How do I go about writing comparative essays?

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How to write comparative essays

The important thing to keep in mind when needing to compare texts is that in any question the emphasis is on both the similarities and differences between them.  While comparative essays can sometimes use one author and compare their texts, they usually include texts of different form, and of different authors, enabling different areas of comparison and room to include context surrounding the author, or points about structure and form.

1. Approaching the comparison:

When faced with a comparative essay, I always find that it is easiest to pick themes first and then choose examples rather than the other way around.  If the two texts are, for example, two poems by the same author, often authors use reoccurring themes in their writing such as death, love, or nature, so it is useful to pick those out and base your answer around them.  If poems aren’t by the same author, themes can still be picked out between them.  If the two texts are completely different, it can be useful to pick the main theme of both, and one common one, as even if at first glance they appear to be utterly different, often on deeper readings connections can be found.

2.  Organise the themes:

I am rather keen on using mindmaps when I have to structure essays, although any way of gathering information and quotations is just as effective.  I designate one mindmap to each theme I have, and distinguish the two texts in different colours so I can see the balance of evidence.  It is important here to keep in mind that the question is asking for similarities and differences, and so to only consider one of these would be not fully answering the question.

3. Consider how to put your ideas into a structured essay plan:

It is useful, especially when in an exam situation where you only have an hour to write the essay, to simply structure your themes.  I found it useful to aim for four main points or themes, and then use them as a structure.  If they can flow naturally from each other, so much the better, but don’t worry too much about this.  Often there are points of overlap between themes anyway, so the main thing is to not waste time or words repeating yourself.

4. Writing the essay:

Easier said than done, but DON’T PANIC!  Whether in exam conditions or not, it is important to remember that everyone else is in the same position as you, and by taking a moment to slow down your heart rate and focus on the question rather than the rendition of Never Gonna Give You Up that’s stuck in your head, you set yourself at an advantage to all the students who spend the exam in a state of near-tears.
As someone who suffers from exam anxiety, take all possible precautions to minimise panic before the exam.  For instance, leave your phone at home so the worry of it buzzing in the exam is eliminated, and often chewing gum during the exam helps concentration and gives you something to focus on that isn’t how fast your heart is going.
Exam preparation aside, writing the actual essay isn’t so hard. When outside of exam conditions, I find it easier to write the body of the essay first, and then the introduction and conclusion after, as often an argument emerges while you’re writing.  During timed exams though, I tend to just start and try not to stop writing.  Although you’re sick of hearing it by now, the PEEL method is a very good one to stick to as it stops you from narrating the plot, or waffling about all the ways it is possible to interpret a comma.  Keep paragraphs short, as a block of writing is horrible for an examiner, and try to write smoothly, i.e, not just four unrelated small separate essays, but four paragraphs of a large essay.  You should stick to your argument throughout the essay, as the instant you lose your argument is the moment the essay loses its direction and becomes confusing to the reader or examiner.

All in all, the main point when planning is to make life easy for you, and while writing is to make life easy for the examiner.  Obviously these points can vary depending on what is required of the essay, but generally these pointers give at least a well-structured and coherent essay, which is often the part most forgotten about under timed conditions.

Henry F. GCSE Classical Civilisation tutor, A Level English Literatur...

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is an online A Level English Literature tutor with MyTutor studying at York University

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