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Essays Using Analogy

"Being in love is like stepping off a cliff and discovering you can fly."

What kind of statement is that? Do you know?

Did you guess "analogy"? You're right, it's an analogy, a comparison… it says one thing is like another thing. They're not exactly the same, but they're alike in some important, significant, interesting way. If I'm writing an essay to explain what it's like to be in love, I want to come up with statements like this one if I possibly can. Do you know why?

  • Well, one obvious thing is that I'm trying to describe what I mean by "falling in love." I may be thinking that my audience doesn't really know what it feels like, or doesn't know what it feels like to me. So rather than leave it to chance, I'm trying to paint a really clear picture. Some people might have the mistaken impression that being in love is a ho-hum kind of experience, like putting on an old pair of shoes. But that's not how I see it, so I want to find a way to make readers understand how I see it, since it's my writing, my paper. I want to find a way to communicate that exhilaration, that sense of liberation, excitement, and even empowerment…. And I want to communicate in the most vivid way possible. I could use all of those abstractions, but they won't say as much or be as clear in the end as that vivid analogy.
  • Another reason might be that this kind of thing just sounds good-it's colorful and creative; it might get my readers' attention, make them want to read more.
  • Maybe the reason is that I've learned that comparing something new or unfamiliar with something old and more familiar can help readers grasp obscure, difficult, or abstract subjects more readily.

If you make these kinds of statements in your writing, I hope it's because you're learning, or you've learned that "analogy" is a great rhetorical technique that works.

Analogy and comparison/contrast are two rhetorical strategies that are very closely related to one another—both are immensely useful when you're writing an analysis, and these notes will address both.


So first of all, let's spell out the definition of analogy, the first technique we're considering:

An analogy is a comparison between things which are basically not alike but which share some kind of striking similarity.

One thing that's great about using an analogy in your writing is that it can be fun. A well thought-out analogy can really make your writing stand up and sparkle that little extra bit. You have to try using them, especially if you never have before. You just have to get the feel of being a little (or a lot) creative and see what comes out. Consider a few more examples:

Learning to drive can be a marriage of convenience or a red hot love affair.
  • Some people think it's just a practical skill, but others are really transformed by the freedom they feel when they realize they can cover great distances. More than a few young men have been known to fall in love with their cars. Maybe a few young ladies, too.
Analyzing an advertisement can be like reading a poem.
  • Every detail in a ad has more than its literal meaning. Images and text are meant to suggest way more than seem to say on the surface. That's essentially the way poetry works, using language for connotative power, its ambiguity.
Writing a personal essay can be like shooting a home movie in your imagination.
  • As you recall the event, you get to be the director-you choose the scenes, the sets, the wardrobe, the characters. You recreate the whole thing so readers can share in it.

Now it's time for you take a try at it. Complete the worksheet on using analogies.

Just a few more words about using analogy, before we move on to our next topic-comparison/contrast.

  • Sometimes analogies are just one-liners and you don't need to say any more. The point is clear, and you're done. You've said a lot in just a few words. Other times you may find you want to spend an entire paragraph, or even several, pursuing an explanation of your analogy because it's so rich, like a gold mine of meaningful comparisons and contrasts. In your textbook there's a selection that especially illustrates how an analogy can extend over several paragraphs. Check out Annie Dillard's "When You Write" in The Prose Reader. (p. 644, I believe)
  • Using analogy is a very natural way to explain something new or difficult to your readers. When you use analogy, you're building on experience they most likely already have. And that's the natural way we learn, according to basic textbook learning theory.

BUT, at some point, analogies will always "break down." They break down in the sense that they're not really true. Falling in love isn't really like stepping off a cliff (it just sometimes feels that way). The feeling might be similar but in reality is it's not the same. So, it can be very instructive to explore where exactly your analogy falls completely apart-in other words, where your two subjects contrast rather than compare. This is where analogy and comparison/contrast overlap. Because when you do a longer or "extended analogy" you are likely to become aware of both similarities and differences between your two subjects.

Now, I know you read the chapter I assigned, and I know you're aware that closely related to analogy is another rhetorical technique—comparison/contrast.

Comparison and Contrast

Comparison and contrast is what you are doing when you become aware of and begin to formally note the similarities and differences between things brought together for examination. When you compare, you find similarities, when you contrast you find differences. Analogies were mainly for making comparisons, but comparison/contrast implies that there's some significance to discovering and understanding both.

Let's use a really simple example first.

Here's an apple and an orange—I'm comparing them and they're both round, they both have skin, and they're both sweet. On the other hand, they're different. One is red and the other is orange; one is divided into sections and one is not; one has a hard skin that's not edible and one has a softer skin that is edible. They are similar and different at the same time.

Of course, unless you're looking at something simple like apples and oranges, you won't discover important similarities and differences unless you look closely and think hard about your two subjects. Most of the time, similarities and differences are more subtle, maybe even somewhat invisible until close inspection, and you'll have to look really, really closely. And, unlike comparing and contrasting apples and oranges, there's more of a substantial point to be made, some kind of conclusion to be drawn, at the end of those observations. If it was just apples and oranges we were working with all time, we might find ourselves asking—so, they're similar and different? So what? What do we learn from that?

So it seems appropriate to say a few words about why we do comparison and contrast, why it's such a useful rhetorical strategy to have around. Why it isn't all just a waste of time, a lot of hot air, like comparing apples and oranges.

