Definition is an important part of overall communication. We use definition often when explaining the meaning of something to someone else. Definition includes the actual meaning of a word listed in a dictionary, a person’s perceived meaning of a word, synonyms of a word and what the word does not mean. Definition essays are commonly assigned in first-year college writing courses so that students learn to effectively explain the meaning of a word or phrase.

Choose a term that you are interested in defining. There are many ways of defining any term, so you can write several different types of definition essays: a historical definition examines the various meanings that a word has had over an extended period of time; a negative definition tells readers both what the term means and what it does not mean; a restrictive definition limits your discussion by telling readers exactly which angle you will be examining or how you will be using the term; an objective definition informs readers by emphasizing the term itself; a subjective definition persuades readers by focusing on your opinions or perceptions of the term – the way you want to define it. Think about what type of definition will work best for your audience.

Gather information about the term that you have chosen. Decide what type of details and examples that you want to include in your essay.

Develop a thesis statement that clearly states the term that is being defined and your method of definition. Remember that a thesis should be only one sentence and should let the reader know exactly what to expect from your essay.

Write an introduction that orients the reader to what will follow in the essay. The thesis should also be listed in the introduction.

Write well-developed body paragraphs that support the thesis. Be sure to fully define your term by using the definition method that you have outlined in your thesis.

Organize the body in a way that best works with your method of definition – chronologically, emphatically, visually and others.

Write a conclusion that sums up the essay’s main points and restates the thesis. Make it clear in the conclusion exactly what you want the reader to do with this information. Why should readers care about this term and its definition?


For more information about definition essays, check out Cheryl Glenn’s book Making Sense: A Real-World Rhetorical Reader (ISBN 0-312-41959-7).

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