How to Write a Definition Essay (2018 Edition)

definition essay
  • Last Edited: July 19, 2018

Being assigned a definition essay might seem impossible or just plain weird. Most students are acquainted with definitions as paragraph long statements that provide illumination on the meaning of a particular word. How on earth can you write an entire essay on a definition? It’s totally possible, actually, and even enjoyable to craft an entire definition essay. This means that you’re going deep and examining a word, subject, phenomenon, pattern, tendency, or factor, from all angles—or very intensely from one particular angle. A definition allows you to reach mastery or enlightenment when it comes to a particular theme. Once you get the hang of what is expected from you when writing this type of essay, you’re bound to really enjoy it. A definition essay gives you the best of both worlds: simplicity and singularity of focus, yet the ability to forge your analysis in depth.

What is a Definition Essay?

At its simplest, a definition essay offers a thorough elucidation about the meaning of a word, theory, or other aspect of human behavior or human existence. Some definition essays will have very one-dimensional, direct explanations such as ones that discuss what a nine iron is and when to use it, or what a telegram was and why it was used. Other definition essays might be much more subjective or figurative, discussing the meaning of art or postmodernism, or valor, or progress. Some teachers might give you the freedom of assessing a thing from any perspective, or others might assign you an exact angle that they want your definition essay to be focused upon.

Your goal in writing such an essay is not to just give a tiresome elongated definition like you’re some sort of dictionary on speed. Rather, your goal should be to provide a level of illumination and insight on the topic that the reader has never been acquainted with before. Definition essays need to be very detailed and the details need to be supported with examples and historical or current facts to add to the sense of edification. Examples are key with definition essays if you are describing something very esoteric or very abstract.

For example, if you’re describing the first phonograph, explaining what it looked like, the first things played on it, and the need for it in the era is essential. If you’re discussing what forgiveness is, giving classic examples from history, literature or even your own life can assist in a illustrating your points and the overall nuances of your argument. For instance, certain people view the meaning of the words “codependency” or “wealth” or “privilege” or “prestige” with great distinction. That’s fine, it just means that there will likely need to be more illustration on your part as the writer that sheds light on why you interpret a particular term in a particular way.

How to Write a Definition Essay

1. Select the concept that will be the focus of your essay, if your teacher gives you that liberty. Always choose something that you are inherently interested in: this is crucial. If you have the freedom to pick your own topic, you have to pick something that you would be happy doing hours and hours of research on, without fail. If the topic is assigned to you, take a minute to examine it deeply and think about the best way you would introduce it to your readers.

2. Craft your hook around the topic, concept, word or phenomenon. Your hook can be an anecdote, quote, fact, statistic or other attention-grabbing device that both introduces the concept but also piques the interest of the reader.

3. Offer the standard definitions of the concept of your paper. These will be the more rudimentary definitions of the term that the reader might be familiar with. These terms are also the ones that are commonly found in the dictionary.

4. Present your more nuanced, detailed and insightful definition as the last sentence of your introduction and as your fundamental thesis for the paper.

5. Craft a topic sentence for each body paragraph that demonstrates how you will offer more information about the concept or thing. For example, if you’re writing a definition essay on love, one topic paragraph could be dedicated to fraternal love, and another topic sentence could be dedicated to familial love. On the other hand, if you’re writing about something more abstract, like “inner peace” you could do a topic sentence on the self-acceptance aspect of inner peace. An additional topic sentence and paragraph could be about the non-competitive nature of inner peace.

6. Offer a topic sentence and paragraph about the historical information regarding a term or thing, if relevant. You might also want to distinguish common ways in which this concept or thing is commonly misunderstood.

7. Give examples when appropriate. Illustrating your points and the nuances attached to each facet of this concept or thing can be nebulous at times without examples. Examples can offer some much needed clarity on the issues, creating a great sense of comprehension.

