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Comparison-Contrast Writing

Some argue that comparing and contrasting in the same essay makes no sense. Others would say that to compare two items completely, it isnecessary to include how the two items are alike and how they are different. The problem comes when novice writers have a need to write a thesis statement that reflects critical thinking. Flip the thinking again: to compare two subjects means that the writer will address how specific traits are similar or how the traits are different, so why label the form of writing as “compare or contrast” when “compare” covers it all! I’ve had these conversations and you probably have had them too.

How often have your read things like “the two characters are both alike and different” as the ending sentence of an introductory paragraph? And how many times have you noted something in the margin of that essay suggesting that the writer consider some key personality trait of the two subject characters that can be the main focus of the essay. Enough said.

So, how do we teach young writers to focus their composition on careful, critical review of two subjects? The subject types really don’t matter. What does matter is that the reader is led through a logical organization of ideas. Many texts that serve as writing handbooks offer suggestions for developing comparison-contrast texts. These include organizing details in one of a few ways:

1. point-by-point

2. subject-by-subject

3. similarities-differences

Here, vocabulary becomes important. Point to a trait or a detail about one of the items being described, while subject refers to the item itself. If a writer is comparing two models of cars, the cars are subjects. Each characteristic or feature of the cars that are being compared and contrasted are considered points.

Personally, I find the similarities-differendes method to be somewhat problematic. If two subjects are basically alike, or basically different, young writers find difficulty in creating different body paragraphs that are equally substantiated. For purposes of providing good structure in writing, I suggest using point-by-point, or subject-by-subject organizational styles. These two methods are fairly concrete and can be easily adapated to most writing tasks.

Point-by-Point

This method of organizing information allows students to think critically about the key ideas they hope to address in an essay. Within each body paragraph, the writer can focus on one feature, or point, to critically review. One subject’s point is described and then the next subject’s point is described, and more than two subjects can be easily reviewed using this pattern. Moving from point to point provides natural paragraph breaks. The conclustion paragraph can summarize in a way that is not at all repetitive, but that highlights the key points of comparison, or those points that are most important for the given subjects.

Using the subject-by-subject pattern is also quite simple. Each body paragraph can focus on one subject. What is important in this pattern is that the writer treat the points in the same order in each body paragraph. In other words, in comparing two cars, the writer should remember to to describe the features for car 2 in the same order as they were described in the paragraph about car 1. So, the paragraph about car 1 might describe gas mileage, maintenance costs, and cargo capacity. When writing about car 2, the points need to be addressed in the same order: gas mileage, maintenance costs, and cargo capacity. Without maintaining the same pattern from one subject to the next, the writer creates confusion for the reader.

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