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How To Write A Comparison Essay On Two Novels

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

I. Bibliographic Information

Provide the essential information about each book using the writing style asked for by your professor [e.g., APA, MLA, Chicago, etc.]. Depending on how your professor wants you to organize your review, the bibliographic information represents the heading of your review. In general, they would be arranged alphabetically by title and look like this:

Racing the Storm: Racial Implications and Lessons Learned from Hurricane Katrina. Hillary Potter, ed. (Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2007. 320 pp)
The Sociology of Katrina: Perspectives on a Modern Catastrophe. David L. Brunsma, David Overfelt, and J. Steven Picou, eds. (Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield, 2007. 288 pp.)
Through the Eye of Katrina: Social Justice in the United States. Kristin A. Bates and Richelle S. Swan, eds. (Durham, NC: Carolina Academic Press, 2007. 440 pp.)

Reviewed by [your name]


II. Thesis Statement

The thesis statement of an essay that compares and contrasts multiple works should contain an idea or claim that unites the discussion of each texts under review. It should include the argument that will be advanced in support of the claims that are being made. To begin, ask yourself: "What is the overarching subject or issue that ties together all of the books?" Why is it important?" In most scholarly works, the author(s) will state the purpose of their book in the preface or in an introductory chapter. Look for common themes as well as points of divergence among the books.

If you cannot find an adequate statement in the author's own words or if you find that the thesis statement is not well-developed, then you will have to compose your own introductory thesis statement that does cover all the material. The comparative thesis statement will vary in length depending on the number and complexity of books under review. Regardless of length, it must be succinct, accurate, unbiased, and clear.

If you find it difficult to discern the overall aims and objectives of each book [and, be sure to point this out in your review if you believe it to be a deficiency], you may arrive at an understanding of the purpose by asking yourself a the following questions:

  • Scan the table of contents because it can help you understand how the book is organized and will aid in determining the author's main ideas and how they are developed [e.g., chronologically, topically, etc.].
  • Why did the authors write on this subject rather than on some other subject?
  • From what point of view is each work written?
  • Were the authors trying to give information, to explain something technical, or to convince the reader of a belief’s validity by dramatizing it in action?
  • What is the general field or genre, and how does each book fit into it? If necessary, review related literature from other books and journal articles to familiarize yourself with the field.
  • Who is the intended audience for each book? Is it the same or are the books intended for difference sets of readers?
  • What is each author's style? Is it formal or informal? You can evaluate the quality of the writing style by noting some of the following standards: coherence, clarity, originality, forcefulness, accurate use of technical words, conciseness, fullness of development, and fluidity.
  • How did the books affect you? Were any prior assumptions you had on the subject that were changed, abandoned, or reinforced after reading the books? How are the books related to your own personal beliefs or assumptions? What personal experiences have you had that relate to the subject?
  • How well has each book achieved the goal(s) set forth in the preface, introduction, and/or foreword?
  • Would you recommend this book to others? Why or why not?

A useful strategy to help organize your thoughts is to create a table with a column for each book and rows for each of the questions. Enter your answer to each book in the chart. When completed, you'll have an easy guide to how each author has addressed the questions.

NOTE:  Your thesis statement underpins the purpose of your review and helps the reader understand how the books are related. However, while a book review essay should evaluate books about the same topic [e.g., Katrina recovery], there may not be an overarching issue that ties the books together. If this is the case, then the thesis could, for example, center around the diversity of issues scholars have chosen to examine or the fractured nature of scholarship on the topic.

ANOTHER NOTEYour thesis statement should include the rationale for why the key points you highlight or compare and contrast among the books being reviewed were deliberate and meaningful and not random. Explain their significance.


III. Methods of Organization

Organization is critical to writing an essay that compares and contrasts multiple works because you will most likely be discussing a variety of evidence and you must be certain that the logic and narrative flow of your paper can be understood by the reader. Here are some general guidelines to consider:

  1. If your professor asks you to choose the books to review, identify works that are closely related in some way so they can be easily compared or contrasted.
  2. Compare according to a single organizing idea [e.g., analysis of how each author assessed the effectiveness of post-Katrina recovery].
  3. Choose a method of development [see below] that works well with your organizing idea.
  4. Use specific and relevant examples to support your analysis.
  5. Use transitional words or phrases to help the reader understand the similarities and differences in your subject.
  6. Conclude your paper by restating your thesis, summarizing the main points, and giving the reader the final "so what" of the major similarities and/or differences that you discussed. Why are they important?