The fact is we use comparison and contrast for all kinds of profound intellectual reasons, and for a lot of practical ones, too. It might be that we're trying to decide in some way between two things, and we're using comparison and contrast in order to evaluate which one is better, or more suitable in some sense.

  • Which college should I go to? (categories: price, location, curriculum, social life
  • Which career should I specialize in? (categories: interests, abilities, job market)
  • Which one of these sources would be better for my research paper? (categories: credibility of information, quality of the publication, author's credentials, currency…)
  • Which of these DVD players should I spend my hard earned paycheck on? (categories: specs, features, appearance….)
  • Which candidate should I vote for in the election? (categories: experience, intelligence, policies, character)

Well, you get the idea! No matter what the question is you're trying to answer, if you're doing comparison/contrast, your process for figuring out the answer is the same. You probably do it unconsciously. At some point you establish some clear criteria, some set of questions, or what your textbook calls "categories" to work from (see above). Then, your comparison and contrast takes shape as you apply your categories equally to each of your subjects. How they compare and contrast leads you to a draw a conclusion that reflects what you've discovered by your analysis—sometimes your conclusion is an evaluation about which one rates higher.

Once you've observed the similarities and differences you find most interesting or revealing, or instructive, then you can think about how to present your findings in writing. We'll see that there are two options available, and they apply to writing paragraphs or to structuring an essay as a whole, depending on how large of a subject you're working with. The options are "sequencing" (a report of your observations that proceeds "point-by-point") and "chunking" (a report organized into two or more large "blocks" or "chunks").

Remember, the whole process started long before you thought of writing. It started with analysis. With questions and observations. Before you even start to write, you know three things:

1. Your "categories" or "criteria" for comparing and contrasting (your criteria, or the questions you use to focus the way you will look at each subject).
2. Your specific observations (the specific answers to the questions you posed).
3. What you learned by comparing and contrasting (the conclusion you draw, the evaluation you arrive at, what we know that we didn't know before).

You read all about this in The Prose Reader (chapter 6)!

Let's take one of the analogies on your exercise sheet. It isn't that difficult to demonstrate how analogy can overlap into a full-fledged comparison/contrast analysis.

A comparison/contrast analysis involves digging for similarities—that's comparison-and differences—that's contrast—between your two chosen subjects. Suppose I want to explain the comparison I came up with for the last analogy exercise on your worksheet.

Learning to write can be like learning a musical instrument.

Personally, I find these two learning situations are analogous ("analogous" is pronounced with hard g), and I can compare and contrast them at length (see the sample practice). Are any of your own analogies good for comparing and contrasting at length?

Well, you should be set to practice this strategy. Pick one of your analogies, or use one of the suggestions on the worksheet. Go there now. 

by Stacy Esch

Baking a cake

Any baker will tell you that creating a successful confectionery demands his paying attention to a great many details, all of which can be compared to writing a successful critical essay:

baker's recipe = writer's outline
This is the overall blueprint which represents not only the desired end result of your efforts, but the exact way in which you will achieve that end. It includes the names and amounts of ingredients, directions on how to prepare, combine, and cook ingredients, and any other details necessary to the project. A writer's outline should offer an overall view of the project, carefully setting forth not only the arguments of the essay, but how those arguments will be argued.

good ingredients = supporting details
The baker's ingredients might include eggs, flour, milk, and sugar. The writer's ingredients might be details of plot and supporting quotations from the text. In neither case is it acceptable to plop down the ingredients and call it a finished product! You wouldn't call a bag of groceries a cake; don't call a collection of details an essay!
Take your raw material and make something of it!

ingredient amounts

Both bakers and writers must determine exactly how much room to devote to particular ingredients. In both cases, an ingredient might be essential, but too much of that one thing could ruin the cake. You can easily err in the other direction, too. Careful!

order of presentation of ingredients

A good recipe will tell the baker to keep dry ingredients separate from liquid, or in what order to add certain ingredients in the cooking process. A good writer will understand that it is not just the argument itself that can persuade, but the overall presentation that can augment or diminish the persuasiveness of the presentation. All writers should consider in what order to present his arguments - which to save for last, which to start off with. It can make a world of difference in the end.

how to mix the ingredients

A lot depends on the right method of mixing the ingredients together: sometimes the recipe calls for a gentle folding-in of ingredients, and sometimes you really have to mash stuff together using a blender! The same goes for writing an essay - determine the best and most persuasive way to present every argument. Is this a good place to paraphrase the text, or does this observation need a direct textual citation as support? Don't belabor a minor point, and don't leave a major point in chunks. Everything should be blended into the body of the essay appropriately, according to its nature.

baking time

After a cake is prepared according to the recipe, it needs to go in the oven, where everything comes together. The "baking time" of an essay can correspond to the time the writer devotes to crystallizing the ideas he has set forth in the course of the essay. If you don't bake it long enough, then you risk ending up with mush. If you keep it in too long, your reader will get indigestion. Spend just enough time at the end of your essay pulling together the threads of your argument...and then let it cool!

secret ingredient

Every cook has his own secret ingredient that makes his concoction uniquely his own. Writers work that way, too, except with writers it is more a question of style than anything else.

an appetizing end result

A nice presentation caps a baker's effort. Make your essay look like it is worth reading (neat, proofed), just like any good cake looks like it is worth eating.