Writing a Definition Essay

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In a definition essay, you explain the meaning of a certain term by giving a detailed description of it, and support your definition with clear examples or facts. Such explanations are needed if a term is special, abstract, disputed or does not have a common meaning. For instance, individuals can interpret the definition of the words ‘freedom’ or ‘abuse’ quite differently.

Steps for Writing a Definition Essay

  1. Choose a term that you want to define and introduce it to your readers. This can be done in several ways, but your main goal at the outset is to indicate the contents of your paper clearly.
  2. Use several sources (dictionaries or encyclopedias) to see how the term you have chosen is usually defined. Then think of a way to combine or merge them to give your own, unique definition.
  3. Present the term you’ve chosen to your readers in the introductory part of your paper.
  4. In the main body paragraphs, provide your readers with information about the term. Along with your own description, you can point out some cases in which this term is used, as well as historical information about its origins and the evolution of its use in literature. Also, you can highlight any common mistakes in its definition.
  5. Think of a couple of sound examples that will fully illustrate and explain your definition.

Topic Selection

There are plenty of terms that we use every day. Many of them are clear to almost everybody, but still there is a vast body of abstract or scientific terms that can become a topic of discussion. While all of us know what a phone, TV or dog is, concepts such as happiness, faith, love or calmness may be difficult for some people to grasp. Some terms that could be chosen as a topic for your definition essay are listed below:

  • Love
  • God
  • Hatred
  • Beauty
  • Morale
  • Good and evil
  • Enlightment
  • Happiness
  • Confidence
  • Intelligence

Key Points to Consider

  1. Remember that giving a definition is not just copying what has been written in other dictionaries. If you cannot define a new meaning for some concept on your own, then use the definition that already exists, but give your own interpretation of it.
  2. Choose terms that you understand, or ones that have impacted your own personal experience. Do not try to define a term that you don’t understand, or else you will confuse your readers with the wrong explanation.
  3. You can define a term by explaining its functions, structure or nature. You can also define the term by specifying what it does not mean, or by comparing it with other members of the same class of words and emphasizing the differences.
  4. Follow a determined structure. It would be logical to present your term in the introduction, give extended explanations in the main body paragraphs, and end with brief conclusions.

Do and Don’t


  • Do narrow the term if it has an excessively wide meaning. For instance, you might need to write many pages to define the term ‘fear’ adequately, but if you limit your topic to ‘panic fear,’ it will be much easier for you to craft your essay.
  • Do look for solid transitions to connect the parts of your essay together.
  • Do try to think of a definition that would be uniquely yours. Don’t be afraid to be creative in giving non-standard explanations – that approach should be encouraged.
  • Do proofread your essay carefully to avoid factual mistakes.

  • Don’t use definitions like: ‘X is when’ or ‘Y is where.’ Try to make you definitions look more scientific. For example, compare these two definitions: “Totalitarianism is when the state tries to control the society” and “Totalitarianism is a political regime which presumes that the state holds authority over society and controls various aspects of its life such as….”
  • Don’t try to write a paper on too narrow of a topic or a well-known, obvious term.
  • Do not write in an overly-detailed manner. However, don’t be too brief either. Consider the word limit of your essay before you begin writing.
  • Don’t repeat the defined term within the bounds of the definition itself. No one will appreciate your prose if you write along the lines of ‘Swine flu is a flu that people can catch from swines.’

Common Mistakes When Writing a Definition Essay

- Trying to define a term that is too broad in scope for the essay.

- Forgetting to emphasize the term that one is defining. In this case, it may be hard for the readers to understand what your essay is ultimately about.

- Writing about terms that are well-known and which do not have conflicting interpretations.

- Ignoring the necessity of examples. No matter how detailed and clear your definition is, without concrete examples, it may be difficult for readers to understand how or when a certain term should be used.

- Copying the existing definition word-by-word. Instead, reinterpret the meaning. Do not be afraid to use your own thoughts on a new, unique definition.

Now that you have acquainted yourself with the basic definition essay writing tips and rules, you can check out our definition essay samples to link theory with practice.


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Samples for Writing a Definition Essay

The True Meaning of Absurd

The term absurd is used when an individual faces an occurrence that is beyond his or her comprehension, when he or she is anxious, or cannot deal with a certain issue (Fen 23). It would be rather fair to say that, in many cases, people avoid makin...

Differences Between Religion and Faith

Times when religion played a major role in the lives of common people in Europe and the United States have gone long ago. Nowadays, religion is just one of the social institutions (perhaps, even facultative institutions) performing certain functions, namel...


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