There are two general methods of organizing your book review essay. If you believe one work extends another, you'll probably use the block method; if you find that two or more works are essentially engaged in a debate or examine a topic from different perspectives, the point-by-point method will help draw attention to the conflict. However, the point-by-point method can come off as a rhetorical ping-pong match. You can avoid this effect by grouping more than one point together, thereby cutting down on the number of times you alternate from one work to another.

No matter which method you choose, you do not need to give equal time to similarities and differences. In fact, your paper will be more interesting if you state your main argument(s) as quickly as possible. For example, a book review essay evaluating three research studies that examine different interpretations of conflict resolution among nations in the Middle East might have as few as two or three sentences in the introduction regarding similarities and only a paragraph or two to set up the contrast between the author’s positions. The rest of the essay, whether organized by block method or point-by-point, will be your analysis of the key differences among the books.

The Block Method
Present all the information about A, and then present parallel information about B. This pattern tends to work better for shorter book review essays, and those with few sub-topics. The method looks like this:

I. Introduction
    A. Briefly introduce the significance of the overall subject matter
    B. Thesis Statement
        --First supporting point
        --Second supporting point
        --Third supporting point

II. First book
    A. Summary of book
        --Relationship of work to first point
        --Relationship of work to second point
        --Relationship of work to third point

III. Second book
    A. Summary of book
        --Relationship of work to first point
        --Relationship of work to second point
        --Relationship of work to third point

IV. Third book
    A. Summary of book
        --Relationship of work to first point
        --Relationship of work to second point
        --Relationship of work to third point

V. Conclusion
    A. Restate thesis
    B. Briefly summarize how you proved your argument

The Point-by-Point Method
Present one point about A, and then go to the parallel point about B. Move to the next point, and do the same thing. This pattern tends to work better for long book review essays and those with many sub-topics. The method looks like this:

I. Introduction
    A. Briefly introduce significance of overall subject matter
    B. Thesis statement

II. Brief explanation of first book

III. Brief explanation of second book

IV. First comparative point
    A. Relation of point to first book
    B. Relation of point to second book

V. Second comparative point
    A. Relation of point to first book
    B. Relation of point to second book

VI. Third comparative point
    A. Relation of point to first book
    B. Relation of point to second book

VII. Conclusion
    A. Restate thesis
    B. Briefly summarize how your proved your argument


IV.  Critically Evaluate the Contents

Regardless of whether you choose the block method or the point-by-point method, critical comments should form the bulk of your book review essay. State whether or not you feel the author's treatment of the subject matter is appropriate for the intended audience. Ask yourself:

  • Has the purpose of the books been achieved?
  • What contribution do the books make to the field of study or discipline?
  • Is the treatment of the subject matter objective?
  • Are there facts and evidence that have been omitted, either in one of the books or collectively?
  • What kinds of data, if any, are used to support each author's thesis statement?
  • Can the same data be interpreted to alternate ends?
  • Is the writing style clear and effective?
  • Do the books raise important or provocative issues or topics for discussion and further research?
  • What has been left out?

Support your evaluation with evidence from each text and, when possible, in relation to other sources. If relevant, make note of each book's format, such as, layout, binding, typography, etc. Are there maps, illustrations? Do they aid in understanding the research problem? This is particular important in books that contain a lot of non-textual elements, such as tables, charts, and illustrations.

NOTE:  It is important to carefully distinguish your views from those of the authors, so that you don’t confuse your reader.


V.  Examine the Front Matter and Back Matter

Front matter refers to anything before the first chapter of the book. Back matter refers to any information included after the final chapter of the book. Front matter is most often numbered separately from the rest of the text in lower case Roman numerals [i.e. i-xi]. Critical commentary about front or back matter is generally only necessary if you believe there is something that diminishes the overall quality of the work [e.g., the indexing is poor] or there is something that is particularly helpful in understanding the book's contents [e.g., foreword places the book in an important context].