8. Summarize your main points in a concluding paragraph. You can’t include every point that you’ve made in the essay, but you can include the major ones. Make sure to use new words so that you don’t sound repetitive and so that it doesn’t seem like you are repeating yourself.

Definition Essay Outline

Creating an outline for your definition essay is an extremely wise idea. This will do more than simply help you to organize your ideas. It will give you a safe space to brainstorm and to really think “out of the box” when it comes to the examination that you will craft regarding a concept or thing. Part of the challenge of writing a good definition essay is coming up with something original to say. An outline can give you a place to think of ideas and arrange your thoughts so you have clear transitions. Then you can take a step back and look at your outline, and determine if it gives a cohesive and insightful picture of the thing being defined.

Most importantly, the outline makes sure you won’t get stuck during the actual writing of your essay. This is particularly significant because in writing a definition essay, it’s easy to hit a dead end when it comes to exploring a particular arena of interpretation. An outline ensures that you have a clear thesis, topic statements and supporting examples.

Outline Example #1

#1. What is Self-Esteem?

I. Introduction: Rudimentary definitions of self-esteem.

Thesis: Self-esteem is being aware of one’s flaws and shortcomings and still loving oneself and attempting to engage in both self-improvement and self- acceptance.

II. Acknowledging one’s flaws is crucial to developing self-esteem.

  1. Awareness is the foundation of self-esteem
  2. Great leaders with self awareness- Winston Churchill, Abraham Lincoln, etc.
  3. Self esteem gives one an accurate view of oneself so that one can create an accurate view of the world.

III. Self-esteem is the balance between self-acceptance and self-improvement.

  1. Commit to becoming better but not perfect.
  2. Some of the greatest historical leaders all had flaws that never went away- Anna Wintour, Benjamin Franklin, etc.
  3. Sometimes our flaws enhance our virtues or increase our humanity.

IV. Self-esteem is crucial for both surviving and thriving in the world.

  1. If you can’t love and appreciate yourself, you can’t love and appreciate other people.
  2. People who make the same mistakes over and over again often suffer from self-esteem issues. Example: serial cheaters, criminals, people with addiction issues.
  3. Self-esteem is the foundation of all success. Some of the people who have had this biggest imprint on the world have high self-esteem: Serena Williams, Oprah Winfrey, J.K. Rowling, Bill Gates, the Google founders.

V. Conclusion

Self-esteem is not about trying to be perfect or appreciating one’s perfection. It is a delicate dance between acceptance and improvement for these reasons: awareness, realistic perspective, and allowing ones shortcomings to enhance one’s connection with others.

Outline Example #2

#2.  What is a Cheongsam?

I. A cheongsam is a traditional woman’s Chinese dress.

Thesis: A cheongsam is a historical garment of Chinese culture that represents the acceleration of women’s rights and social freedom.

II. The invention of the garment coincided with the dissolution of the Qing dynasty, a signal of the destruction of traditional values.

  1. 1912-1920s: Chinese individuals began to demand a more democratic and fairer society, including more freedom for women.
  2. A rejection of things like foot binding was a manifestation of this period.
  3. Women were allowed into educational institutions in the 1920s, opening up more possibilities for them in life.

III. The cheongsam was embraced by women in the 1920s that lived in metropolitan centers in China, signaling a collusion between women’s liberation and the structure of the garment.

  1. The original garment of the 1920s was looser with wider sleeves, signaling greater social and professional freedoms for women.
  2. Women experimented with accessorizing it, dressing it up and down.
  3. The garment became a hallmark of the dress of the modern women of this era, connecting it with this unique time in history.

IV. The popularity of the cheongsam today is connected with its design and history.

  1. Cheongsam is worn by woman in nations all over the world. It can be interpreted as a unifying garment celebrating women’s independence.
  2. The garment allows for creative expression through different fabrics, slits, and fastenings.
  3. The garment’s versatility celebrates women’s sensuality, creativity and life possibilities.

