How to Write a Comparative Analysis

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General Guidelines on the Style of your Essay, or “How to Write a Comparative Analysis”:1

If you pursue a tertiary education, you will be asked many times to write papers in which you compare and contrast two things: two texts, two theories, two historical figures, two scientific processes, and so on. “Classic” compare-and-contrast papers, in which you give A and B equal weight, may be about two similar things that have crucial differences (two pesticides with different effects on the environment) or two similar things that have crucial differences, yet turn out to have surprising commonalities (two politicians with vastly different world views who voice unexpectedly similar perspectives on gay marriage).

Faced with a daunting list of seemingly unrelated similarities and differences, you may feel confused about how to construct a paper that is not just a mechanical exercise in which you first state all the features that A and B have in common, and then state all the ways in which A and B are different. Predictably, the thesis of such a paper is usually an assertion that A and B are very similar yet not so similar after all. To write a good compare-and-contrast paper, you must take your raw data – the similarities and differences you have observed – and make them cohere into a meaningful argument. Here are the seven required elements.

Frame of Reference. This is the context within which you place the two texts you plan to compare and contrast; it is the umbrella under which you have grouped them. The frame of reference may consist of an idea, theme, question, problem, or theory; a group of similar things from which you extract two for special attention; or more specific biographical or historical information. The best frames of reference are constructed from specific sources rather than your own thoughts or observations. Thus, in a paper comparing how two writers examine the impact of technology on society, you would be better off quoting a science historian on the topic of technology than spinning out potentially banal-sounding theories of your own. It is in the nature of the Connected Texts Study (CTS) not to tell you exactly what the frame of reference should be, and therefore you must come up with one on your own. A paper without such a context would have no angle on the material, no focus or frame for the writer to propose a meaningful argument. All of the previous text study this semester (especially comparing Cuckoo’s Nest with GATTACA) was designed to assist you in establishing your own ‘frame of reference’ for the CTS.

Grounds for Comparison. Let’s say you’re writing a paper on global food distribution, and you’ve chosen to compare apples and oranges. Why these particular fruits? Why not pears and bananas? The rationale behind your choice, the grounds for comparison, lets your reader know why your choice is deliberate and meaningful, not random. For instance, in a paper asking how the “discourse of domesticity” has been used in the abortion debate, the grounds for comparison are obvious; the issue has two conflicting sides, pro-choice and pro-life. In a paper comparing the effects of ideology in two texts, your choice of texts is less obvious. A paper focusing on the 17th C. play Macbeth and 20th C. novel Animal Farm will be set up differently from one comparing the novel Cuckoo’s Nest to the film GATTACA. You need to indicate the reasoning behind your choice.

Thesis. The grounds for comparison anticipate the comparative nature of your thesis. As in any argumentative paper, your thesis statement will convey the gist of your argument, which necessarily follows from your frame of reference. But in a compare-and-contrast, the thesis depends on how the two things you’ve chosen to compare actually relate to one another. Do they extend, corroborate, complicate, contradict, correct, or debate one another? In the most common compare-and-contrast paper – one focusing on differences – you can indicate the precise relationship between A and B by using the word “whereas” in your thesis:

Whereas Orwell perceives ideology as secondary to the need of addressing a specific historical moment of political tyranny, albeit through fable, Shakespeare’s play suggests the ideology of feudal power is a major cause and impetus behind the corruption of kingship.

Whether your paper focuses primarily on difference or similarity, you need to make the relationship between A and B clear in your thesis. This relationship is at the heart of any compare-and-contrast paper.

Organizational Scheme. Your introduction will include your frame of reference, grounds for comparison, and thesis. There are two basic ways to organize the body of your paper, but only ONE is really suitable for the CTS.

  • In text-by-text, you discuss all of A, then all of B.

  • In point-by-point, you alternate points about A with comparable points about B.

If you think that B extends A, you’ll probably use a text-by-text scheme; if you see A and B engaged in debate, a point-by-point scheme will draw attention to the conflict. You can organize a classic compare-and-contrast paper either text-by-text or point-by-point. But in a “lens” comparison2, in which you spend significantly less time on A (the lens) than on B (the focal text), you almost always organize text-by-text. That is because A and B are not strictly comparable: A is merely a tool for helping you discover whether or not B’s nature is actually what expectations have led you to believe it is (e.g. Macbeth would be text A in a “lens” comparison with “A Bad Heart” as the B text). This inequality of treatment is why the “lens” comparison is inappropriate for the CTS.

Linking of A and B. All argumentative papers require you to link each point in the argument back to the thesis. Without such links, your reader will be unable to see how new sections logically and systematically advance your argument. In a compare-and contrast, you also need to make links between A and B in the body of your essay, if you want your paper to hold together. To make these links, use transitional expressions of comparison and contrast (similarly, moreover, likewise, on the contrary, conversely, on the other hand) and contrastive vocabulary (in the example below: deception / conflict).