The following front matter may be included in a book and may be considered for evaluation when reviewing its overall quality:

  • Table of contents -- is it clear? Is it detailed or general? Does it reflect the true contents of the book?
  • Author biography -- also found as back matter, the biography of author(s) can be useful in determining the authority of the writer and whether the book builds on prior research or represents new research. In scholarly reviews, noting the author's affiliation can be a factor in helping the reader determine the overall validity of the work [i.e., are they associated with a research center devoted to studying the research problem under investigation].
  • Foreword -- the purpose of a foreword is to introduce the reader to the author as well as the book itself, and to help establish credibility for both. A foreword may not contribute any additional information about the book's subject matter, but it serves as a means of validating the book's existence. Later editions of a book sometimes have a new foreword prepended [appearing before an older foreword, if there was one], which may be included to explain in how the latest edition differs from previous ones.
  • Acknowledgements -- scholarly studies in the social sciences often take many years to write, so authors frequently acknowledge the help and support of others in getting their research published. This can be as innocuous as acknowledging the author's family or the publisher. However, an author may acknowledge prominent scholars or subject experts, staff at key research centers, or people who curate important archival collections. In these particular cases, it may be worth noting these sources of support in your review.
  • Preface -- generally describes the genesis, purpose, limitations, and scope of the book and may include acknowledgments of indebtedness to people who have helped the author complete the study. Is the preface helpful in understanding the study? Does it provide an effective framework for understanding what's to follow?
  • Chronology -- also may be found as back matter, a chronology is generally included to highlight key events related to the subject of the book. Do the entries contribute to the overall work? Is it detailed or very general?
  • List of non-textual elements -- a book that contains a lot of charts, photographs, maps, etc. will often list these items after the table of contents in order that they appear in the text. Is it useful?

The following back matter may be included in a book and may be considered for evaluation when reviewing the overall quality of the book:

  • Afterword -- this is a short, reflective piece written by the author that takes the form of a concluding section, final commentary, or closing statement. It is worth mentioning in a review if it contributes information about the purpose of the book, gives a call to action, or asks the reader to consider key points made in the book.
  • Appendix -- is the supplementary material in the appendix or appendices well organized? Do they relate to the contents or appear superfluous? Does it contain any essential information that would have been more appropriately integrated into the text?
  • Index -- is the index thorough and accurate? Are elements used, such as, bold or italic fonts to help identify specific places in the book?
  • Glossary of Terms -- are the definitions clearly written? Is the glossary comprehensive or are key terms missing? Are any terms or concepts mentioned in the text not included?
  • Footnotes/Endnotes -- examine any footnotes or endnotes as you read from chapter to chapter. Do they provide important additional information? Do they clarify or extend points made in the body of the text?
  • Bibliography/References/Further Readings -- review any bibliography, list of references to sources, and/or further readings the author may have included. What kinds of sources appear [e.g., primary or secondary, recent or old, scholarly or popular, etc.]? How does the author make use of them? Be sure to note important omissions of sources that you believe should have been utilized.

NOTE:  Typically, multiple book review essays do not compare and contrast the quality of the back and front matter unless the books share a common deficiency [e.g., poor indexing] or the front or back matter is particularly important in supplementing the primary content of the books.


VI.  Summarize and Comment

Your conclusion should synthesize the key similarities and differences among the books and their collective contributions to understanding of the research problem. Avoid re-stating your assessment word for word; your goal is to provide a sense of closure and to leave the reader with a final perspective about the overall subject under review and whether you believe each book has effectively contributed to the overall research literature on the subject. Do not introduce new information in the conclusion. If you've compared the books to any other studies or used other sources in writing the review, be sure to cite them at the end of your book review essay.


Bazerman, Charles. Comparing and Synthesizing Sources. The Informed Writer: Using Sources in the Disciplines. Writing@CSU. Colorado State University; Comparing and Contrasting. The Writing Center. University of North Carolina; Comparison and Contrast Essays. Writing Support Centre. University of Western Ontario; Rhetorical Strategies: Comparison and Contrast. The Reading/Writing Center. Hunter College; Hartley, James. “Reading and Writing Book Reviews Across the Disciplines.” Journal of the American Society for Information Science and Technology 57 (July 2006): 1194-1207; Hooker, Fran and Kate James. Apples to Oranges: Writing a Compare and Contrast Paper. The Writing Center. Webster University; Oinas, Päivi and Samuli Leppälä. “Views on Book Reviews.” Regional Studies 47 (2013): 1785-1789; Visvis, Vikki and Jerry Plotnick. The Comparative Essay. The Lab Report. University College Writing Centre. University of Toronto; Writing a Compare/Contrast Essay. CLRC Writing Center. Santa Barbara City College.

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