Comparing and Contrasting in Writing Study Guide

Updated on Aug 25, 2011

Practice exercises for this study guide can be found at:

Comparing and Contrasting in Writing Practice Exercises


This lesson explores another organizational pattern writers often use: comparing and contrasting similarities and differences.

Imagine for a moment that an alien landed in your backyard. How would you describe this alien to your friends? Chances are you'd rely heavily on comparison and contrast. You might say, for example, that the alien looked a lot like an octopus (comparison), except that it had twelve tentacles instead of just eight (contrast). Or you might say the alien looked exactly like the alien in the movie E.T. (comparison), only about ten times as large (contrast).

When you show how two or more things are similar, you are comparing them. When you show how two or more things are different, you are contrasting them. This technique gives you a way to classify or judge the items you're analyzing. By placing two (or more) items side by side, for example, you can see how they measure up against each other. How are they similar or different? And why does it matter? For example, you might say that the film Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon was even better than Star Wars. Both featured warriors with special powers and a love story (comparison). But in Crouching Tiger, the fighters relied much more on their physical strength and agility than on automatic weapons, which are plentiful in Star Wars (contrast). And Crouching Tiger featured female warriors as strong as (or even stronger than) the male fighters (contrast).

Main Idea in Comparison and Contrast

In writing, whenever an author is comparing and contrasting two or more items, he or she is doing it for a reason. There's something the author wants to point out by putting these two items side by side for analysis. This reason or point is the main idea, which is often stated in a topic sentence. For example, let's take another look at a more developed Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and Star Wars comparison and contrast:

Two of the best films ever made are Star Wars and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. I've seen both movies at least a dozen times. While I always will be a loyal Star Wars fan, I do have to say that Crouching Tiger is an even better film.

Both films feature warriors with special powers. In Star Wars, Luke Skywalker, a Jedi knight, has "the force"—a special energy that he can channel to help him overcome evil. Similarly, in Crouching Tiger, Li Mu Bai, Yu Shu Lien, and Jen all have special powers that they've developed through rigorous martial arts training. But the characters in Star Wars rely heavily on automatic weapons. The warriors in Crouching Tiger, in contrast, do all their fighting with old-fashioned weapons such as swords and the most old-fashioned weapon of all—their bodies. What they're able to do with their bodies is much more impressive than anything Luke Skywalker can do with his light saber.

Right from the beginning of this passage, the author's main idea is clear. The writer wants to compare and contrast these two films to show that they're both great, but that Crouching Tiger is even better. This idea is stated clearly in the last sentence of the first paragraph (a good example of a topic sentence). Then, the second paragraph looks at one aspect of both films—that they both feature warriors with special powers. After this comparison, the writer shows how they are different within this similarity. It's a nice, strong paragraph because it provides specific evidence for the overall main idea. It also states its own main idea clearly in the last sentence: "What they're able to do with their bodies is much more impressive than anything Luke Skywalker can do with his light saber."

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