V. Conclusion: The cheongsam is a part of women’s history and liberation in China. It is a symbol of the loosening of the many figurative shackles that suppressed them. It coincided with greater social and political freedoms for women, allowing them to forge a more concrete path for themselves. The effectiveness of the garment is seen in how it is still worn today and all over the world.

Definition Essay Introduction

It’s pivotal that the introduction to your definition essay give the reader adequate acquaintance with the subject or thing being defined. Providing the most basic definition or definitions allows for a solid foundation of understanding between the reader and writer. Then, explaining why these basic definitions aren’t quite good enough is essential to do. A few sentences that demonstrate the fallibility or narrowness of these basic definitions can help create a sense of interest or urgency on the part of the reader to know more. This lets the reader know why this essay is necessary and why it’s important to go deeper and what can be gained from doing so. The introduction should then present the thesis of the paper in the final sentence. This sentence will provide a more multi-faceted definition of the concept or thing, giving a hint of the exploration that is to come.

Introduction Example #1

The dictionary defines self-esteem as “confidence and satisfaction in oneself” connecting it with a concept like self-respect. While true, this definition isn’t entirely accurate. Psychologists would refer to self-esteem as a term harnessed to refer to “a person’s overall sense of self-worth or personal value. In other words, how much you appreciate and like yourself” (Cherry, 2017). Again, this definition is overly simplistic and does not fully acknowledge the many things that self-esteem can encapsulate. The reason these definitions are so problematic is because they’re narrow, and they essentially cap all the many possibilities of self-esteem that can be utilized once it is properly understood. Self-esteem is the realization of one’s imperfections and strengths, and an acceptance of both with an ongoing attempt at self-improvement within reason.

Introduction Example #2

The cheongsam is defined as a one-piece garment for women, which has its origins in China. Other definitions might acknowledge that it is a dress that often has a sleek or snug fit and that it can come in an array of bright colors, often made of a silky shiny fabric. While both these definitions are correct, the problem with them is that they don’t properly acknowledge the historical background of the garment and the significance that shapes what the garment stands for. The cheongsam is a garment that symbolizes a destruction of damaging traditional values, liberation of women’s freedoms and a development of more gender equity in society. Viewing the garment in this manner allows one to understand why it has succeeded within the test of time.

Definition Essay Thesis Statement

The thesis statement of your definition essay is something that gives you the ability to redefine a term in a manner that is more nuanced and wider. This means that you have the power to give your reader a deeper and more meaningful understanding of a concept or thing, as so many dictionaries and databases in the world don’t do this. So many of the simple dictionary definitions of a term don’t properly acknowledge the other attributes or historical influences on a term or item. Your thesis statement is so vital as it allows you to crack open the scope of something, empowering readers to understand it in a deeper and more substantial manner.

View your thesis statement as something that expands on the original definition of a idea or thing. If the most basic definition is like a scoop of ice cream, your thesis is like a hot fudge sundae.

Thesis Statement Example #1

Success

While many definitions of success define it as financial freedom and accomplishments within a specific career, these ideas are too narrow. Success means being satisfied with the end results of your efforts according to your own personal system of values, and that every step on the proverbial road to your end goal were within your comfort zone.

Thesis Statement Example #2

What is a Parasol?

Even though some view a parasol as a mere umbrella, the object gives us a slice of how members of generations from the 16th century and onwards viewed class and race. The parasol speaks volumes about how society viewed the necessity of a constant sunshade for one to have on hand to prevent the darkening of the skin’s pigments, particularly for the upper classes.

Definition Essay Topics

Middle School Definition Essay Topics

  • What is friendship?
  • What is forgiveness?
  • What is help?
  • What is despair?
  • What is youth?
  • What is art?
  • What is divine?
  • What is perfection?
  • What is failure?
  • What is success?
  • What is beauty?
  • What is peace?
  • What is wisdom?
  • What is understanding?
  • What is anxiety?
  • What is pressure?
  • What is friendship?
  • What is comedy?
  • What is horror?
  • What is privacy?
  • What is bravery?
  • What is a quill?
  • What is a corset?
  • What is a walking stick?
  • What is a telegram?
  • What is a bowler hat?
  • What is musket?
  • What is a tornado?
  • What is a riptide?
  • What is poverty?
  • What is safety?
  • What is well-being?

