This week, Insight writer and English teacher Melanie Flower outlines steps you can take to write your best comparative essay.
The comparative essay is still a relatively new element of VCE English, only becoming part of the Study Design in 2016. However, while the Area of Study is new, your essay should still have a clear and largely familiar structure, with an introduction, body and conclusion. Last year every topic in Section B of the VCE English examination included the word ‘compare’, and it is essential to note that the comparison of texts is the central requirement for this response, even if the word does not explicitly appear in the topic.
The comparative essay can be tackled in a variety of ways, and it is worth experimenting with different approaches throughout the semester to find the one that suits your strengths.
Read the topic carefully
Make sure that you understand exactly what the topic is asking you to do. The topic might invite a broad thematic comparison, which requires a thoughtful understanding of the ways a particular theme is explored in both texts. Other topics focus on an aspect of the texts’ construction, such as characterisation or setting, and require you to show an understanding of the texts’ form and genre.
You could also encounter a topic that contains one or two quotes. This type of topic necessitates a very thorough knowledge of your texts, as you need to recognise the context of each quote, identify the key ideas being addressed in each, and understand how these ideas are explored in both texts.
Give roughly equal weight to each text
Each text pairing has been carefully chosen to offer points of comparison, in terms of both similarities and differences. While you may have a preference for one text over the other, it is essential that you do not allow this to limit the scope of your discussion. One easy way to make sure that you are addressing both texts equally is to balance every point, example or quote from one text with an equivalent from the other. This can be done in the planning stages, giving you a wealth of material to use in your essay.
Choose your preferred structure
The broad structure of a comparative essay is already very familiar to you, and consists of an introduction, several body paragraphs and a conclusion. The introduction should include a clear contention that alerts the reader to your response to the topic, as well as the main ideas your essay will explore. It must contain references to both texts. Similarly, your conclusion should summarise the points you have made and leave the reader with a clear understanding of your position on the topic. These elements are common to all analytical text response essays. The difference in a comparative response is in the way the body paragraphs are structured and organised. You essentially have two basic options for the body: the block approach or the woven approach.
- The block approach: This approach involves devoting a paragraph or two to each text, examining the ways each of them address the ideas raised by the topic. The final body paragraphs pull this material together and discuss the similarities and differences between the texts’ approach to the central ideas explored in the essay. This structure appears straightforward, but it can be challenging to maintain a strong connection between the texts when discussing them in isolation. A careful use of linking words is essential to ensure that the essay is cohesive and the comparison of texts remains at the fore.
- The woven approach: Using a more sophisticated structure, the woven essay draws evidence from both texts within each body paragraph. Topic sentences focus on an aspect of the ideas raised by the topic rather than on individual texts or characters, leaving you free to explore material from both sources in the paragraph. It can be challenging to move between two texts, although with practice, this will become easier. One useful strategy is to begin your discussion of a particular idea with a sentence addressing text 1. Then start the next sentence with a linking word or phrase that leads to a statement about text 2’s perspective on the same idea. A third sentence links both texts, adding an overall position statement. This approach allows you to move smoothly between the texts while also engaging in deep analysis of their ideas.
Focus on differences as well as similarities
We tend to be very alert to similarities between texts, which are usually relatively simple to identify; however, often the most interesting discussion will devolve from a consideration of the differences. These provide an opportunity to explore contrasting situations and points of view, thus demonstrating your engagement with both the texts and the ideas they present.
Use linking words and phrases
When moving the discussion between texts, regardless of the overall essay structure you have chosen, use appropriate linking words and phrases to maintain fluency and cohesion. These links help your reader to understand the connection between the ideas you are discussing, whether they are similarities or contrasts.
Phrases that you can use to discuss similarities include:
similarly, likewise, in the same way, also, along similar lines, in the same fashion.
Phrases useful for indicating contrast include:
in contrast, on the other hand, unlike (text 1), regardless, however, conversely, on the contrary, nevertheless.
Used purposefully, these words and phrases help guide your reader through your discussion, ensuring that they understand the relationship between the texts and the ideas explored in your response.
Explore a range of elements
To add depth to your response, consider a variety of textual elements in your discussion. While the topic may prompt you to focus on character or theme, your response will have more depth if you are able to draw other aspects of the texts into your discussion. You could note the impact of the narrative voice, reflect on how structure shapes a reader’s responses, consider the influence of genre on the texts’ construction, or acknowledge differences in style or authorial purpose. All of these elements provide you with opportunities to consider the texts as constructs, leading to a more complex and sophisticated analysis.
The comparative essay is a challenging, but ultimately satisfying, opportunity to explore intertextual connections. By considering the different perspectives offered by carefully paired texts, you can enrich your understanding of both texts and draw new meanings from them. Ultimately, the best way to find an essay style that works for you is to experiment. Try a few different approaches, note the feedback you receive from your teacher, and use this to finetune your approach. Remember that examiners are not looking for a single, standard essay format. They are interested in your ideas and your genuine responses to the texts, and whichever structure best allows you to present these is the most appropriate structure for you.
Need help with your comparative essays? Insight has two Insight Sample Essays for each List 2 text comparison for English. Each high-level essay features annotations with assessor comments identifying the elements of the essay that work and areas for improvement, as well as tips on how to approach the essay topic and appropriate strategies for analysis.
Insight Sample Essays are produced by Insight Publications, an independent Australian educational publisher.
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