How to Write a Comparison Essay of Text to Text

Keep both books nearby for easy referencing while writing your comparison essay.

Comparison essays place two texts side by side, make an argument about the relationship between the texts and then demonstrate that argument. Kerry Walk, who has worked for the writing centers at Princeton and Harvard Universities, breaks comparison essays into two main categories--classic and keyhole or lens comparison essays. A classic comparison essay equally weighs both texts, typically arguing either that apparently similar texts have an important difference, or that apparently unrelated texts actually have something important in common. A keyhole or lens comparison essay uses one text to reexamine another text. For example, a discussion of Stephanie Meyers’ “Twilight” might use the lens—or the perspective of—Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet.”

Choose whether you will write a classic or a keyhole/lens comparison essay. Consult your assignment instructions to check whether your instructor has made this decision for you. If she has not, decide whether you are more interested in the keyhole or lens method, re-examining a single text such as "Twilight" in depth using quotes and details from "Romeo and Juliet," or whether you are more interested in a classic side-by-side comparison that equally considers both texts. If your interest lies more heavily with one text than the other, use the keyhole or lens method.

Make notes using a Venn diagram, a t-graph or simply lists, comparing the two texts. Note direct quotes from each text that highlight obvious similarities or differences as well as character traits, historical information or plot lines that suggest similarity or difference.

Select a frame of reference, which, Walk says, “may consist of an idea, theme, question, problem or theory” that you use to contextualize your comparison. To use the example of "True Blood" and "Romeo and Juliet," possible frames of reference could include Elizabethan courting protocol, love across feuds or a feminist critical theory text.

In many classes, the instructor provides a frame of reference or you can find an obvious choice amid recent course readings. Review recently assigned articles and assignments and class. Consider if any of these readings inspire a question or challenge that you may be interested in using to frame your essay. Perhaps feminist scholar Judith Butler's theories on gender performance inspire you to see both texts in a new light. Make notes on how your frame of reference intersects with each text and how those intersections affect your sense of the two texts’ similarities or differences.

Write your thesis statement in one to two sentences. Clearly address the relationship between the two texts, and, ideally, why this relationship matters. For example, consider whether “Romeo and Juliet” actually has a stronger female protagonist than “True Blood” when you consider both texts in light of an essay written by Judith Butler, a feminist scholar. If so, this might suggest that modern audiences actually prefer weaker women in their romances. A sample thesis statement for your comparison essay might be:

"Though Bella, Meyers' female protagonist in 'Twilight,' benefits from centuries of efforts on behalf of women to secure equal rights between the sexes, she is a surprisingly restricted and weak young woman when compared to Shakespeare's Juliet--especially in light of Judith Butler's assertions on culturally constructed gender performance. 'Twilight' may indicate an alarming trend if current readers' backlash to feminist criticism is to prefer female protagonists who lack the self-possession of even Juliet."

Draft an outline that places your thesis statement at the top. A text-to-text comparison usually alternates between making one to three points about the first text in light of the frame of reference and then comparing or contrasting those points to comparable arguments about the second text. The writer moves back and forth between each text a few times before asserting his conclusion. In some cases, an essay provides a complete analysis of the first text in light of the frame of reference before providing a complete analysis of the second text, linking it to the first. Choose your method and structure your outline accordingly.

Write your comparison essay using your outline. A strong comparison essay should use relationship-clarifying words like “similarly,” “in contrast,” “contrary to” or “like,” to repeatedly make connections between discussions of each text. Use textual references to back up your arguments, as a strong comparison essay relies heavily on textual evidence. To do this, weave direct quotes from each relevant text into your sentences every time you make a new point. Aim for roughly three to seven direct quotes per paragraph. Use your instructor's preferred style guide, such as Modern Language Association (MLA) or the Chicago Manual of Style, to format in-text citations for every quotation you use.

Write your essay's conclusion, which should typically use one to two paragraphs. Do not merely restate the thesis; rather raise new questions asserted by the essay or extend the essay’s argument into a larger context. For example, if the weaker female lead in “Twilight” is indicative of a larger trend, suggest two or three ways this might be true. This makes for a compelling conclusion that will make your reader think.

  • Do not assert relationships between two texts that you cannot clearly back up with textual references. Double-check all direct quotes to avoid plagiarism. Any words borrowed from another source must appear in quotation marks.

Darla Himeles is a freelance writer, editor and poet living in Castine, Maine. A graduate of Bryn Mawr College's English and education programs and a current student in Drew University’s MFA in poetry and poetry in translation program, Himeles writes frequently about education, wellness, writing and literature.