Writing a Definition Essay

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When you want to know the meaning of a word or phrase, you look it up in the nearest dictionary. In most cases, all it takes is a few sentences to make the definition clear. Sometimes, if you want to dig a little deeper, you might research the word origin. You might even look for ways in which the word is used, or how it has come up in history. This is how you learn the meaning of things!

Sometimes, that’s not enough to really understand something. Some words have complicated meanings. Some are influenced by politics or history. Others may be very technical. It takes research, and more than a short paragraph to explain these. This is the purpose of the definition essay.

Definition essays aren’t exceptionally common, but many students face one or two in their academic careers. If you are one such student, keep reading. This guide has been made specifically for you.

What is a Definition Essay?

The definition is a paper that you write to provide an in-depth explanation of a word or phrase. To be the topic of a definition essay, there must be something complex about the word or phrase that you choose. For example, you wouldn’t choose the word ‘turtle’ for a definition essay. It’s too simple and clear cut. On the other hand, ‘fairness’ could be an excellent choice. It’s something that means different things to different people. There are many ways to pursue it, even measuring ‘fairness’ is complicated.

Your essay might explore the origins of the word, different ways it has been used throughout history, and how culture influences. Ideally, your definition essay would provide a wide perspective on the word or phrase that you choose.

Definition Essay Topic Selection

The first thing you’ll need to do is find a word or phrase to explore. We’ve compiled a list for you to use as inspiration!

  • Prettiness and what it means in different cultures and generations.
  • Kindness and the ways that different people interpret it.
  • Acceptance as a socio-political term.
  • Peace as a goal between nations.
  • Liberty as seen through multiple perspectives.
  • Describe the concept of freedom.
  • Explain explicit, implicit, and systemic racism.
  • Define Happiness.
  • Explore the topic of socialism.

Here are some other concepts to consider:

  • The Glass Ceiling
  • The United Nations
  • Democrats
  • Republicans
  • Great Literature
  • Modern Art
  • Social Media
  • Terrorism
  • Rugged Individualism
  • Comedy

Of course, you should also consider the class you are taking, and any of the concepts that you are covering. Think about class discussions, for example, and which words and phrases tend to be contentious in debates.

Sample Definition Essay

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Writing Your Definition Essay: The Approach

There are several ways to approach your essay, once you decide on the term you want to explore. You can even take more than one approach in your essay. Here are a few to consider:

  • Create relevant classifications that apply to the term you’re defining.
  • List and describe the various details.
  • Write about the origins and background.
  • Describe the uses, causes, and effects.
  • Analyze the various sub-topics that make up the total concept.
  • Compare and contrast concepts that may be related.
  • Clearly define what the term does not mean.

Whatever you choose, your word should be at least one of the following:

  • Complex
  • Multi-Dimensional
  • Historically or Politically Significant
  • Changed over time
  • Changed from one culture to the next.
  • Controversial

Once you pick your term, it’s imperative that you really understand it. If you base your essay on your single perspective or preconceived notion, you don’t benefit your reader. Research, so that you can take a well-rounded approach. 

You might consider starting your research with an online dictionary. This is a good way to understand the most common and most understood definition. From there, you can explore different ways the word is interpreted, its origins, and other elements that make it so complex. Research, for example, how the word has been used in literature. You can even find relevant quotes using that term or research its use in political speeches. Check out some definition essay examples to learn more.

Definition Essay Outline

Unless your instructor tells you otherwise, your definition essay will have an introduction, body, and conclusion. By writing an outline, you create the structure for that. Here are the elements that you’ll need for your outline.

Introduction: Share the term that you’ll be exploring. Consider adding a hook or example that demonstrates why the word needs an in-depth definition. Provide your thesis.

Body Paragraphs: Explore the term in the body of your essay. Include the main ideas that you plan to cover. Add some supporting ideas for each based on your research and knowledge.

Conclusion: Restate your thesis for your audience. Then include some clearly defined points that demonstrate how each of your main ideas work together to support that thesis. Close with a call to action or powerful statement.

Writing Your Definition Essay Rough Draft

You’ve created your outline. Now it’s time to expand on that and create your rough draft. In an extended definition essay, that will begin with your introductory paragraph. Start by working out the hook you defined in your outline. Make sure it gives your paper a compelling opening. Next, move onto introducing the topic, and why you’re exploring it. Finally, share your thesis. What idea related to your chosen term will you support in the body of your essay.

Once you’ve written your intro, begin working on your body paragraphs. Expand on the points you detailed in your outline. Add sourced data to back up your claims. Explore the important aspects of the word or phrase.

Best definition paper topics

  1. Is being lazy a habit and is it possible to break?
  2. What it means to be a good person?
  3. What makes an equal society?
  4. Can a famous person be considered sucessful?
  5. Where is the poverty line and how can one cross it?
Send topics by mail?

Writing Your Definition Essay Final Draft

Your final draft is the copy of your definition paragraph essay that you will turn in for a grade. Because of that, it must be on point. Start by reviewing your assignment paperwork. You don’t want to receive any points deducted because you have a missing title page, or you are short on the required number of words. This is a good time to check your citations as well.

Now, take a few minutes for a thorough spelling and grammar check. Use the tool that comes with your word processing software, but don’t rely only on that. There’s nothing that replaces reading through your paper or having another student take a look. This is why peer review is so important in academic writing.

Finally, it’s time for a gut check.

Is your definition paper honest? Have you given all valid perspectives consideration? Have you left your own prejudices and preconceived notions behind? Have you clearly communicated how the word or phrase has made an impact?

How to Write a Definition Essay: Writing Tips

Let’s close out with some additional writing tips. 

  • Avoid revealing too much in your intro. Save that for the body of your essay.
  • Use good examples when exploring your word or phrase.
  • Never use the terms ‘is when’ or ‘is where’.
  • Consider the perspective of your audience when providing explanations.

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