Guide to Definition Essay Writing

The process of writing a definition essay is more intricate than merely providing the dictionary definition of a term or word. The latter are usually terms, words, concepts or expressions that can be explained in one sentence. However, definition essays need to be comprised of a number of paragraphs. The process requires the student to provide a unique but academic explanation or definition of one particular term. Their definition should be fairly long, thorough, and quite detailed. Hence, it is important that the writer selects a term that has plenty to think and write about. And there are a few standard techniques they can use to explain and/or elaborate on their chosen word or term.   

The process is such that it is essential that the chosen term is not a physical thing or object. The majority of people, for example, agree on the meaning of an aircraft or a horse. The former is a winged contraption that flies overhead and transports passengers from one place to another. The latter is a quadruped creature that is usually seen grazing in pasture land. Provided you carefully choose a more intellectual and abstract topic, the definition writing style is a relaxed one that can be accomplished with the use of knowledge, skill and experience  

What are Definition Essays?

Definition essays are a type of writing used to explain, describe and/or clarify the meaning of a specific term. There are some terms where the meanings are very real and definite such as tree, pen, glass, and so on. However, other terms are more dependent on an individual’s interpretation or viewpoint e.g. terms such as love, trust and integrity. Consequently, a definition essay should include analysis, causes, effects, description, examples, personal experiences, details, and so on. Writing a definition essay is often a deceptively difficult task.

Three Key Steps to Writing Good Definition Essays

  • Say what term you are defining.
  • Make sure the information you provide is clear and accurate.
  • Use easy-to-understand anecdotes, facts, and examples.

When writing a definition essay, choose a term that:

  • Is complex in its meaning
  • Can be disputed i.e. it can have a different meaning for different individuals.

Topics for Definition Essays

  • Communism
  • Feminism
  • Freedom
  • Intelligence
  • Leadership
  • Parenthood
  • Talent
  • Virtue

A good definition essay should include an in-depth interpretation of the writer’s opinion about the term, concept, or word they are defining.

Topic Options for a Definition Essay

Being subjective in nature, a definition essay needs to state the writer’s own views or opinions about the subject matter and they should support these.

There are two parts to a definition essay, which are denotation and connotation. The first represents the important meaning or an explanation of a term’s meaning. Connotation, on the other hand, suggests that the term or word is:

  • an abstract one with a complex meaning
  • open to debate
  • one the writer should be familiar with
  • one the writer has checked the dictionary definition of
  • one whose origins the writer has studied.

Selecting a suitable term to define is the first key step in the writing process. It is important the writer understands the term if they are to define it for others. For instance, when describing what love means, the writer could say it is ‘a liking for another person or object.’ However, what is indicated by the word? Is there a suggestion of passion, dedication, loyalty, etc.?

Creating an Outline for a Definition Essay

Describe what a given thing does or how a thing works. Describe how it is made or assembled. Do a comparison of the term with others in its class, e.g., how one breed of dog compares with other breeds.

Different Approaches to Defining Something

There are different ways to define something e.g. by analysis, by the thing’s function, structure, or what it does not mean.

Definition essays are explanations of what something means. So, during the process, it is important to keep the term you are defining in mind, to offer a basic and robust explanation, and to use anecdotes, facts, or illustrations to underline your definition.  

The Format of a Definition Essay

The Introduction

Here, you should provide a ‘hook’, e.g., an interesting or humorous anecdote, fact, example, etc. Then you will need to write a thesis statement made up of your topic and definition.

An introductory paragraph should begin in a way that grabs the reader’s attention. Add a definition and think about providing a contrasting definition to illustrate your meaning. Then proceed by writing individual points.

The Main Body Paragraphs

Every new paragraph should start with a topic sentence. The writer should then go on to develop that paragraph by analyzing the term, e.g., dividing it up and defining each individual part. Other steps include comparing, exemplifying, negating, illustrating and providing background information.

The Concluding Paragraph

This paragraph sums up, forecasts, predicts, narrates, evaluates, compares, and so on. It should also review the main points and reflect on ideas from the opening (introductory) paragraph.

Main Points for Consideration

  1. Defining a term or concept is more than repeating its dictionary definition.
  2. Use existing definitions if you are unable to devise a new description or meaning. Clarify the definition in your own words.
  3. Select terms you are familiar with or have personal experience of.
  4. Avoid terms you do not understand or you may confuse readers by giving an incorrect definition.
  5. Terms can be defined by function, purpose, nature or structure.
  6. Terms can also be defined by describing the opposite of their meaning or emphasizing their differences.
  7. The writer should adhere to a certain structure. It makes sense to present the term being defined in the introductory paragraph, give a detailed explanation in the body paragraphs, and close with concise conclusions.