The Comparison/Contrast Paper: Beyond

The Comparison/Contrast Paper: Beyond 'Apples and Oranges'

A beginner's guide to writing the comparison/contrast freshman composition paper.

For many first semester composition students, writing the comparison/contrast paper is a major requirement. However, this paper is more than just showing how two different subjects are alike and/or different. Instead, this particular mode of writing is one of the major building blocks of all college academic writing, being outdone only by the argumentative paper.


First step: Pre-Writing

For starters, a writer must find a basis for comparison between two subjects before any writing takes place. This is done through pre-writing. There are many pre-writing methods in which students can determine whether or not there are enough items of comparison for any particular subject matter. This could be done through brainstorming, clustering, Venn diagram or other methods. What I like to use in my classroom is essentially the Venn diagram method. I like to make three columns. In the middle column is where I list what two subjects have in common. Then, in the columns to the left and right of the middle column is where I list what two subjects have in contrast with each other. Afterward, I make the Venn diagram circles to illustrate and visualize what the subjects share.


Creating a Thesis

As many know, the thesis is the “steering wheel” of any academic paper. It is the one-sentence statement that says exactly what the paper’s subject matter and focus is. Therefore, when writing a comparison/contrast paper, have a thesis that lets the audience know that comparison/contrast will take place. For example, if a paper is contrasting the difference between Apple and Microsoft, a thesis could be “Although both Apple and Microsoft are major computer software corporations, there are many differences between these two companies.”


The Body—“Blocks” and “Chunks”

There are two basic methods for creating body paragraphs for the comparison/contrast paper. The first of these is referred to as either the “block” method or as the “chunking” method. With this approach, the writer shares all the information concerning the first subject all at once, and then moves onto writing all the information that he or she has on the second subject. For example, if our comparison/contrast subjects were basketball and football, the writer would write at least one paragraph about basketball and then switch to at least one paragraph about football.

For the sake of an example, let’s say that the points in which basketball and football share something in common are: 1) a team sport; 2) a game divided into quarters (an exception being NCAA basketball); and 3) scoring to determine the winner of a game. An outline of a comparison/contrast body using the blocking or chunking method may look like this:

Subject A: Basketball

1) Point A-1: Team Sport (5 players on the court per team, etc.)
2) Point A-2: A game divided into four quarters (time lengths per quarter; NCAA basketball divided into halves being an exception, etc.)
3) Point A-3: Scoring (1 point per free throw; 2 points per field goal; 3 point shots, etc.)

Subject B: Football

1) Point B-1: Team Sport (11 players on the field per team, etc.)
2) Point B-2: Game Divided into four quarters (youth football may have shorter quarters)
3) Point B-3: Scoring (2 points for safety; 3 points for field goal; 6 points for touchdown; 2-point conversion; extra point PAT, etc.)


The Body—Point-by-Point

Some freshmen writers find it difficult to write a comparison/contrast paper using a chunking method. For them, it is easier and more systematic to write in this second approach, the “Point-by-Point” method. With this style, the point of comparison is the focus, with the subjects being placed side-by-side. In essence, it is a more direct method in demonstrating points of comparison, and it is the reverse of the chunk method.

Let’s continue with the basketball and football subjects. With point-by-point, an outline of the body would look like this, with at least three or more paragraphs:

Point 1: Team Sport

1) Subject A: Basketball
2) Subject B: Football

Point 2: Time Divisions of the Game

1) Subject A: Basketball
2) Subject B: Football

Point 3: Scoring

1) Subject A: Basketball
2) Subject B: Football


Other Key Factors: Topic Sentences and Transitions

The importance of topic sentences cannot be overlooked in assembling the comparison/contrast paper. As many know, the topic sentence is the mini-thesis for a particular paragraph. It tells the reader exactly what the subject matter in the paragraph will be. For example, the topic sentence “On the professional level, football and basketball are both divided into quarters,” lets the reader know that this paragraph would focus on a) the professional game; and b) the quarters of the game. However, contrasting details would be the amount of time that is placed within each quarter of the professional basketball and football games.

Transitions, much like all academic papers, are highly valued. Not only do they link one point to the next within a paragraph and link one paragraph to the next, but they also create a smoother writing style and prevent choppy sentences from forming. With the comparison/contrast paper, transitions such as “first,” “second,” “next,” and “last” work well, in addition to the contrasting transitions such as “however” and “on the other hand,” or the transitions that show comparison, such as “likewise” and “similarly.”

With this information, the comparison/contrast paper should not be difficult. It should be an academic enterprise that is enjoyable yet challenging. It is not about comparing the age-old apples and oranges. Instead, it is about finding the similarities between two subjects that are only different on the surface.