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What Is a Comparative Essay?

By Cynde Gregory
Updated May 23, 2024
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Most college students are required to take a class that focuses on how to write essays. One of the types of essays that instructors introduce is called a comparative essay. Comparative essays do exactly what the name suggests by looking at two objects, historical time periods, pieces of literature, or other things that share some characteristics but not others.

Sometimes, students become confused and end up writing an essay that is somewhere between a comparative essay and an argument essay, which is written to persuade the reader that a particular position on a controversial subject is preferable. Done correctly, a comparative essay doesn’t make a claim that one of the things being compared is superior, preferable, or best. Instead, this type of essay offers the reader sufficient information regarding both and leaves it at that.

Offering information without concluding one thing is superior to another is especially important in this type of essay. Heating with solar panels might be a better choice for someone who lives in a very sunny environment and owns a home that could be affordably converted to solar, but for someone who lives in Alaska, where the days can be very short, it may not. In other words, the assumption in a comparative essay is that neither position is necessarily better than the other.

Writing a good comparative essay begins with choosing a topic that is truly of interest to the writer and, hopefully, to the reader. A paper that examines the differences between cats and dogs will likely contain obvious details, such as the fact that both have tails, both are mammals, and both are popular house pets. Not only is this utterly boring, but it insults the reader’s intelligence. A written piece that focuses on such obvious details would be appropriate only for young children.

Before writing a comparative essay, authors might want to consider important choices that life has offered them. Everyone has experienced the anxiety of making a major purchase and has no doubt compared two or more of the possible choices. A paper on laptop computers and e-book readers, or one on hybrid cars and SUVs, for example, might make good essay topics.

Most well-structured comparative essays follow one of two formats. A point-by-point essay establishes three or more areas in which the subjects will be compared. One paragraph is devoted to each point and discusses both subjects. A side-by-side essay also establishes three or more areas for subject comparison, but the format is different. With this type of essay, one long paragraph or section examines the first subject, moving from the first point to the second, from the second to the third, and then does the same with the second subject in the same order.

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