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How to Write a Compare & Contrast Essay in Literature – a Guide That Covers Everything

A compare and contrast essay (also sometimes called comparative analysis essay or simply a comparison essay) is a relatively short piece of academic writing that tries to identify parallels and contrasts between two or more entities belonging to the same category. In other words, you cannot compare things that have completely nothing in common. In literature, it most commonly will be texts, characters or authors, although more complex comparisons are also possible – for example, that of a certain concept or idea as expressed in the works of two different authors or in the work of one author during two or more different periods.

The task of such comparison may look trivial, but this impression usually only lasts until you start writing. After that, it becomes obvious that this type of academic work has a lot of its own peculiarities, and you cannot write a proper essay without knowing them. In this guide you will find everything you need to write a high-quality compare and contrast essay – just read on.

How to Select a Topic for a Compare and Contrast Essay in Literature

Normally, professors assign you a topic to write about. Although this way you can end up with something unfamiliar and uninteresting, having the direction of your research chosen for you takes a significant load off your shoulders, because selecting a topic of your own without any guidelines can be confusing. If you don’t want to spend too much time trying to think about a suitable topic, follow the steps we suggest.

1. Study Your Assignment

Even if your professor did not give a topic per se, the instructions you have received can help you decide in what direction you should move. Read them carefully and make sure you understand if your choice is limited in any way. For example, you may be asked to simply compare two texts of your choice. Alternatively, your professor may want you to focus on differences and similarities between A and B. Or you may need to not just compare the entities, but also make specific observations and draw conclusions.

2. Take a Look at Your Course

Your choice of essay topic should be relevant for the topic you are taking and based on what you have learned in it. For example, if you have been studying British Post-Modern writers, it is only natural to choose a topic that has something to do with them. You can compare two writers of this movement, or compare British Post Modernism with its American counterpart, or pick a particular theme characteristic of this movement and see how it is reflected in the works of two different writers who belong to it.

3. Be Original

Whatever the course, there are always topics that are immediately obvious for everybody who takes them. For example, comparison between 1984 and Animal Farm by George Orwell or between the characters of Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn from Mark Twain’s books are so painfully obvious that they immediately manifest the lack of effort and creativity on your part. In other words, if something strikes you as a good topic immediately after you are assigned an essay to write, it is probably not the best idea to choose it. If you want to be truly original, run a couple of searches using online academic search engines to see if there are many existing papers with the topics similar to the one you are thinking about. It is wise to maintain a balance: finding a topic that has some representation in academic literature but is not all over the place.

4. Look for Parallels in Unusual Places

There are two basic ways to write an interesting compare and contrast essay in literature. Firstly, you can compare two entities from an unusual perspective. Perhaps, take two texts (characters, literary movements, etc.) that are commonly studied side by side and compare them to each other, but instead of taking a tried and true route you can analyze them from a viewpoint that does not occur to the majority of people. For example, take Adventures of Tom Sawyer and Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain, but do not focus on the usual aspects (different views on slavery, more serious tone of the latter book, different narrative structures, etc.). Instead, compare them with an emphasis on the evolution of Mark Twain’s views and perception of the world between the publication of these two novels, his growing cynicism and disillusionment in the world.

5. Make Sure You Can Write on This Topic

Sometimes a topic that looks ideal at a glance may turn out to be incredibly difficult to work with. You may suddenly find out there are not enough sources of information, or that there are far fewer parallels between A and B than you initially believed. It is better to make such discoveries before you finalize your topic and start writing in earnest. Therefore, do the following:

  • Check online academic databases to see if there are enough reliable sources to build upon;
  • Write preliminary lists of what A and B have in common and how they are different. See if there are enough points to discuss in an essay of the required size;
  • See if you can make a meaningful conclusion from your comparison. Your goal is not to just list similarities and differences between A and B, but to achieve some kind of result: for example, establish a pattern that is not obvious at a precursory glance.

Eventually, you should end up with a topic like one of these:

  • Storytelling Techniques Employed by Edgar Allan Poe and Howard Phillips Lovecraft: Similarities, Differences, Influences;
  • Lord of the Flies by William Golding: Did It Influence Battle Royale by Koushun Takami?
  • The Chronicle of Young Satan, Schoolhouse Hill and No. 44, the Mysterious Stranger: Three Versions of Mark Twain’s Last Story;
  • Odysseus and Achilles from Homer’s The Iliad: Two Viewpoints on Pride and Duty;
  • Euripides’ Medea and William Shakespeare’s Hamlet: Two of the Most Famous Tragedies Ever Written.