High School Definition Essay Topics

  • What is suffering?
  • What is truth?
  • What is honor?
  • What is strength?
  • What is freedom?
  • What is unconditional love?
  • What is infatuation?
  • What is triumph?
  • What is dependency?
  • What is innovation?
  • What is rage?
  • What is self-acceptance?
  • What is self-love?
  • What are expectations?
  • What is leadership?
  • What is a penny black?
  • What is a phonograph?
  • What are fire bellows?
  • What is Yorkshire pudding?
  • What is a hurricane lamp?
  • What is a petticoat?
  • What is a bonnet?
  • What is a waistcoat?
  • What is a chamber pot?
  • What is a butter churner?
  • What is a prodigy?
  • What is a sociopath?
  • What is a psychopath?
  • What is a narcissist?
  • What is a tsunami?
  • What is a hurricane?
  • What is a black hole?
  • What is an asteroid?
  • What is a monsoon?
  • What is an avalanche?
  • What is a sinkhole?
  • What is a flood?
  • What is a drought?
  • What is a volcanic eruption?
  • What is a blizzard?
  • What is thunderstorm?
  • What is a heat wave?
  • What is racism?
  • What is sexism?
  • What is misogyny?
  • What is xenophobia?
  • What is hatred?
  • What is bias?
  • What is bigotry?

College Definition Essay Topics

  • What is surreal?
  • What is bizarre?
  • What is selflessness?
  • What is nurturing?
  • What is maternal/paternal?
  • What is fraternal?
  • What is sublime?
  • What is neuroticism?
  • What is compulsion?
  • What is altruism?
  • What is an enabler?
  • What is a wringer/mangler?
  • What is a coal stove?
  • What is postmortem photography?
  • What is a bottle jack?
  • What is a dance card?
  • What is a bayonet?
  • What is a lithograph?
  • What is borderline personality disorder?
  • What is histrionic personality disorder?
  • What is avoidant personality disorder?
  • What is obsessive-compulsive personality disorder?
  • What is an anti-social personality disorder?
  • What is an airburst?
  • What is a solar flare?
  • What is a hailstorm?
  • What is evolution?
  • What is progress?
  • What was the industrial revolution?
  • What is competition?
  • What is a recession?
  • What is an economic boom?
  • What is an economic crisis?
  • What is a systemic issue?
  • What is a systemic obstacle?
  • What is religious fanaticism?
  • What is corruption?
  • What is equality/inequality?

Current Events Definition Essay Topics

  • What is the Electoral College?
  • What is the system of checks and balances?
  • What is authoritarianism?
  • What is a democracy?
  • What is a republic?
  • What is tyranny?
  • What is climate change?
  • What is global warming?
  • What is NATO?
  • What is the Paris Accord?
  • What is social media?
  • What is self-esteem?
  • What is the Press?
  • What are the rights of the press?
  • What is freedom of speech?

Definition Essay Example

What is Terrorism?

Terrorism is a term that the baby boomer generation didn’t have to grow up with, much like the way the youths of that generation were shielded from other forms of ugliness in the world, such as AIDS, global warming, and social media addiction. The average dictionary will define terrorism as a noun, stating that it is “the unlawful use of violence and intimidation, especially against civilians, in the pursuit of political aims.” While this definition is accurate, it also is painfully narrow and continues to underestimate the intense power that terrorism can wield. A more accurate definition of terrorism would be: politically motivated acts of extreme violence as a means of intimidating members of society, while putting a black mark on history in order to gain attention. It’s important to emphasize the sense of extremity when defining the violence of a terrorist attack as the reach and impact of such an act is extremely far and wide.

