Anyone should be able to write an effective comparison (exam, paper, or report). The chief weakness of most comparisons originates in the tendency of writers to deal with the things they are comparing one after the other. Integrating the two, using ideas as the organizational backbone, makes a better paper.

The second most common weakness is lack of a real thesis. "These two things are different in a number of ways" does not make a thesis (at least not for my classes) because such a paper has no point; it is merely an exercise. If there is no reason to compare or contrast two things (people, ideas, settings), don't bother doing it.

For example, you want to compare Antigone with her mother Jocasta. Your first impulse is to tell us about (describe, recount the story of) Jocasta, then to tell us about Antigone, then maybe tell us a little about both. Your paper breaks in two (all about Jocasta + all about Antigone), and you inevitably spend far too much time re-telling the story. A much stronger way to organize your paper (article, exam, or whatever) would be to ask yourself first in what ways they (the people, ideas, objects you are comparing) are alike and different. In this case, you might come up with a list that looks something like this:


are women
are strong
try to do good
give up a great deal
love strongly, but love ends unhappily
die by the same means--suicide by hanging



Early life happy
No way of knowing her end fate
Dies thinking of herself


Life never happy
Invites her death
Dies thinking of others

(You may not agree with all of these.)

Now, your job is to decide which are important and which are not, which can be combined and treated together, which should be eliminated. You must also decide whether you are going to deal mostly or entirely with similarities (comparison), with differences (contrast), or with both (comparison-contrast). (Note that the word "comparison" is often used to mean "comparison and contrast." Be sure you know which is being asked of you.)

You are ready now to write your paper. Its skeleton might look something like this:

Thesis: Although Antigone is much like her mother, her character is essentially different from that of her mother because of her early life experiences.

1st Main Point: They appear to be similar because both are strong women who are driven to commit suicide by hanging.

2nd Main Point: Life shaped their characters very differently: Jocasta knew only happiness and success until her husband was slain (and Oedipus took his place rather quickly), whereas Antigone's early life was one of displacement and rejection.

3rd Main Point: Therefore, the way they each face death is very different. Jocasta simply cannot face the awful truth, whereas Antigone has faced the truth and goes to her death with a clear conscience, thinking of her family and loved one (Haemon).

Here description serves ideas, you avoid too much storytelling, comparison is going on throughout the paper, and your paper has real substance.

If you want to emphasize similarities, you might begin with a difference (always put your weakest or opposing ideas first, so that you can leave your reader with your strongest idea in the end) and then write about similarities. If you want to write only, say, about differences, you might mention some obvious similarities only briefly in you introduction, to set off the main interest of your paper.

Remember, always organize a comparison (comparison-contrast) paper, answer, or report around ideas that link or differentiate rather than around the two people, concepts, characters, objects, etc., that you are being asked to compare.

Your writing must have a point!


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