One of my favorite magazines is Sports Illustrated, and one of my favorite features in that magazine is a feature called “Where Are They Now?” Typically, the magazine highlights former athletes whose pictures once appeared in the magazine, and each article explains what those athletes are doing now. This “before-and-after” essay is a classic example of comparison and contrast, and you may want to use this format in your own writing.
Fortunately, you have already had some experience with this compare-and-contrast technique. For example, every time you open your wallet or your purse to spend money, you’re evaluating all the similar options available to you. For instance, if you decide to buy lunch or dinner today, you can choose from among numerous nearby establishments: Wendy’s, Pizza Hut, Deli and Brew, Market 32, Chinese Wok Buffet, Alexi’s Diner, or Moscatiello’s Italian Restaurant.
As you make your decision, you are using both comparison (finding similarities) and contrast (finding differences). If you have only a few dollars and a short amount of time, you may choose one of the fast-food options. If you have $20 to spend and plenty of free time, however, you might be willing to wait for food that is prepared specifically for you at a much slower pace — and a much higher price.
Obviously, then, you can choose from among numerous options, but your instructor may ask you to write this type of essay using only two options. Thus, you may want to compare Wendy’s and Pizza Hut. Once you’ve narrowed the scope of your compare-and-contrast essay, you must then choose between the “block” method or the “alternating” method. With the block method, you devote the first half of your essay to one option and the second half to the second option. With the alternating method (sometimes called the point-by-point method), you go back and forth between your two options.
Using the block method, you might have a four-paragraph essay. The first paragraph introduces the subjects (Wendy’s and Pizza Hut); the second paragraph focuses exclusively on Wendy’s (the type of food, the prices, and the service); the third paragraph focuses exclusively on Pizza Hut (again discussing the same three elements: the type of food, the prices, and the service); and the fourth paragraph summarizes your thoughts in your conclusion. Thus, the body of the essay consists of two blocks: one on Wendy’s and one on Pizza Hut.
With the alternating method, however, you’ll probably have a five-paragraph essay. Paragraphs one and five, of course, will be your introduction and conclusion, but your three middle paragraphs will focus on the three key elements mentioned earlier. Paragraph two discusses the types of food in both restaurants, paragraph three discusses the prices, and paragraph four discusses the service. Thus, as you’re discussing the key elements, you’re also alternating between the two restaurants.
At the end of this compare-and-contrast essay, do you have to recommend either Wendy’s or Pizza Hut? That may depend on your instructor’s expectations. If your instructor wants a purely informative essay, you simply present the similarities and differences and let the reader decide. If your instructor wants a persuasive essay, though, you should definitely make a decision and recommend one based on the information you provided. Typically, professional reviewers choose the persuasive approach.
Obviously, the compare-and-contrast technique can be used in numerous situations. In fact, writers often use this technique to measure the strengths and weaknesses of political candidates, to analyze the pros and cons of a new product, or to determine the likely outcome of an athletic contest. Thus, whenever you are faced with a choice of two or more options, you may want to write a compare-and-contrast essay to clarify your thoughts and make a decision.