Comparing Texts

Whether people realize it or not, they are constantly comparing and contrasting things. From noting differences between yourself and others on social media to noting similarities in your behavior to your parents, you likely do a lot of comparing and contrasting in your daily life. 

Comparing Texts Comparing Texts

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Table of contents

    Comparing and contrasting is a vital tool in literary analysis too! To make an analytical argument that unpacks the meanings behind literary works, writers should discuss similarities and differences between multiple texts. Learning about comparing and contrasting texts is therefore critical to developing effective writing skills.

    Comparing and Contrasting Texts

    Comparing and contrasting texts is the process of noting similarities and differences between texts. Readers compare pieces of writing to understand the various ways writers present information. Comparing texts can also help readers develop a nuanced understanding of a particular writer, genre, or topic.

    Comparing Texts, Trees, StudySmarter

    Fig. 1 - Practice comparing and contrasting skills by comparing these two trees.

    Comparing Texts Functional Skills

    Comparing texts is an essential skill because it helps writers craft nuanced arguments in which they analyze multiple texts. Comparing texts will also help readers become more focused and critical, allowing them to extract as much meaning as possible from what they read. Learning how to analyze texts is of particular use in English classes but can also come in handy in many jobs, as many professions require the interpretation of written works.

    Comparing Non-Fictional Texts

    When comparing non-fictional texts, readers should ask themselves about the following elements.

    What is the Topic of Each Text?

    The first step in understanding non-fictional texts is identifying the topic and the main point. An efficient method for pinpointing the topic is to identify the thesis statement in each text. The thesis statement is typically located in the first paragraph of a non-fictional text.

    How Do the Authors Present Their Arguments?

    Next, readers should identify how each author supports their thesis statement and what is similar or different about their approaches. To compare argumentative strategies, readers can consider the following questions:

    • What kind of rhetorical strategies do the authors use?

    • Do the authors use the classical appeals of ethos, logos, and pathos?

    • Are the arguments credible, or is bias evident?

    Comparing Texts, Speech, StudySmarterFig. 2 - When comparing non-fictional texts, consider how each author presents their argument.

    Authors often use different techniques to present the same argument. For example, a speaker might argue for gun control and use statistics about gun violence to support the argument. In contrast, another speaker might make the same case but support it with emotional stories of families who have lost loved ones to gun violence. To compare how writers make an argument in a non-fiction text, readers should highlight persuasive elements while reading, thus developing a solid understanding of how each author supports their point. Look for rhetorical strategies like ethos and pathos, and note if the authors use similar or different approaches.

    Comparing Fictional Texts

    When comparing fiction, readers can ask slightly different questions than when comparing non-fiction.

    What Are the Stories About?

    Reflecting on what a story is about includes understanding the main plot and reflecting on all elements of the text's contents. For instance, how many main characters are in each text, and who are they? What is similar and different about the stories' protagonists and antagonists? What themes are present throughout the texts?

    What is the Style of Each Text?

    To understand how authors present distinct stories, readers should reflect on each author's unique style. Even if the two texts are by the same author, the elements of style might be different in both texts. Elements of style to consider include the following:

    • Diction (what kind of word choice do the authors use, and how does it impact the stories?)

    • Point of view (are the stories told from the first, second, or third point of view?)

    • Text Structure (are the stories linear or non-linear?)

    • Tone (what are the narrators' attitudes?)

    • Syntax (how do the authors arrange words or phrases?)

    Comparing Texts, Scale, StudySmarterFig. 3 - When comparing fictional texts, consider how stylistic elements differ.

    What are the Themes?

    One of the most critical steps in analyzing fictional texts is identifying the themes.

    The theme of a text is the overarching idea that the author explores.

    The theme is different from the subject because the author's presentation of the subject allows them to explore a broad theme. For example, in Macbeth (1623), William Shakespeare uses the story of a power-hungry leader to examine the theme of ambition. After identifying themes, readers should note if the texts explore similar themes or different ones.

