What is a comparative essay?
A comparative essay asks that you compare at least two (possibly more) items. These items will differ depending on the assignment. You might be asked to compare
- positions on an issue (e.g., responses to midwifery in Canada and the United States)
- theories (e.g., capitalism and communism)
- figures (e.g., GDP in the United States and Britain)
- texts (e.g., Shakespeare’s Hamletand Macbeth)
- events (e.g., the Great Depression and the global financial crisis of 2008–9)
Although the assignment may say “compare,” the assumption is that you will consider both the similarities and differences; in other words, you will compare and contrast.
Make sure you know the basis for comparison
The assignment sheet may say exactly what you need to compare, or it may ask you to come up with a basis for comparison yourself.
- Provided by the essay question: The essay question may ask that you consider the figure of the gentleman in Charles Dickens’s Great Expectations and Anne Brontë’s The Tenant of Wildfell Hall. The basis for comparison will be the figure of the gentleman.
- Developed by you: The question may simply ask that you compare the two novels. If so, you will need to develop a basis for comparison, that is, a theme, concern, or device common to both works from which you can draw similarities and differences.
Develop a list of similarities and differences
Once you know your basis for comparison, think critically about the similarities and differences between the items you are comparing, and compile a list of them.
For example, you might decide that in Great Expectations, being a true gentleman is not a matter of manners or position but morality, whereas in The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, being a true gentleman is not about luxury and self-indulgence but hard work and productivity.
The list you have generated is not yet your outline for the essay, but it should provide you with enough similarities and differences to construct an initial plan.
Develop a thesis based on the relative weight of similarities and differences
Once you have listed similarities and differences, decide whether the similarities on the whole outweigh the differences or vice versa. Create a thesis statement that reflects their relative weights. A more complex thesis will usually include both similarities and differences. Here are examples of the two main cases:
- Differences outweigh similarities:
While Callaghan’s “All the Years of Her Life” and Mistry’s “Of White Hairs and Cricket” both follow the conventions of the coming-of-age narrative, Callaghan’s story adheres more closely to these conventions by allowing its central protagonist to mature. In Mistry’s story, by contrast, no real growth occurs.
- Similarities outweigh differences:
Although Darwin and Lamarck came to different conclusions about whether acquired traits can be inherited, they shared the key distinction of recognizing that species evolve over time.
Come up with a structure for your essay
- Alternating method: Point-by-point patternIn the alternating method, you find related points common to your central subjects A and B, and alternate between A and B on the basis of these points (ABABAB …). For instance, a comparative essay on the French and Russian revolutions might examine how both revolutions either encouraged or thwarted innovation in terms of new technology, military strategy, and the administrative system.
A Paragraph 1 in body new technology and the French Revolution B Paragraph 2 in body new technology and the Russian Revolution A Paragraph 3 in body military strategy and the French Revolution B Paragraph 4 in body military strategy and the Russian Revolution A Paragraph 5 in body administrative system and the French Revolution B Paragraph 6 in body administrative system and the Russian Revolution
Note that the French and Russian revolutions (A and B) may be dissimilar rather than similar in the way they affected innovation in any of the three areas of technology, military strategy, and administration. To use the alternating method, you just need to have something noteworthy to say about both A and B in each area. Finally, you may certainly include more than three pairs of alternating points: allow the subject matter to determine the number of points you choose to develop in the body of your essay.
When do I use the alternating method? Professors often like the alternating system because it generally does a better job of highlighting similarities and differences by juxtaposing your points about A and B. It also tends to produce a more tightly integrated and analytical paper. Consider the alternating method if you are able to identify clearly related points between A and B. Otherwise, if you attempt to impose the alternating method, you will probably find it counterproductive.
- Block method: Subject-by-subject patternIn the block method (AB), you discuss all of A, then all of B. For example, a comparative essay using the block method on the French and Russian revolutions would address the French Revolution in the first half of the essay and the Russian Revolution in the second half. If you choose the block method, however, do not simply append two disconnected essays to an introductory thesis. The B block, or second half of your essay, should refer to the A block, or first half, and make clear points of comparison whenever comparisons are relevant. (“Unlike A, B . . .” or “Like A, B . . .”) This technique will allow for a higher level of critical engagement, continuity, and cohesion.
A Paragraphs 1–3 in body How the French Revolution encouraged or thwarted innovation B Paragraphs 4–6 in body How the Russian Revolution encouraged or thwarted innovation
When do I use the block method? The block method is particularly useful in the following cases:
- You are unable to find points about A and B that are closely related to each other.
- Your ideas about B build upon or extend your ideas about A.
- You are comparing three or more subjects as opposed to the traditional two.
The five-paragraph essay is a format of essay having five paragraphs: one introductory paragraph, three body paragraphs with support and development, and one concluding paragraph. Because of this structure, it is also known as a hamburger essay, one three one, or a three-tier essay.
The five-paragraph essay is a form of essay having five paragraphs:
- one introductory paragraph,
- three body paragraphs with support and development, and
- one concluding paragraph.
