How to Write a Compare and Contrast Essay

When writing a compare and contrast essay, one is effectively dealing with the differences and/or similarities at play with respect to a given topic. This kind of academic approach can serve various purposes. These include clarifying something which is not clear, shedding fresh light on an existing topic, bringing the objects of comparison into closer focus, and demonstrating that one item is superior to another. Numerous other applications obtain.

Meaningful Comparisons Present an Argument

One of the most important things to remember when writing a comparative essay is that you are not simply descriptively explaining differences and similarities. Rather, you are necessarily presenting an argument which sheds light on (thus adding to the reader's understanding of) those items and their interrelations.

Pick Your Topics Wisely

It is important that you to select subjects which lend themselves to comparison and contrast. Accordingly one wants to find items of analysis which are distinct enough to afford analysis of the scholarly sort. Moreover, one needs to have a good justification for why these two items of been selected - how will your essay and to the field, what new knowledge does it bring to bear?

Ensure the Topics have Mileage

Your essay needs to be meaningful in its comparative analysis. This means you have to think critically. Your analyses need to illuminate new connections or disparities between the items being discussed: to make a point about why it is significant that we establish these differences and similarities. In many cases, this significance will have to do with more than two immediate topics of discussion; it will feed into a broader debate which frames the subject matter overall.

Practical Example

Comparing and contrasting in scholarly prose is a matter of looking beyond surface detail and getting at the inner workings of the subject matter. Let us now look at the example of comparing and contrasting film adaptations with their source texts.

Here, we will be comparing and contrasting Baz Luhrmann's 1996 film Romeo and Juliet with William Shakespeare's original play, penned sometime around 1591-1595. First off, we could observe that a key difference, which permeates every aspect of the film adaptation, is it highly stylised visual form, its brash stage design and dynamic camera work. This is an interesting approach to take with a source text whose primary register was aural. That is, Elizabethan plays were very minimal in terms of stage dressing, costume, and so on. Rather, setting and atmosphere were established through dialogue. This is why, during a night time scene, the play's characters will often refer to the moon, stars, lamps and other such objects as would tell the audience it is night (this is how scenes were set in Shakespeare's dramas).

Having made this comparative observation, between visual and auditory modes of delivery, we now need to go further, asking: what is the effect of this difference? This is where we narrow focus.

Progressively Narrow Focus

A compare and contrast essay usually involves quite a lot of detail. For this reason, the subject matter needs to be broken down into its component parts, with a significant number of important characteristics taken into account. This is an analytical undertaking: you are pulling the topic apart, isolating each individual piece, thus to discern how each piece fits in to the greater whole.

It is useful to begin with broad comparative observations, such as the principal differences between the text and the film – as we have done above. Next we would probably narrow focus by offering a critical position which seeks to explain said difference.

So, in our current example, of Romeo and Juliet, we need to go beyond the (fairly cosmetic) observation that there are differences in form and register between the film and the play. Such differences are after all inevitable in any crossover from one medium to another.

We need, then, to consider how these surface changes impact upon the inner mechanics of the narrative. Referring once again to the auditory nature of Shakespearean drama, we might posit that a central component of its meaning is constituted in verbal rhythms, patterns and flow. Following from this, we could argue that the film adaptation, in its kaleidoscopic audio-visual chaos, detracts from the linguistic effect of the dialogue. Remember, in the Elizabethan theatre, the environment was such that it tuned the audience in to the players' words. Note that the original meaning of the word “audience” is a “group of listeners” (the clue is the morpheme “audit”). Now, we have begun to construct an argument. But we need to go further still. We could consolidate our position by reminding the reader that Shakespearean dialogue is essentially poetic in form, constructed in poetic metre (iambic pentameter). This observation lends further weight to the significance of the aural component of the work.

Be Critical: Point Counter Point

Having established a critical position on our subject, it is always a good idea to acknowledge the counterpoint. This will protect one's argument from accusations of being overly narrow in scope. If you have picked a relevant subject (with mileage), you should not find it too challenging to locate a critical source which offers a point contrary to your own. By highlighting this oppositional view, you will demonstrate both that you are aware of contrary views and willing to take them on. Tackling both sides of the argument shows a high level of critical engagement. This is how you score top marks.

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