Throughout your academic career, you'll be asked 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 weight A and B equally, 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 sexual harassment).
In the "lens" (or "keyhole") comparison, in which you weight A less heavily than B, you use A as a lens through which to view B. 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.
Faced with a daunting list of seemingly unrelated similarities and differences, you may feel confused about how to construct a paper that isn't 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've observed—and make them cohere into a meaningful argument. Here are the five elements required.
Frame of Reference. This is the context within which you place the two things 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; 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 redefine social norms of masculinity, you would be better off quoting a sociologist on the topic of masculinity than spinning out potentially banal-sounding theories of your own. Most assignments tell you exactly what the frame of reference should be, and most courses supply sources for constructing it. If you encounter an assignment that fails to provide a frame of reference, 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.
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 acid rain on two forest sites, your choice of sites is less obvious. A paper focusing on similarly aged forest stands in Maine and the Catskills will be set up differently from one comparing a new forest stand in the White Mountains with an old forest in the same region. You need to indicate the reasoning behind your choice.
Thesis. The grounds for comparison anticipates 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 Camus perceives ideology as secondary to the need to address a specific historical moment of colonialism, Fanon perceives a revolutionary ideology as the impetus to reshape Algeria's history in a direction toward independence.
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.
- 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. Be aware, however, that the point-by- point scheme can come off as a ping-pong game. You can avoid this effect by grouping more than one point together, thereby cutting down on the number of times you alternate from A to B. But no matter which organizational scheme you choose, you need not give equal time to similarities and differences. In fact, your paper will be more interesting if you get to the heart of your argument as quickly as possible. Thus, a paper on two evolutionary theorists' different interpretations of specific archaeological findings might have as few as two or three sentences in the introduction on similarities and at most a paragraph or two to set up the contrast between the theorists' positions. The rest of the paper, whether organized text- by-text or point-by-point, will treat the two theorists' differences.
You can organize a classic compare-and-contrast paper either text-by-text or point-by-point. But in a "lens" comparison, 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's 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.
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, Southerner/Northerner).
As a girl raised in the faded glory of the Old South, amid mystical tales of magnolias and moonlight, the mother remains part of a dying generation. Surrounded by hard times, racial conflict, and limited opportunities, Julian, on the other hand, feels repelled by the provincial nature of home, and represents a new Southerner, one who sees his native land through a condescending Northerner's eyes.
Copyright 1998, Kerry Walk, for the Writing Center at Harvard University
You’ve been staring at your blank computer screen for what feels like hours, trying to figure out how to start your analytical essay. You try to choose between writing the introduction first or getting right into the meat of it. But somehow, it seems too difficult to do either.
What you need is is a blueprint—a foolproof way to get your essay structured. Then all you have to do is fill in the blanks.
By Anonymous [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
What an Analytical Essay Is—And What It Isn’tBefore we get to the good stuff, you should know exactly what an analytical essay is. Your middle school and high school teachers probably told you something like, “An analytical essay is writing that analyzes a text.”
Helpful, right? Um, not so much.
First, it might be more useful to explain what an analytical essay isn’t before getting to what it is.
An analytical essay isn’t a summary. Though this may seem obvious in theory, it’s more difficult in practice. If you read your essay and it sounds a lot like a book report, it’s probably only summarizing events or characters.
One way to figure out if you’re summarizing instead of analyzing is to look at your support. Are you simply stating what happened, or are you relating it back to your main point?
Okay, so what is an analytical essay, exactly?
Usually, it’s writing that has a more narrowed focus than a summary. Analytical essays usually concentrate on how the book or poem was written—for example, how certain themes present themselves in the story, or how the use of metaphor brings a certain meaning to a poem.
In short, this type of essay requires you to look at the smaller parts of the work to help shed light on the larger picture.
An example of a prompt—and the example I’m going to use for the rest of this post—could be something like: Analyze the theme of sacrifice in the Harry Potter series. (Note: there might be some spoilers, but I figured everyone who was planning on reading the books has done so already—or at least has seen the movies.)
One Way To Form Your Analytical Essay Outline
There are quite a few ways to organize your analytical essay, but no matter how you choose to write it, your essay should always have three main parts:
I’ll get into the nitty-gritty of this soon, but for all you visual learners, here is a nice representation of all the components that make a great analytical essay outline.
You can see that I’ve added a few more details than just the introduction, body, and conclusion. But hold your horses—we’re getting to those parts right now.
Introduction of Your Analytical Essay Outline
The purpose of your introduction is to get the reader interested in your analysis. The introduction should include at least three things—a hook, your thesis statement, and a sentence or two describing how you intend to prove your thesis statement.