As a young man contained by the restrictions of a dystopian society, within the contexts of entrenched prejudice and obsessive genetic surveillance, Vincent Freeman embodies GATTACA’s rejection of technocratic values through a deception that undermines the beliefs of both his family and wider society. Convicted trouble maker with little more motivation than a free ride, R. P. McMurphy conversely epitomises the brash and assertive rebel who defeats the system through direct conflict with its agents, particularly Nurse Ratched within the microcosm of an abusive mental hospital. Elizabeth Bishop’s fish however, symbolises a force of nature in quite another class and context again, but can clearly stand for the redemptive power of heroic resistance.

NB: this example demonstrates a comparative essay which links three texts.

A Topic formula. The following is a useful template for constructing your topic or question, as it links stylistic techniques or literary features with ideas or themes in your chosen texts: “How do authors of particular text types use specific techniques to have precise effects on their audiences, in the exploration of significant ideas?”

Planning the essay. Use a table of comparisons to plan your essay, ensuring that each body paragraph develops a point or argument by referring to BOTH texts. Do not fall into the trap of writing separate paragraphs on each text.

Assignment Guidelines

Quoted material should be relevant not only to the paper in general, but to the specific context in which it appears. A quotation ought not to stand on its own; it has to be an integral part of your discussion. Frame every quote, that is, “sandwich” it between your own words. Usually anything longer than a sentence or 25 words would be indented (apart from the body of your own prose, as in the above quotation), but this should be kept to a minimum, and at least “sandwiched” within a coherent paragraph of your own.

The Paper Itself

Apart from following the above advice on writing a comparative analysis: have a clearly defined topic – name it in the title, describe it in the introductory paragraph, and develop it through the body of the text. Argue your points with elegance and substantiate your assertions with ably selected quotations. Be persuasive and provocative but never loud, presumptuous, or militant. You want to engage your readers not hit them over the head.

In the process of writing it is entirely possible that your ideas may evolve in a way that contradicts your thesis. Were that to happen, go back to your thesis and re-formulate it. Never lose sight of your goals so as not to find that your point has disappeared after a page of prose.

Some Useful Advice

  1. Avoid summaries of plot, characters, history, lectures, etc... which means: stay clear of what is obvious. You may need to re-tell a particular point in the plot -that is OK-, but do not make recounting the novel the purpose of your essay!

  2. Avoid collages. Do not run from one idea to the other. Not everything goes together. Run a tight ship with regards to your thoughts. One well argued keen intuition is worth more than twenty ill connected notions.

  3. Do not write as if you, your classmates, and I were the only readers in the universe. Your paper should be a readable experience for educated human beings outside the context of SACE English. TIP: Have someone who is not enrolled in English Studies read your essay before handing it in.

  4. Avoid idiomatic expressions and conversational “style”. (“The kind of stuff that creeps into your paper, if you know what I mean”: i.e. “granted”, “impact” (used as a verb.), “bogus” (used as a slang term), “sort of...”, “right?”, “ditto”, etc.) This is covered in the assessment criteria as “appropriate … register”.

  5. Avoid impressionistic language: “Shakespeare is a great writer...”, “Macbeth is an awful man...” etc. These types of statement are “opinions” or “impressions” and add little or nothing to the presentation of well thought ideas.

  6. DO WHAT YOU HAVE TO DO, BUT DO NOT TELL ME ABOUT IT IN THE PROCESS OF DOING IT. Unless your paper deals with highly intricate developments in literary theory there is no need to spell out your plan of attack: i.e. “In this paper I will first...” Remember that this paper is a relatively short piece and not an extended essay. As Nike, the sports gear manufacturer preaches: “Just do it!” Present your thesis in the introductory paragraph and dive into its development. If you do this in an organized and eloquent way – as described above in “How to Write a Comparative Analysis” – an educated reader will never lose your train of thought.

  7. Do not hand in your paper without re-reading it and proofreading it.

  8. Check and double-check for grammatical mistakes, spelling errors, and style. TIP: It doesn’t hurt to have someone else help you proof-read your work before handing it in.

RULES ON PLAGIARISM WILL BE STRICTLY ENFORCED. Refer to the SACE Board Guidelines. Be careful when paraphrasing others’ thoughts. Paraphrases ALSO have to be acknowledged. Document your sources fully.

1 This section is based on copyright material by Kerry Walk for the Writing Center at Harvard University, 1998.

2 Just as looking through a pair of glasses changes the way you see an object, using A as a framework for understanding B changes the way you see B. Lens comparisons are useful for illuminating, critiquing, or challenging the stability of a thing that, before the analysis, seemed perfectly understood. Often, lens comparisons take time into account: earlier texts, events, or historical figures may illuminate later ones, and vice versa.

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