How to Write a Definition Essay

Writing a definition essay may seem like easy work at first glance. When tasked with a definition essay, students of high school and colleges often underestimate the difficulty of this seemingly easy assignment.

The key challenge when writing a definition essay is to choose the right topic, i.e. the best word to define, which will allow you to create a great essay. However, before we even begin talking about the details of successful definition essay writing, let’s review the basics and define the term itself.

What is it?

The definition essay is just one type of many other types of essays. It requires a writer to provide a definition of a particular term, concept, notion, or phenomenon. Usually, the word in focus is provided by the course instructor or at least students are given a choice of several words. However, sometimes, the choice of the topic word is the responsibility of students. The latter option holds much better potential for writing a fantastic essay, as students are free to choose what to write about.

The task of a definition essay is to reveal the meaning of the topic word. The writers must use all their knowledge and eloquence to look at the words from different angles and to lay their thoughts on paper. Their writing should be lengthy and thorough. Simple words are not the best choice for this type of essay, whereas complex and difficult words, which mean multiple things to different people, are the most promising candidates.       

Different Types of Definition Essay

Despite its seeming simplicity, the definition essay is complex enough to be categorized into several distinct types. A particular type may be specified by your teacher, but in most cases, students are free to choose the type they like the most.

  • Classification definition essay. Students are required to select and characterize the class to which the given topic word belongs. For instance, does this word come from foreign words or is it a local word?
  • Analysis definition essay. The task of the student is to analyze the origin and/or the composition of the word in focus. Where does the word come from? What is it made of? Can you break it into smaller pieces?
  • Compare and contrast definition essay. How does the given word/term compare to other similar words in meaning and purpose? Are there better words at hand to describe the same concept/notion?
  • Cause and origin definition essay. The writer may also choose to research the origin of the given word. Who was the founder of the given word? What kind of events have led to the establishment and popularization of this word?     

How to Choose the Right Word for Your Definition Essay

By choosing words, you are essentially choosing your topic. If you select a very simple and short word, which has a very narrow meaning – it will not allow you to make a great essay out of it. Also, even if you select a fantastic word, but describe it in a dry and formalist manner (as all the others before you did), e.g. by sticking to an encyclopedia definition, nothing good will come out of it. Below are several important recommendations on how to choose the right words for your definition essay:

  • Usually, simple nouns that refer to a thing, person, or place are not the best choice. They are too simple to write about;
  • The words that denote complex concepts should be your primary focus, as they typically mean various things to different people. For example, the word “freedom” will have its own meaning to various people from different backgrounds and from different cultures.

Promising Ideas for Definition Essay Topics

The following list was composed by combining the most highly rated topics from various open sources. We don’t claim it to be the most comprehensive and exhaustive list out there, but it will give you a great idea of where to begin when tasked with a definition essay:

  • Free rights
  • Justice
  • The purpose of life
  • Business ethics
  • Moral values
  • Religion
  • Aggression
  • Love
  • Intelligence
  • Social education
  • Professionalism
  • Free will
  • Bioengineering
  • Success
  • Chaos
  • Democracy
  • Bullying

Components of a Definition Essay

A decent definition essay should contain at least three of the following components:

  • Origin of the term. Without an in-depth walk into the history of the term, its origin, whoever created it, and under which circumstances, your definition essay would always be incomplete.
  • Comprehensive analysis of the term. To make your definition essay interesting for the reader, you have to make a thorough analysis of the term. This may include interpretations of all possible meanings of the term, different people’s take on it, decomposition of the word into smaller parts, etc.
  • A clear classification. If the term belongs to a larger family of similar terms and falls into a distinct class – these nuances should be all made clear.
  • Examples. Almost a necessary element of a good definition essay is a good example (ideally several examples). Provide concrete sentences with the term to make its meaning clear to your readers.
  • Synonyms and antonyms. Where does the term stand in terms of synonyms? How many synonyms does it have? Are there any better or worse ones? The same goes for antonyms. 
Synonyms and Antonyms

The Structure of a Definition Essay

Unlike the components mentioned above, the structure of a good definition essay must contain ALL of the following elements:

  1. Introduction. In the introduction, one should provide a standard definition of the term (taken from an encyclopedia or a dictionary). This will tell the audience about the commonly accepted understanding of the term, and make your own definition and understanding (if available) stand out.
  2. A thesis statement. This is where you introduce an intrigue. Here you should provide your own understanding of the term or indicate the possible problems/shortcomings with the standard understanding.
  3. The main body. Use your analysis, personal experiences, or logical thinking to explain your definition of the term. If your definition is a complex one and can be broken into several parts – allow at least a paragraph of text for each part.
  4. Conclusion. In this final part, you should summarize your main points and briefly include the key findings. 

The Challenges of Definition Essay Writing

Even when you have chosen a good word as your definition essay topic and all the steps and components of a good definition essay are clear, there are still many challenges waiting for an inexperienced writer around the corner.

Firstly, it is a challenge associated with time management. Many students waste too much time before they start planning their essays. Others, waste time once they have finished all the planning activities and think that they are halfway done. Whether this is due to simple underestimation of the available time or due to some unforeseen circumstances and heavy workload with other tasks, many students lack time to complete their definition essay with good quality.

Another frequent challenge is associated with poor writing skills in general. After all, not everyone is born with writing talent, and many are much more successful in scientific and lab work, doing something with their hands. In any case, training in writing skills can help, especially, if one knows where to find a good training partner.