For the actual essay assignment, go here.

Writers compare things when they want to show how they are similar.
Writers contrast things when they want to show how they are different.

Since both of these functions use similar essay organization, and because sometimes writers need to discuss how things are both similar AND different in the same essay, this style of essay is usually labeled comparison/contrast.

Writers of comparison/contrast essays need to make sure that they are not re-writing the obvious. Don’t write a compare/contrast essay showing us that a Red Delicious and a Braeburn apple are similar. Most of us already know that. Instead, writers need to focus on the non-obvious information and arguments. Write about how these two types of apples that seem similar are actually quite different. Writers want to show us how things that would seem to be similar really do have differences, or how things that would appear to be very different really do have similarities.

Writers of comparison/contrast essays often make the mistake of focusing JUST on the similarities or differences. Remember that an essay, especially an analytical essay, is also going to give space to explaining both why the differences/similarities exist and what they tell us or mean. The writer of a compare/contrast essay needs to have a purpose, a meaning, for writing the essay. Why does the audience want or need to know these similarities/differences?

Comparison/contrast can be used for informational purposes, such as explaining how Grant and Lee were different types of leaders in the Civil War, or how tide pools are different environments than the normal ocean. Most comparison/contrast writing is done to state a preference for one of the subjects being compared/contrasted. You are comparing/contrasting leadership styles, but one of those styles will tend to be closer to what you prefer, and that bias/preference will usually be reflected in the essay, no matter how objective you try to be.

The key component of a comparison/contrast essay is the criteria. The criteria are the elements that are used to compare/contrast the subjects of the essay. The criteria are the specific features or elements that you are using to evaluate the subjects. The more specific the subject, the more specific the criteria need to be. The criteria used to compare/contrast will tend to be based on the particular needs or preferences of the situation, and thus, the criteria is where the writer’s preference usually comes out most clearly.

In setting up criteria, the writer should ask not only what criteria are possible, but also which are most significant, in this particular situation. A regular individual who wants to buy a truck might be interested in criteria like cost, color, styling, etc. Somebody who is buying a new truck for a lawn service is going to emphasize different criteria, because their needs are different: towing, dependability, durability, etc. There will probably be overlap between the different contexts, but each one will set its own priorities based on its own needs. Thus, determining the important criteria is a significant part of the organization in writing a comparison/contrast essay.

When a writer is determining the criteria, they should always set up the criteria in terms of the ultimate choice: the best truck for us would have these elements… THEN use these criteria to evaluate the choices. Writers have a tendency to set the criteria based on which choice they already prefer. That is not an honest evaluation. Set the criteria based on the needs of the situation, then do the comparison/contrast based on those criteria.

The intended audience for a compare/contrast essay will affect how it is presented. The more the audience can be expected to know, the more specific the criteria can become. An audience of first-time car buyers will be interested in very different criteria than a flee-buyer for a major corporation. An audience of mechanics will want to know about much more specific and technical criteria than will most average buyers. If you are writing for a specific audience, make sure that is clearly identified from the beginning.

Organization of a Comparison/Contrast essay can be more complicated than other essays. There are three main styles of organization: Subject-by-Subject, Point-by-Point, and Mixed. The writer should choose the organization style that emphasizes the right element for their purpose. No matter what, the writer needs to make sure that the importance of the criteria are explained. Don’t just tell us that the movie needs to be an action movie -- explain why it has to be, in this particular situation/context.

We will look at each organization style in terms of deciding whether we should eat at McDonald’s or Country Kitchen after class. Our criteria are price, menu variety, and location.

Subject-by-Subject:

The Subject-by-Subject style of organization emphasizes, as can be guessed from the name, the subjects being compared/contrasted. The criteria are used to evaluate and examine the subjects, but the writer primarily wants the reader to remember the subjects. This style of organization has an intro, two main subsections, and a lengthy conclusion.

Introduction: what’s being compared/contrasted and why

Subsection I: Country Kitchen

Price
Menu Variety
Location

Subsection II: McDonald’s

Price
Menu Variety
Location

Conclusion: needs to pull the evidence from the two subsections together -- usually long


Point-by-Point

The Point-by-Point method emphasizes the individual criteria. If the writer primarily wants the reader to understand the importance of the criteria, then point-by-point is the proper choice. This style of organization has an intro, a paragraph for each criteria, and a short conclusion

Introduction: what’s being compared/contrasted and why

Price

McDonald’s
Country Kitchen

Menu Variety

Country Kitchen
McDonald’s

Location

McDonald’s

Country Kitchen

Conclusion: since each of the criteria paragraph is directly comparing/contrasting in the paragraph, this should be pretty short -- just adding up the individual criteria to see which subject “won” by meeting the closest to the most criteria.

Mixed Organization

The Mixed style of organization uses elements of the other styles. Typically, if there are some criteria that are not significant, and some that are, then the writer wants to use the mixed method. This style of organization is used when there are comparisons and contrasts. Some of the body paragraphs will keep the two subjects separate, while others will mix them.

Introduction: what’s being compared/contrasted and why

Location:

since both are located in the Mall area, the writer explains why the Mall area is preferred, and then indicates that both meet this criteria satisfactorily.

Price

McDonald’s
Country Kitchen

Menu Variety

McDonald’s
Country Kitchen

Conclusion: indicates which criteria didn’t really affect the conclusion and emphasizes the ones that did

Always remember that no matter what style of organization writers choose, they still need to make sure that there is a clear purpose/focus/meaning to WHY these subjects are being compared/contrasted. Each and every criteria needs to be explained. Cost on a car is often an important criteria, but for different reasons. Some people need the cost to be low. Others want the cost to be high to impress people. Always explain the reason for the criteria’s importance.