How to write a comparative essay (with definition and steps)

By Indeed Editorial Team

Published 22 November 2022

The Indeed Editorial Team comprises a diverse and talented team of writers, researchers and subject matter experts equipped with Indeed's data and insights to deliver useful tips to help guide your career journey.

Whether you're pursuing an undergraduate or postgraduate degree, essay writing is an important skill that helps you to demonstrate your knowledge and views on a topic and support your thesis with evidence. Many universities require students to write comparative essays. Understanding what a comparative essay is and how to write one can help you improve your essay writing skills and obtain a good grade on your paper. In this article, we explain what a comparative essay is and outline seven steps you can follow to write one effectively.

Related: 5 reasons why writing skills are essential for every job

What is a comparative essay?

A comparative essay is an academic paper that compares the similarities and differences of two or more subjects on a given topic in a systematic manner. The topic can be anything from political ideologies to historic events and the basis for comparison can include themes, stances, text or events. The key component of this type of essay is that it compares two subjects that have some relation.

If you're studying media and communications, for example, your comparative essay assignment may be to compare and contrast the reporting styles of two political commentators. If you're pursuing an interdisciplinary degree in socioeconomics, you might compare the socioeconomic significance of two historical events. The subjects can have a very close relation or be very different, but they generally have some things in common that allow you to compare and evaluate them.

Related: How to write a reaction paper (with steps and tips)

How to write a comparative essay

Learning how to write a comparative essay has several advantages, including allowing you to practise your research skills and gain a deeper knowledge of your topic and the subjects you're comparing. It can also help you develop analytical skills to evaluate the different aspects of a topic. Here are some useful steps on how to write a comparative essay:

1. Determine the basis for comparison

Read your assignment topic carefully to identify the basis for comparison and follow it strictly throughout your essay. If the assignment does not specify this basis, and you're free to choose your own, select at least three points for comparison. Evaluate whether the assignment requires a broad comparison or a detailed one.

An essay assignment in economics, for instance, may require you to compare and contrast the economic theories of two well-known economists. Because the topic is quite broad and doesn't provide a specific basis for comparison, you can decide which economists and theories to discuss in your essay, according to your familiarity with or particular interest in them. The points for comparison can include the purpose of the two theories, their main thesis, their key concepts and their impact on the economy and the development of economic theory.

Related: Top study skills and techniques for students and trainees

2. Become familiar with the source materials

If your course provides you with source materials concerning the subjects, study them thoroughly for your topic. If the course has not assigned source materials for you to use, you can gather these by first doing some research on your subjects. They can range from textbooks and journal articles to books, so make sure you focus on the materials that are relevant to your essay and the basis for comparison. Read through them carefully and take notes of key ideas and observations.

Related: Research skills: definition and examples

3. Choose an appropriate structure

The structure in a comparative essay refers to the way you organise the body paragraphs of your paper. There are three kinds of structures for this type of essay:

Block structure

The block structure takes a subject-by-subject approach and focuses on discussing the relevant points about one subject before moving on to the next one. This may be appropriate if you're evaluating more than two subjects or if you find that your subjects have few common points. The key is to make sure your thesis doesn't read as two separate essays about two subjects. One solution can be to refer to the other subject, or subjects, when discussing relevant points about the initial subject to highlight their similarities and differences. This can help make your comparative essay more seamless and cohesive.

Alternating structure

An alternating structure takes a point-by-point approach and focuses on comparing the subjects of your essay in regard to a specific point before moving on to the next point. This is appropriate for subjects that have at least three or more related points. For example, you can discuss subject A in one paragraph and then highlight the similarities and differences of subject B regarding the same point in the following paragraph.

Woven structure

The woven structure compares subjects with regard to a certain angle within the same paragraph. This approach may be useful if you're discussing only two subjects that have several related points. The key to this structure is to ensure you switch between subjects in a clear manner. You can use linking words and phrases to allow for a smoother transition, and you may also choose to write a sentence that links both subjects and discusses their similarities or differences.

4. Prepare an outline

Prepare an outline for your essay by compiling a list of the relevant similarities and differences you would like to cover based on your notes from researching source materials. Draw up a framework for your essay, which typically comprises an introduction, a body and a conclusion. Make use of bullet points and keywords to highlight your main points. Use a section at a time to discuss each point and its sub-points.

Related: How to write a conclusion (including tips and examples)

5. Write an introduction that contains your thesis statement

In your introductory paragraph, state the topic and subjects of your comparative essay. Provide a background to your topic to establish the context of your comparison. For example, if your topic focuses on comparing and contrasting the social impact of two historical events, you can mention some interesting facts about these events in your opening sentence, such as how historians debate their influence on society. You can then state that the purpose of your essay is to discuss the similarities and differences of the events' relevant aspects.

Include a thesis statement in your introduction to indicate your essay's main purpose and your reasons for choosing the basis for comparison. How you craft your statement may depend on the extent of the similarities and differences between your subjects. For instance, if your essay topic compares the views of two experts on sustainability in business, you could include Though both experts agree on why sustainability is essential in the modern business world, they have different views on how to integrate it into corporate practices.

6. Write the body of your essay

Use the framework and structure of your outline to guide you in writing the body of your essay. Remember to include at least three points for comparison if possible. Begin each paragraph with a topic statement that introduces the focus of that paragraph to help the reader understand its key point. Give similar weight to your discussion of the similarities and differences between your subjects. For example, if you've outlined three similarities between them, move on to discussing two or three differences.

Make connections between the subjects of comparison, especially if you're using the block structure. Use linking words and phrases to switch between subjects. These can include:

  • similarly

  • likewise

  • in a similar way

  • in a similar vein

  • conversely

  • in contrast

  • on the contrary

  • in a different fashion

7. Write a conclusion summarising your main points

In your concluding paragraph, summarise the main points from the body of your essay. You may restate your thesis statement to connect it to your summary. This can help provide your readers with a more holistic understanding of your thesis and supporting evidence. Finish your essay with a powerful statement that leaves a strong impression. You can also end with a question or a thought-provoking insight on the topic.

Explore more articles