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Useful Guide to Writing a Definition Essay

Knowing how to write a definition essay is a process that is more complicated than just repeating the definition of a word or term as it appears in a dictionary. Generally speaking, the definitions given in dictionaries are mostly words, terms, expressions, and/or concepts that are possible to explain in a single sentence. A definition essay, by contrast, is comprised of several sections or paragraphs. This is a process that requires the writer to craft a unique yet scholarly definition or explanation of a given term. It is expected that the provided definition will be reasonably long, fairly detailed, and thorough. Therefore, it is essential to choose a word or term that offers sufficient food for thought and has plenty that can be written about it. It should additionally be said that there are some tried-and-tested techniques that can be used to define, elaborate upon, or explain the particular term or word a writer chooses. 

The accepted process for writing a definition essay is one where it is important not to select a physical object or thing to define. For instance, most people would agree what words such as “dog” or “airplane” mean. The first item is a four-legged domesticated animal that is often kept as a pet or for some work purpose. The second item is an overhead flying contraption with wings and is used for taking people from place to place. As long as you select an abstract and fairly intellectual topic, the definition style of writing is a relatively relaxed style and can be achieved using skill, knowledge, and experience.  

What is a Definition Essay?

A definition essay is essentially a genre of writing mostly used to clarify, describe and/or explain what a particular word or term means. The meaning of certain words and terms – such as glass, pencil, flower, etc. - is very definite and real. There are others, however, such as trust, loyalty and love where the meaning depends more on how an individual views or interprets them. Therefore, definition essays need to include descriptions, analysis, causes and effects, personal experience, details, examples, and the like. Indeed, definition essays can be quite deceptive in terms of how difficult they can be to write.   

Writing an Effective Definition Essay – The Three Essential Steps

  • State the term to be defined.
  • Be sure to provide accurate and clear information.
  • Use facts, examples and/or anecdotes and make sure these are easy-to-understand.

The chosen word or term for a definition essay should:

  • Have a fairly complex meaning
  • Be disputable e.g. a term that can mean different things to different people.

Topics Ideas for a Definition Essay

  • Aptitude
  • Cleverness
  • Democracy
  • Femininity
  • Goodness
  • Leadership
  • Liberty
  • Parenting

If a definition essay is to be successful, the writer should provide a detailed interpretation of their own opinion of the word, term, or concept they have chosen to define.   

Choosing Topics to Define in an Essay

Because the nature of a definition essay is subjective, this type of essay should convey the personal opinions or views of the writer, and these opinions or views should be supported.

Definition essays have two main parts i.e. connotation and denotation. The former implies the word or term to be:

  • Abstract in nature and complex in meaning
  • Debatable
  • Familiar to the essay writer
  • One whose definition has been checked in a dictionary
  • One that the writer has checked or studied the origins of.

Denotation is a reference to the important explanation or meaning of a term.

The first important step in writing a definition essay is choosing an appropriate word or term to attempt to explain or define. It is vital for the writer to understand a word or term in order to explain it to others. If, for example, a writer is trying to define love, they might describe it as “liking or being fond of a fellow human or an object.” However, what does the word indicate? Does it suggest devotion, loyalty, passion, and so on?

Developing an Essay Outline

Define or describe what the chosen item does or how it works. Say how it has been assembled or created. Compare the item to others of its type, for example, describe how a certain type of reptile compares to others. 

Different Ways to Define a Given Thing

Various items or things can be described in various ways. For example, you could analyze the item, e.g., how it is structured, how it functions, what the opposite of it is, etc.

A definition essay seeks to explain the meaning of some given thing. Therefore, it is essential to keep the word or term you have chosen to the forefront of your mind when defining it. This will help you provide a fundamental and strong description, and to make use of facts, illustrations, and/or anecdotes to emphasize your particular definition.   

Definition Essay Format

Introductory Paragraph

The introductory paragraph should contain a “hook,” which is usually an amusing or interesting fact, example, story, or so on. After this, you will need to develop a thesis statement that sets out your chosen topic and your interpretation or definition.

Begin your introduction paragraph in a manner that gets the attention of your readers. Include a definition and consider adding a contrasting description to emphasize what you mean. Then write your various points.  

Writing the Body of Your Essay

Begin each new body paragraph with a topic statement or sentence. You should then continue developing each paragraph with an analysis of the word or term i.e. divide the term up and define the different parts. The next tasks involve providing background information, comparisons, contradictions, examples, and illustrations.   

Closing Paragraph (Conclusion)

The last paragraph i.e. the conclusion should be used to compare, narrate, summarize, evaluate, predict, and the like. Additionally, it should recap on all key points and reflect on what was covered in the introductory paragraph. 

Key Things to Think About

  1. The definition process involves more than simply repeating the dictionary explanation of a word, term, or concept.
  2. Existing descriptions or definitions can be used if new meanings or descriptions cannot be found. Definitions should be clarified in the writer’s own unique words.   
  3. Writers should choose terms that are familiar to them or that they have direct experience of.
  4. Unfamiliar terms or terms the writer does not understand should be avoided since an inaccurate definition can leave readers feeling confused.
  5. It is permissible to define terms by nature, purpose, structure, or function.
  6. It is also acceptable to define terms by emphasizing differences or providing their opposite meanings.  
  7. There is a particular structure a writer should abide by when writing a definition essay. It is sensible to mention the term to be defined in the opening paragraph, provide an in-depth description or explanation in the body, and to end with clear conclusions.   

 Suggestions for Definition Essay Topics

  • Aspiration
  • Beauty
  • Bravery
  • Charm
  • Citizenship
  • Devotion
  • Femininity
  • Friendship
  • Gallantry
  • Hope
  • Humor
  • Humility
  • Integrity
  • Joyfulness
  • Love
  • Passion
  • Prudence
  • Racism
  • Respectfulness
  • Self-esteem
  • Serenity
  • Sportsmanship
  • Trustfulness
  • Vanity
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