The introduction serves to inform the reader of the basic premises, and then to state the author's thesis, or central idea. A thesis can also be used to point out the subject of each body paragraph. When a thesis essay is applied to this format, the first paragraph typically consists of a narrative hook, followed by a sentence that introduces the general theme, then another sentence narrowing the focus of the one previous. (If the author is using this format for a text-based thesis, then a sentence quoting the text, supporting the essay-writer's claim, would typically go here, along with the name of the text and the name of the author. Example: "In the book Night, Elie Wiesel says..."). After this, the author narrows the discussion of the topic by stating or identifying a problem. Often, an organizational sentence is used here to describe the layout of the paper. Finally, the last sentence of the first paragraph of such an essay would state the thesis the author is trying to prove. The thesis is often linked to a "road map" for the essay, which is basically an embedded outline stating precisely what the three body paragraphs will address and giving the items in the order of the presentation. Not to be confused with an organizational sentence, a thesis merely states "The book Night follows Elie Wiesel's journey from innocence to experience," while an organizational sentence directly states the structure and order of the essay. Basically, the thesis statement should be proven throughout the essay. In each of the three body paragraphs one idea (evidence/fact/etc.) that supports thesis statement is discussed. And in the conclusion everything is analyzed and summed up.
Sections of the five-part essay
The five-part essay is a step up from the five-paragraph essay. Often called the "persuasive" or "argumentative" essay, the five-part essay is more complex and accomplished, and its roots are in classical rhetoric. The main difference is the refinement of the "body" of the simpler five-paragraph essay. The five parts, whose names vary from source to source, are typically represented as:
- a thematic overview of the topic, and introduction of the thesis;
- a review of the background literature to orient the reader to the topic; also, a structural overview of the essay;
- the evidence and arguments in favor of the thesis;
- the evidence and arguments against the thesis; these also require either "refutation" or "concession";
- summary of the argument, and association of the thesis and argument with larger, connected issues.
In the five-paragraph essay, the "body" is all "affirmation"; the "narration" and "negation" (and its "refutation" or "concession") make the five-part essay less "thesis-driven" and more balanced and fair. Rhetorically, the transition from affirmation to negation (and refutation or concession) is typically indicated by contrastive terms such as "but", "however", and "on the other hand".
The five parts are purely formal and can be created and repeated at any length, from a sentence (though it would be a highly complex one), to the standard paragraphs of a regular essay, to the chapters of a book, and even to separate books themselves (though each book would, of necessity, include the other parts while emphasizing the particular part).
Another form of the 5 part essay consists of
- Introduction: Introducing a topic. An important part of this is the three-pronged thesis. This information should be factual, especially for a history paper. Somewhere in the middle of introduction, one presents the 3 main points of the 5 paragraph essay. The introductory paragraph should end with a strong thesis statement that tells readers exactly what an author aims to prove.
- Body paragraph 1: Explaining the first part of the three-pronged thesis. The first sentence should transition from the introductory paragraph to the current one. The sentences that follow should provide examples and support, or evidence, for the topic.
- Body paragraph 2: Explaining the second part of the three-pronged thesis. As the previous paragraph, it should begin with a transition and a description of the topic you’re about to discuss. Any examples or support provided should be related to the topic at hand.
- Body paragraph 3: Explaining the third part of the three-pronged thesis. Like any paragraph, it should have a transition and a topic sentence, and any examples or support should be related and interesting.
- Conclusion: Summing up points and restating thesis. It should not present new information, but it should always wrap up the discussion.
In essence, the above method can be seen as following the colloquialism "Tell 'em what you're gonna tell 'em, tell 'em, tell 'em what you told 'em" with the first part referring to the introduction, the second part referring to the body, and the third part referring to the conclusion. The first sentence of every paragraph should be a topic sentence.
The main point of the five-part essay is to demonstrate the opposition and give-and-take of true argument. Dialectic, with its formula of "thesis + antithesis = synthesis", is the foundation of the five-part essay.
One could also use:Introduction: Hook (3 sentences), Connector (3 sentences), Thesis Body 1: Topic sentence, Evidence, Analysis (1), Analysis (2), Analysis (3), Transition, Evidence 2, Analysis (1), Analysis (2), Analysis (3), Concluding sentence Body 2: Topic sentence, Evidence, Analysis (1), Analysis (2), Analysis (3), Transition, Evidence 2, Analysis (1), Analysis (2), Analysis (3), Concluding sentence Body 3: Topic sentence, Evidence, Analysis (1), Analysis (2), Analysis (3), Transition, Evidence 2, Analysis (1), Analysis (2), Analysis (3), Concluding sentence
Introduction, Hook Statement, Background Information, Thesis Statement, Body Paragraph 1, Topic Sentence, Claim, Evidence, Concluding Statement, Body Paragraph 2, Topic Sentence 2, Claim #2, Evidence, Concluding Statement, Body Paragraph 3, Topic Sentence 3, Claim #3, Evidence, Concluding statement, Conclusion, Restatement of Thesis, Summarization of Main Points, Overall Concluding Statement, Conclusion: Sum up all elements, and make the essay sound finished. (Use about seven sentences similar to the Introduction)
Another type of 5-paragraph essay outline:
According to Thomas E. Nunnally and Kimberley Wesley, most teachers and professors consider the five-paragraph form ultimately restricting for fully developing an idea. Wesley argues that the form is never appropriate. Nunnally states that the form can be good for developing analytical skills that should then be expanded. Similarly, American educator David F. Labaree claims that "The Rule of Five" is "dysfunctional... off-putting, infantilising and intellectually arid" because demands for the essay's form often obscure its meaning and, therefore, largely automatize creating and reading five-paragraph essays.
- Corbett, Edward P.J. Classical Rhetoric for the Modern Student. 4th ed. Oxford UP, 1999.
- Hodges, John C. et al. Harbrace Handbook. 14th ed.