How to write a VCE comparative essay

25 December 2020 The Alchemy Team

Comparative essays are an important part of the VCE English syllabus. Also known as ‘Reading and Comparing’, and ‘Compare and Contrast’ questions, these essays involve analysing and comparing the similarities and differences between two texts.

Lots of students worry about writing a comparative essay because putting two texts into the mix seems complex. Thankfully, there are lots of ways you can tackle this ‘beast’, and hopefully even pick up a top band mark in doing so.

Understand what’s being asked

First and foremost, you need to be crystal clear about what’s being asked of you. You’ll know you’re being asked to write a comparative essay if the topic contains key verbs like ‘compare’.

The topic might require a detailed comparison of the way the texts construct their respective settings, or the ways that named characters are developed. It could even be that you’re asked to provide a much broader thematic comparison that compares and contrasts how a certain theme is explored and discussed by the texts.

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You should also be ready to face a topic that focusses on a few quotes from the texts. For these questions, you’ll need to have a complete knowledge of your subject matter, since you’ll need to recognise the context of the relevant quotes.

As with most things in VCE English, knowing your texts is the key to scoring high marks in a comparative essay.

Give equal attention to the texts

Students often fall into the trap of focussing too heavily on one text over another, so be careful not to limit the scope of your essay.

Keep in mind that you’re being asked to compare the texts for similarities and differences – and you can’t do that effectively unless you maintain a balance between your discussion of them. Make sure that every point you make references and provides evidence for both texts.

Keep your essay structured

Comparative essays can seem daunting to start with, but the good news is that they follow a broadly similar structure to any other academic essay. This means that you’ll need to work in an introduction, several body chapters full of analysis, and an insightful conclusion.

You should be sure to set the tone of the essay from the beginning – which means summarising the point you’re going to make. Remember, the most effective essays follow a similar rule: tell them what you’re going to say, say it (with evidence), and then tell them what you’ve said.

It’s in the body paragraphs that comparative essays most obviously differ from other formats. This is because you need to find a way of comparing two texts in a fairly even-handed way. You can achieve this by using one of two methods – the block approach or the woven approach.

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The block approach involves addressing each text in turn, with a few paragraphs for each. This might seem simple, but the challenge with this approach is to maintain the connection between the texts as you make your point. You’ll need to be very careful to use plenty of linking words (more on that later) and should avoid any lengthy passages that simply recount the events or techniques found in one text or another.

The woven approach, in contrast, is a way to provide a more direct comparison between the texts – with your analysis and evidence for each sitting side by side in the same paragraphs. It’s best to look at this approach as a fluid analysis with each paragraph making an individual point before going on to illustrate how the two texts achieve a similar (or altogether different) result.

How you write your comparative essay is up to you, but you absolutely must keep the focus on both texts whichever route you choose.

Draw attention to similarities and differences

It’s easy enough to recognise similarities between different texts, but the very best marks are reserved for students who draw attention to the key differences too.

By bringing in the factors that separate two texts, you can demonstrate your wider knowledge whilst having even more literary techniques and devices to talk about. If you can balance the ideas contained within the two texts, you’ll stand a good chance of impressing the examiners.

Link your discussion of the texts

All too often, students get drawn into recounting the relevant texts when they should be comparing them. Remember, you’re being asked to draw parallels and explore the differences between texts, so you should always be careful to avoid writing about them separately.

To help the examiner understand that the ideas you’re discussing are connected, be sure to use plenty of linking words and phrases. These might include:

Similarly, in contrast, conversely, in the same way, X distinguishes text A from text B

Don’t ignore the wider context

The topic for your comparative essay will probably focus in on a particular character or theme, but that doesn’t mean that you have to limit your answer to those elements alone. The highest-scoring essays have depth, and that means drawing on other textual elements to make and evidence your point.

If you can bring in other areas of comparison (for instance, the way another theme is treated by the texts) then there’s a good chance your essay will be more compelling and attract higher marks. Just make sure that any other literary techniques or textual elements you reference don’t steal the spotlight from the focus of the topic.

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