Compare and contrast essays are fairly ubiquitous in high school and college writing assignments. From art to science, students are often called upon to critically assess two side-by-side works. A student might be asked to compare conclusions drawn in opposing scientific studies or to examine one artist’s work against that of another. To write these essays effectively, students must first thoroughly examine all sides of the issues and then consider the context in which they are writing.

Similarities and Differences

Use a simple list or Venn diagram to identify conflicting and overlapping areas to study. A Venn diagram can be constructed with two intersecting circles. Each circle should be titled for the subjects with their characteristics listed therein. At the circles’ intersection will be those areas that apply to both topics. For example, in a compare and contrast for the Vietnam and Afghanistan wars, a writer might list topics for Vietnam such as, “draft,” “almost 60,000 U.S. casualties” and “not linked to direct national security.” In Afghanistan’s circle, the essayist could offer the counterpoints, “no draft,” “less than 2,500 U.S. casualties” and “linked to national security via September 11 attack.” At their intersection, the writer might include “hostile terrain,” “guerrilla warfare,” “unpopular” and “poorly educated opponent.”

Considerations

Examine all sides of your subjects, but also be sure to consider the audience for whom you are writing and the purpose of the assignment. A compare-and-contrast assignment for an art history course might analyze two works of art from an aesthetic angle, noting such points as medium, technique and subject. However, the essayist would need to also consider the time period and historical context of the work. Use research to bolster your understanding of both sides and then choose a focused thesis. From the above example, an essayist might stake a claim that one war was worse than the other. Writers are often expected to choose a side even in compare-and-contrast essays.

Structure

Compare-and-contrast essays often follow two basic structures. The first offers an analysis of individual topics and then notes where those topics agree and disagree. For example, the war comparison writer might open with an introductory paragraph containing her thesis and then list the characteristics of the Vietnam War and the Afghanistan War in separate paragraphs. In a fourth paragraph, she would set the wars against each other, noting similarities and differences, and then conclude in a fifth paragraph. An alternate structural method would introduce the topic, have separate paragraphs for all the subjects’ similarities and differences, and then a concluding paragraph.

Write and Edit

Use the outline and the chosen structure to write the essay with an active voice. Critically assess your work as you proceed and supplement with additional research, when necessary. Ask yourself questions to help keep the essay focused and engaging: "Why do I care?" "Why does this matter?" "So what?" Once complete, read the essay aloud and edit. Editing works best when you have time to step away from the work and come back to it with a fresh eye.