    To identify the themes of a text, consider what the overall message or lesson from a story is.

    How Do the Authors Develop the Themes?

    There are many literary techniques that authors can use to develop themes. When comparing each text, readers should consider if and how the authors use the following elements to explore overarching ideas:

    • Characters
      • What qualities do the main characters have? What are their dreams? How do they respond to conflict? How do their qualities or actions relate to the text's themes?
    • Main Events
      • What is the main event or conflict in this story? How does it relate to the themes? What message does the turn of events send to the reader?
    • Figurative Language
      • How does the author use figurative language in this story? Do they use devices like symbols, metaphors, or similes to represent a general idea?

    Once the reader asks the above questions, they should reflect on their answers and identify if the authors use similar approaches to develop their themes or different ones.

    Comparing Texts With Similar Themes

    When texts have similar themes, readers should carefully consider how the authors develop their themes. For example, thinks about how many fictional texts explore themes like love, loss, and revenge. Yet no two books are exactly the same. This is because authors use different approaches to their presentation of long-explored concepts.

    For example, in Romeo and Juliet (1597), Shakespeare explores the theme of love. Shakespeare explores the cruel nature of love through the story of two young teenagers whose love leads them to a tragic fate. Meanwhile, Henrik Ibsen also explored the theme of love in his play A Doll's House (1879), but through a different lens. He used the story of an unequal, unloving marriage contrasted with an authentic, loving relationship to suggest that mutual respect and equality must be present for a truly loving relationship.

    When comparing these two texts, readers could note how each author presents true love and whether or not these presentations are similar or different. Once they identify those similarities and differences, they should reflect on what that suggests about the theme in general. For instance, a reader might argue that the authors' different presentations of what makes a healthy, loving relationship suggest that healthy relationships differ depending on the context.

    Comparing Texts Activities

    There are all kinds of activities for comparing texts. It is often helpful to use a visual tool for comparison, such as a Venn diagram, as this can help writers organize the similarities and differences between two texts. To use a Venn diagram to compare texts, readers should draw two circles with an overlapping space in the middle. They should put the title of one text on the left and the title of the other one on the right. In the middle circle, they should write the similarities between the text. In each respective circle should go distinct traits of each text that make them different.

    Comparing Texts, Diagram, StudySmarterFig. 4 - List similarities in the middle of a Venn diagram.

    Comparing Texts Example

    Imagine you are tasked with comparing Ernest Hemingway's short story "Hills Like White Elephants" (1927) and Flannery O'Connor's "Good Country People" (1955). First, readers should closely read both stories, annotating and taking notes to identify and analyze key elements. As they read, they should ask themselves the following questions:

    What are the Stories About?

    Hemingway's "Hills Like White Elephants" is about a couple waiting for a train in Spain. They are in a tense debate about whether or not the girl will have an operation, which the dialogue implies is an abortion. The woman Jig seems imaginative and idealistic, while the unnamed man she is with is practical and pressures her to get the operation.

    O'Connor's "Good Country People" is about a girl named Joy who has a prosthetic leg and lives in the rural American South with her mother. Joy changes her name to Hulga because she thinks Hulga is an ugly name and thinks that nothing beautiful can exist. She is jaded and does not believe in the goodness of people. Then she meets a man named Manley Pointer, who seduces her. She drops her guard and he steals her leg.

    Comparing Texts, Farm, StudySmarterFig. 5 - Hemingway's story takes place in Spain, while O'Connor's takes place in Georgia.

    When comparing the subject of both stories, readers should examine anything that happens that is similar and anything that happens that is different. While the characters and events in these two stories differ, readers might note that both stories feature a woman in a vulnerable position because of a man.

    What is the Style of Each Text?

    Hemingway wrote "Hills Like White Elephants" in his distinctive, coarse style. He used concise diction and short, declarative sentences from a third-person point of view. He also used the word "operation" to suggest that the characters are discussing the topic of abortion without ever mentioning the word abortion.

