How to Write a Definition Essay with Confidence

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POP QUIZ!

How confident are you right now in your ability to write a killer definition essay?

A. Super-confident. I can write a great essay with one hand tied behind my back.

B. Reasonably confident. I’d probably need both hands to type my paper.

C. Completely lacking in confidence. I couldn’t write a good paper right now unless I had an extra hand.

If you picked A or B, you probably have a good understanding of how to write a definition essay, but you should keep reading anyway. You might just learn a tip or two!

If you picked C, that’s okay too. I’m here to lend a helping hand and boost your writing confidence.

How to Write A Definition Essay With Confidence

definition essay
“Thermometer – Confidence Level” by Vic, Flickr.com (CC BY 2.0)

Step 1: Pick a word or concept to define

Picking the right word or concept to define is a crucial step in writing a definition essay, so choose carefully.

Say you choose “pencil” as the topic of your definition essay. After you’ve written something like “a writing instrument” as your definition, what’s left to say? Exactly. Not much.

This means that basic nouns—such as pencil, cow, or corn—usually aren’t good topic choices for a definition essay.

Instead, choose a word that is a bit more abstract and can mean something different to just about everyone.

Perhaps you choose “home” as the topic for your paper. With this topic, there’s so much more to write about beyond the standard dictionary definition of “a dwelling or place of residence.”

A house might be limited to this definition, but a home can be so much more than simply a place to live. To some, home will always be the place where they grew up. To others, home is any place where their family might be. Still others might travel a lot and feel home is wherever they sleep for the night.

Bonus tip on choosing topics: Pick a topic you know something about. If you think Baroque is defined as having no money, then you probably shouldn’t try to define the Baroque style of music.

Step 2: Choose appropriate definition patterns

definition essay
“Deciding Which Door to Choose 2” by Vic, Flickr.com (CC BY 2.0)

While a basic dictionary might be included as part of your discussion, you should focus on writing your own definition. Provide readers with a fresh perspective or new insights into the term.

How exactly do you write your own definition of a word?

You can choose from and combine four basic patterns to write a definition.

  1. Define by function
  2. Define by structure
  3. Define by analysis
  4. Define by what the word doesn’t mean

Let’s dive into those in more detail.

1. Define by function

Explain how something works or what it does.

If you’re defining a tangible object, such as a cellphone, you might explain how it works or its purpose. For instance, you might briefly explain various features—such as apps, texting, calling, and the camera—but your real focus would likely be its function in society. How do people use phones? What do they mean to people?

You might also choose a topic that is far more abstract, such as the term “justice.” In this case, think about the function of justice in society. How does justice work? What does it accomplish?

2. Define by structure

Describe its parts, how something is put together, or how it’s organized.

Again, if you’re writing about an object, such as a computer, you could describe its parts and how it’s put together, but your focus would be a larger discussion, such as its function in the workplace. (This is an excellent example of how you can combine patterns to create an extended definition.)

If your paper’s focus is something a little more subjective, such as “the perfect party,” you can explain what parts make up the perfect party, how you put the party together, and/or how you should organize it. Here, you could also combine patterns and include a discussion of the function of a party on a college campus.

3. Define by analysis

Explain how the term fits into a larger group, how it’s similar, and how it’s different from others in the group.

Using this pattern, you create a definition that explains how your term is either similar to or different from the larger group. For instance, if you’re defining “a terrible professor,” you might compare the professor to other professors at the college.

What makes a terrible professor so terrible? Do terrible professors have different course policies than the non-terrible professors? Are their grading scales a nightmare? Do they run their classes like a military boot camp?

4. Define by what the term does not mean

Explain what the word is not.

In some cases, it’s easier to explain what something is not rather than what it is.

For instance, it might be hard to define the perfect date. It might be easier, and more effective, to explain what the perfect date is not.

Maybe the perfect date doesn’t spend the entire evening complaining about her roommate. Maybe the perfect date is a guy who doesn’t spend the whole night checking sports scores and the progress of his fantasy football team.

Step 3: Support the definition with clear and specific examples

Examples are the evidence you’ll use to support your case and create your definition. They are essentially the body of your paper.

Choose examples that are easy to understand and written in clear, specific language. This will allow readers to relate to your writing, thus creating a more effective definition (and a better essay).

Here’s a an easy-to-relate-to example to help illustrate my point.

Let’s define a “good professor.”

You could start with defining by analysis. Explain how this type of professor fits into the larger group of professors on campus.

  • You might explain that a good professor provides study guides a week before exams to help students prepare.
  • A good professor also has interesting and engaging lectures to help you stay awake through three-hour classes. Here, you could include an example of a history professor who dressed up in period costumes and lectured as if he actually took part in the Civil War.

You could then switch to another pattern and explain what a good professor is not.

  • You might explain that a good professor doesn’t lock the door at precisely 8:00 a.m. when the class starts and refuse to let anyone in after class begins.
  • You might include a brief example about the time you overslept for your 8:00 a.m. literature class but rushed across campus in a desperate attempt to make it on time. When you arrived, breathless, at 8:04 a.m., you found the door locked with the professor lecturing. When you knocked, the professor came to the door to tell you class had started, refused to let you in, and promptly closed the door in your face.
  • You could then explain how a good professor isn’t one who has no compassion or understanding that circumstances sometimes prevent people from being exactly on time and that a good professor would encourage people to attend class, even if they needed to be a few minutes late.

See how all of these examples help readers move beyond a standard dictionary definition and express your definition of a good professor?

Need to see a few more examples before you dive in to write your own essay? Check out these example definition essays:

Definition of the Ancient Nubian Civilization

The Essence of Christmas

Courage: A Major Characteristic of a Hero

The Definition of Freedom

Pop Quiz #2

definition essay
“Exam” by Alberto G., Flickr.com (CC BY 2.0)

Now how confident are you in your ability to write a killer definition essay?

A. Amazingly confident. I can write this paper in my sleep.

B. Tremendously confident. I can write the paper while watching a Simpson’s marathon.

C. Both of these are correct. I’m amazingly, tremendously confident I can write a killer definition essay under just about any circumstances.

What? You’re confident you can write the paper but don’t know what to write about, you say? Don’t worry, I can help with that too.

Read this post with 20 topics that go beyond the obvious to get some inspiration for your own definition essay, or check out How to Write an Essay on Just About Anything. Maybe even try some prewriting strategies to get all your thoughts on paper first.

Now, with your confidence levels at an all-time high, it’s time to get to work on that paper!

If you’re looking for a little more help and need some constructive feedback once you have your definition essay drafted, I’m confident a Kibin editor will be happy to help.

Best of luck!

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