51 Writing About Creative Non-Fiction: The Literary Comparison Essay
You began the process of writing your literary comparison paper in the Introduction to Creative Nonfiction chapter by choosing an essay, reading it carefully, and writing a personal response. In this chapter, we will move through the remaining steps of writing your paper.
Step 3: Choose a Second Piece for Comparison
The key to a good comparison essay is to choose two subjects that connect in a meaningful way. The purpose of conducting the comparison is not to state the obvious, but rather to illuminate subtle differences or unexpected similarities.
When writing a literary comparison paper, the point is to make an argument that will make your audience think about your topic in a new and interesting way. The best comparison papers come from an analysis of two works similar enough to illuminate each other. For example, perhaps reading one helps you to better understand the other.
To this end, your next goal is to choose a second piece of literature from our text that you think can illuminate the point being made in the essay you’ve chosen. For example, if you’ve chosen “Mother Tongue,” by Amy Tan, you might choose her short story, “Two Kinds” to highlight the two sides of the mother-daughter relationship. If you’ve chosen “Complexion,” by Richard Rodriguez, you might choose Marge Piercy’s poem “To Be of Use” to highlight the authors’ focus on the importance of hard work. Or, you might want to look at two essays to see how different authors highlight a different aspect of the same topic, like Orwell’s and Didion’s essays both entitled, “Why I Write.”
Step 4: Research
Once you’ve chosen a second piece, it’s time to enter into the academic conversation to see what others are saying about the authors and the pieces you’ve chosen.
Regardless of the focus of your essay, discovering more about the authors of the texts you’ve chosen can add to your understanding of the texts and add depth to your argument. Author pages are located in the Literature Online ProQuest database. Here, you can find information about an author and his/her work, along with a list of recent articles written about the author. This is a wonderful starting point for your research.
The next step is to attempt to locate articles about the texts themselves. For poems and short stories, it’s important to narrow down your database choices to the Literature category. For essays, you might have better luck searching the whole ProQuest library with the ProQuest Research Library Article Databases or databases like Flipster that include publications like newspapers and magazines.
Finally, you might look for articles pertinent to an issue discussed in the essay. For example, “Learning to Fall” is about dealing with a terminal illness. An article about how to help people deal with this issue could be a valuable addition to your argument.
Remember, it is helpful to keep a Research Journal to track your research. Your journal should include, at a minimum, the correct MLA citation of the source, a brief summary of the article, and any quotes that stick out to you. A note about how you think the article adds to your understanding of the topic or might contribute to your project is a good addition, as well.
Step 5: Thesis & Outline
Similar to other academic essays, the literary comparison essay starts with a thesis that clearly introduces the two subjects that are to be compared and the reason for doing so.
Begin by deciding on your basis for comparison. The basis of comparison could include items like a similar theme, the way the authors use literary elements, or the way both pieces represent an important issue.
Once you’ve decided on the basis of comparison, you should focus on the points of comparison between the two pieces. For example, if you are focusing on how the literary elements used impact the message, you might make a table of each of the literary elements. Then, you’d find examples of each element from each piece. Remember, a comparison includes both similarities and differences.
By putting together your basis of comparison and your points of comparison, you’ll have a thesis that both makes an argument and gives readers a map of your essay.
A good thesis should be:
- Arguable (not a statement of fact)
- Statement of Fact: “Both ‘Salvation’ and ‘Falling’ talk about faith.”
- Arguable: “Simmons provides a perspective on faith that would have helped Hughes work through his own dilemma.”
- Provable by the text (not a personal opinion)
- Personal Opinion: “‘Mother Tongue’ is an amazing essay.”
- Provable by the Text: “Tan uses similar strategies in both ‘Mother Tongue’ and ‘Two Kinds’ to create her message.”
- Surprising (not obvious)
- Obvious: “The daughter in ‘Two Kinds’ has a different view of her mother than Tan’s adult perspective in ‘Mother Tongue.'”
- Surprising: “Like the second half of the musical piece at the end of ‘Two Kinds,’ ‘Mother Tongue’ provides readers with the rest of the story, showing how the author has deepened her understanding of her mother and created a relationship that both honors her own values and the traditions of her mother.”
- Specific (not general)
- General: “Both ‘Ain’t I a Woman’ and ‘If Shakespeare had a Sister’ highlight the plight of women.”
- Specific: “Though written by women of two very different experiences, both Truth and Woolf use similar strategies to convince their audiences that women deserve to be treated equally.”
The organizational structure you choose depends on the nature of the topic, your purpose, and your audience. You may organize compare-and-contrast essays in one of the following two ways:
- Block: Organize topics according to the subjects themselves, discussing one piece and then the other.
- Woven: Organize according to individual points, discussing both pieces point by point.
Exercises: Create a Thesis and Outline
You’ll want to start by identifying the theme of both pieces and deciding how you want to tie them together. Then, you’ll want to think through the points of similarity and difference in the two pieces.
In two columns, write down the points that are similar and those that are different. Make sure to jot down quotes from the two pieces that illustrate these ideas.
Following the tips in this section, create a thesis and outline for your literary comparison paper.
Here’s a sample thesis and outline:
Step 6: Drafting Tips
Once you have a solid thesis and outline, it’s time to start drafting your essay. As in any academic essay, you’ll begin with an introduction. The introduction should include a hook that connects your readers to your topic. Then, you should introduce the topic. In this case, you will want to include the authors and titles of both pieces. Finally, your introduction should include your thesis. Remember, your thesis should be the last sentence of your introduction.
In a literary comparison essay, you may want to follow your introduction with background on both pieces. Assume that your readers have at least heard of the author or the piece, but that they might not have read the essay in awhile. For example, if you were writing about “Learning to Fall,” you might include a brief introduction to Simmons and a short summary of the essay. The background section should be no more than two short paragraphs.
In the body of the paper, you’ll want to focus on supporting your argument. Regardless of the organizational scheme you choose, you’ll want to begin each paragraph with a topic sentence. This should be followed by the use of quotes from your two texts in support of your point. Remember to use the quote formula–always introduce and explain each quote and the relationship to your point! It’s very important that you address both literary pieces equally, balancing your argument. Finally, each paragraph should end with a wrap up sentence that tells readers the significance of the paragraph.
Here are some transition words that are helpful in tying points together:
|One Similarity||One Difference|
|Another Similarity||Another Difference|
|In a Similar Fashion||Whereas|
Finally, your paper will end with a conclusion that brings home your argument and helps readers to understand the importance/significance of your essay.
In this video, an instructor explains step by step how to write an essay comparing two films. Though you will be writing about literature, the same information applies.
Here’s another instructor explaining how to write a comparison essay about two poems. Note the similarities between the two videos.
Here’s a sample paper:
- Content created by Dr. Karen Palmer. Licensed under CC BY NC SA.
- Content adapted from “Comparison and Contrast” from the book Successful Writing licensed CC BY NC SA.