    O'Connor wrote "Good Country People" from the third-person point of view. She used a lot of descriptions and long sentences. She also used many adjectives to describe each character and complex diction that made for an upbeat, playful tone.

    Readers might note that O'Connor uses a lot more description than Hemingway. His simple words and short, declarative sentences are in stark contrast to her longer, more wordy sentences. They both use the third-person point of view to make the reader an outside observer with equal insight into the characters' perspectives.

    What are the Themes?

    The melancholy tone of "Hills Like White Elephants" and the sad reality of the couple's relationship suggest that there is a loss of innocence that comes with adult relationships. The harsh way the man pressures Jig into having an abortion also highlights how toxic masculinity and male superiority can impact relationships.

    The events of "Good Country People" also develop the themes of loss of innocence and toxic masculinity. As Pointer takes advantage of Hulga's vulnerable position, her initial lack of trust in people is proven to be grounded. O'Connor shows how men prey on female innocence.

    When comparing these two texts, a reader might note that although they have different plots, they both present men as a negative force in the lives of innocent women.

    How do the Authors Develop the Theme?

    Hemingway develops his themes of loss of innocence and male superiority through the characters' conflict and communication, as well as the rich symbolism in the story. For example, the female main character Jig is portrayed as childlike and imaginative when she says that the hills "look like white elephants." The man is portrayed as the opposite, as he disregards her imagination by saying, "I've never seen one."

    Comparing Texts, Hills, StudySmarterFig. 6 - Hemingway uses the hills to symbolize Jigg's imagination and innocence.

    Contrasting landscapes also surround the pair. The one the couple is in is "brown and dry," while the one across from them is full of grains and trees. The fact that the couple is on the dry side suggests that they are barren and that the woman will have the abortion the couple is debating having. She will lose her innocence because of the situation with this overbearing man.

    O'Connor develops similar themes of innocence and male superiority through the traits of characters and key events in her story. The main character Hulga has a prosthetic leg, which suggests that she is vulnerable and innocent. Pointer initially feigns innocence and softness by saying that Hulga has to say she loves him. Hulga is not bright enough to identify that he is a con man, so he takes advantage of her and steals her leg. These events demonstrate how men use their social superiority to exploit women.

    When comparing these texts, the reader should note that Hemingway used more figurative language to explore the theme. In contrast, O'Connor uses more plot events, like how Hulga falls in love and gets her leg stolen, to show how men can steal innocence from women. However, they both use dialogue between a man and a woman to show how men manipulate women.

    Note how the writer of the above analysis uses direct evidence (quotes and details) from the texts to support their interpretation. This makes for a thorough comparative analysis.

    Comparing Texts - Key Takeaways

    • Comparing texts is the process of noting similarities and differences between texts.
    • Comparing texts is a critical skill in literary analysis because it helps readers unpack the meaning of texts and how authors create them.
    • To compare non-fictional texts, readers should note similarities and differences in the main argument and how the authors support them.
    • To compare fictional texts, readers should note similarities and differences in style and theme, as well as how the authors present the theme.
    • Writers can use activities like making a Venn diagram to compare texts.
    Frequently Asked Questions about Comparing Texts

    What does comparing text mean?

    Comparing texts means examining the similarity and differences between texts.

    How do you compare literary texts?

    To compare literary texts note the subjects, literary elements, and themes of each text. Then note how which ones are similar and which ones are different. 

    What is the best way to compare two texts on the same topic?

    When two texts have the same topic or theme, reface on how the authors presented the information in different ways.

    Why do we compare texts?

    Readers compare texts to gain deeper insight into how authors create meaning and explore ideas.

    Why is it important to compare and contrast?

    It is important to compare and contrast to understand the different ways that writers present information.

    Test your knowledge with multiple choice flashcards

    What would be a key difference to note when comparing two non-fictional texts?

    Which of the following elements indicates stylistic differences between two fictional texts? 

    What is a theme of a fictional text?


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