Writing a Compare and Contrast Essay in Literature: Step by Step

1. Write Down Detailed Lists of Similarities and Differences

Analyze the entities under scrutiny and prepare two lists, enumerating everything similar and different about them. You should have them ready when you finally start writing so that you do not have to return to this stage later on. To make this task easier you can first create a list of criteria to use when comparing A and B. For example, if you compare two texts, you can pay attention to the language used in them, setting, main themes, personalities of the main characters, historical periods they were written in, personal situations of their authors at the time of writing, etc.

Tired of all the guides and never-ending instructions?

2. Define the Main Idea and Formulate Your Thesis Statement

To write a good compare and contrast essay it is not enough to list what makes A and B similar or different. The comparisons you make should result in an overarching conclusion: for example, you can discover that two texts written in different parts of the world and in vastly different historical periods have much more in common than can be expected (like Ancient Greek tragedies and some Shakespeare’s plays).

Express this overarching idea in a thesis statement – a short summary one sentence long. Make sure it is:

  • Concise – if you need more than one sentence to express it, you probably spread yourself too thin;
  • Concentrated – a thesis statement for an essay should not contain more than one point. If you find yourself drifting towards two or more main points, you should spend some time narrowing down your focus;
  • Unambiguous – a thesis statement should leave no room for misunderstandings. Express your idea directly and in a simple language.

3. Decide What It Relevant

Any two things can be compared across unlimited numbers of points, but not all of these comparisons are relevant for your research question/main idea. For example, the fact that Shakespeare wrote in Elizabethan English while Euripides wrote in Ancient Greek are notable differences between the two, but they are irrelevant as long as you do not discuss the linguistic aspects of their works.

4. Choose Structure

There are some additional variants, but mostly a compare and contrast essay can be structured according to one of two patterns:

Block Method

With this method, you roughly divide the body of your essay into two parts. In the first you describe all the similarities between A and B (or whatever number of entities you analyze), in the second you go over all the differences. After that, you discuss what is more important and draw conclusions.
Alternatively, you can spend one block to discuss and analyze subject A and then move on to subject B.
This approach has a number of advantages:

  • It offers complete pictures of the subjects you discuss, allowing for more general conclusions;
  • It does not appear repetitive or mechanical, as you do not jump from one subject to another all the time;
  • It is easier to follow.

However, it is not very well suited for longer essays, because as you describe one subject you move the other to the background, and it is easy to forget that you make a comparison and do not just describe two unrelated things. Thus, it is usually used in shorter essays or when you want to do a lens/keyhole comparison – that is, use A as a context or field of reference for analyzing B (and thus give only a short description of A before moving on to B).

Point-by-Point Method

With this more analytical approach you break up your discussion into multiple parts and dedicate each of them to studying an individual point. For example, if you compare Crome Yellow and Brave New World by Aldous Huxley, you define what is important for your argument (main character, his relationships with female characters, setting, etc.), and then spend a paragraph apiece analyzing this point in both novels.

This method:

  • Allows for a more detailed analysis;
  • Is better suited for longer essays.

However, you should make sure you only cover the most relevant comparison points, because constant back and forth between the two subjects can become repetitive and boring.

5. Prepare an Outline

An outline is a short yet detailed plan of your essay. You jot down what parts it will contain, what you will mention in each of them, how you will create logical connections between them, where you will put quotations, etc.

6. Write the Essay

Besides the body paragraphs, its structure is typical:

  • Introduction – you introduce the topic and provide basic context;
  • Thesis statement – you state the purpose of your essay;
  • Body – you compare the subjects in question;
  • Conclusion – you summarize what you have written and decide if your initial hypothesis proved true.

Proofreading a Compare and Contrast Essay in Literature: Useful Tips

1. Do not Start Proofreading Right Away

If you have any time to spare, leave your essay alone for a while. We recommend a period of at least 24 hours. This will help you notice many mistakes that would otherwise escape your attention.

2. Clarify Formatting and Other Requirements

If you are not sure about any requirements (from one of the common style guides or official instructions of your college), clarify them. Then check everything about your essay: font type and size, pagination, title page, quotations, etc., and make sure they follow the guidelines.

3. Do not Trust Spellcheckers

Microsoft Word’s spellchecker is only useful for finding the most blatant spelling mistakes. It has very peculiar notions of what makes good and bad writing, so do not feel obliged to change your wording if it underlines it. Some online proofreading tools like Grammarly or Hemingway are a little better and can help you with grammar and sentence structure, but still, do not rely on them too much.

4. Cut the Flab

You can always safely toss something out from the first draft. If a word, sentence or even a paragraph does nothing to move your point forward, delete it without regret.

5. Watch out for Repetitions

We do not just mean the repetition of the same information, although you should avoid it by all costs. Repetitions of any kind can spoil the impression that your essay makes: e.g., try not to begin multiple paragraphs with the same word.

Congratulations! Now you are ready to submit your essay for evaluation. We hope this guide proved useful!