1. You gotta hook ‘em from the start. The first part of your introduction should draw the reader in. This is called the hook.
The hook should be interesting or surprising. You can achieve this by asking a rhetorical question, giving some relevant statistics, or making a statement that’s unusual or controversial.
For my Harry Potter example, I might say, “Since the publication of the first book in the Harry Potter series, Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, some Christian groups have attacked the books for promoting witchcraft. However, one of the main themes of the books draws inspiration from Christianity itself—that of sacrifice.”
Okay, so that’s two sentences. But it’s got a little bit of controversy and relates to what the rest of the essay will discuss.
2. Get to the good stuff—write a killer thesis statement. Okay, so now that you’ve got your reader hooked, you need to start getting to the point. This is where the thesis statement comes in.
My thesis might be, “The theme of sacrifice is prevalent throughout the series and is embodied as sacrifice for the greater good, sacrifice for an ultimate gain, and sacrifice to keep a promise.”
3. It’s time to back up your thesis. Let the reader know how you’re going to prove your claim.
For my example, I would let the reader know that I intend to analyze the instances of Harry’s “death,” Voldemort’s sacrifice of his soul in exchange for immortality, and how Snape sacrifices in order to honor a promise made to Lily Potter.
These points will be the building blocks of the body paragraphs.
Body of Your Analytical Essay Outline
The body is where you can start to get really creative and play around with formatting.
In the flowchart, there are three body paragraphs. But that’s because I was trained in the 5-paragraph outline. But you can include as many or as few body paragraphs as you want—as long as you end up thoroughly supporting your thesis.
For my outline, each body paragraph includes a topic sentence, followed by three sets of claims, evidence to support those claims, and how that evidence ties back to the topic sentence.
Again, three is not necessarily a magic number here. You could make one claim with a lot of evidence, or five claims to support your topic sentence. But let’s get into it, shall we?
1. Develop a strong topic sentence. Each topic sentence in each body paragraph of your analytical essay outline should tell the reader exactly what that section is going to be about.
My first body paragraph might start with, “Harry Potter is willing to fulfill prophecy and make the ultimate sacrifice—that of his life—in order to save the rest of the wizarding world.”
2. Make your claim. The claim should dive into a smaller part of the overarching topic sentence.
The topic sentence I gave can be broken down into several smaller claims—that Harry knew that he was fulfilling prophecy, that he was actually willing to die, and that his death would be of profound significance.
3. Provide evidence from the text to back your claim. You can’t just go around making claims without any support. You can use quotes or paraphrase parts of the text to add evidence.
For evidence that Harry knew that he was fulfilling prophecy, you could cite the instance in the hall of prophecies with the quote, “and either must die at the hand of the other for neither can live while the other survives.”
4. Tie that evidence to the topic sentence. You have to make it absolutely clear why you included the evidence. If you don’t, your analytical essay runs the risk of being a summary.
For example, with the citing of the prophecy, I would tell the reader that Harry and his friends found said prophecy and figured out that it had to be about him (although there are objections that it could’ve been referring to Neville, but we’ll leave that out of this example). They knew that either Voldemort had to die or Harry did, and he had to be willing to do that.
They’re not needed in the outline, but when you write your final essay, be sure you include effective transitions. This will help your essay flow.
Conclusion of Your Analytical Essay Outline
After you’ve built up all of your body paragraphs, given the appropriate evidence to back your claims, and tied that evidence to your awesome topic sentences, you’re ready to wrap it all up.
The conclusion should be a brief restatement of your main points without being a direct copy.
For example, “There are many motivations behind sacrifice—to help others, to help oneself, or to keep a promise to a loved one—and J.K. Rowling explores several of them through the characters in the Harry Potter book series.”
This, of course, does not suffice as a full conclusion. To fill it out and give the reader a sense of closure, you can relate the theme to the real world or end with a final quote from the text or the author.
Use This Downloadable Analytical Essay Outline as a Guide
Easy, right? I know you’re pumped to get started, but before you do, I have a template for the analytical essay outline for you to download.
Download the Analytical Essay Outline Template PDF
Download the Analytical Essay Outline Template (.doc)
Of course, your instructor’s directions will trump mine, so if they say to do something a specific way, I won’t be offended if you take their advice over mine.
Need more help? Check out these analytical essay examples.
And don’t forget about the Kibin editors. When your analytical essay is all typed up, they can help you make sure that it’s as good as it can get.
Now… get to it!
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