One of the key elements of terrorism and in properly defining terrorism is found in the single term: terror. A single act of terror is meant to be a message heard all over the world. It is meant to not merely incite fear in others, but deep psychological disturbance. Many scholars argue over what differentiates a hate crime from an act of terror. There is some overlap between the two: both are motivated by an agenda or dogma and both rely on violence as a means of intimidating others. The media labeled the Sutherland Springs church shooting that occurred in autumn of 2017 a hate crime. Many people objected to this, saying that with two dozen people killed it was an act of terrorism. Fait Muedini professor of international studies professor at Butler University in Indianapolis asserts that “Where a lot of scholars tend to agree is that it’s some sort of politically motivated violence against non-combatants with the intention of causing societal fear” (Godlasky, 2017). Hence, a bunch of skinheads beating up a few black teenagers at a shopping mall is more likely to be a hate crime, even though its meant to intimidate black teenagers everywhere, because there’s more of an element of spontaneity to it. The thought and careful selection inherent within the Sutherland Springs shooting makes it more fitting to be characterized as an act of terrorism because such a move aligns the killer with movements in the U.S. that have religious ideologies, even if the shooter does not specifically align himself formally with these ideologies. While the death toll was localized to the small church, the ugliness of the act meant that it was indeed an act of terror as the message would be heard all over the nation: you are not safe even in churches.

The Oklahoma City Bombing was another example of the power of homegrown terrorism as it was waged on Americans by other Americans. In fact, Timothy J. McVeigh and Terry L. Nichols, both who were former U.S. Army Soldiers, were the ones responsible for the attack. In killing 168 people—including 19 children—this was an attack of extreme violence. This act of evil showed that wide scale violence in support of a major agenda is one of the defining characteristics of terrorism. Both McVeigh and Nichols were devotees to both the extreme right wing and militant patriot movement. These beliefs attempted to dismiss the validity of the federal government and the police force (CNN.com). The FBI concluded that part of the motivation to engage in this attack was to avenge the events at Waco. The fact that a government building was targeted in the attack comes as no surprise, however the fact that children were also targeted makes the act of violence specific to an act of terrorism. Terrorism proclaims that no one is safe; no life is spared and no one will be protected, not even the most innocent members of society, children. Such an act of terrorism is designed to sink deep into the psychological wellness of all members of society. When children end up being the casualties of an attack in large numbers, it ends up sending a message to people all over the world: you are not safe. An attack of such ruthlessness can easily weaken a nation or society to its very core.

Finally, the tragedy of September 11, 2001 demonstrates the dark power of a terrorist attack. Aside from the 2977 people that were killed in New York, Washington DC and Shanksville, there was an enormous amount of lasting structural, financial and emotional damage done to New York and Washington DC and the citizens that reside there. This was an attack of unheard of proportions and one that impacted one of the nation’s major hubs of economic prosperity. The scale of the attack meant that a veil of insecurity dropped over the entire nation. People were afraid to fly. Some thought all of lower Manhattan had dropped into the ocean and was obliterated. Consider the following: “$500,000 – Estimated amount of money it cost to plan and execute the 9/11 attacks. $123 billion – Estimated economic loss during the first 2-4 weeks after the World Trade Center towers collapsed in New York City, as well as decline in airline travel over next few years” (CNN.com). This is some of the concrete power of a terrorist attack. This is some of the last damage that it can incur with a reach that is far and wide. The reconstruction of the New York skyline is another one of the tragic aspects of this attack and almost acts as a form of branding: it’s forever seared into the legacy and history of the city because the very appearance of the city was forever altered.

All these factors considered, an act of terror expands upon an action of hatred or a hate crime in order to tear a hole into the space-time continuum, securing a legacy for itself. While a hate crime seeks to intimidate its victims and all people like them, an act of terrorism seeks to wield its senseless fear into every single human. An act of terrorism spares no one. Even the people who are not immediately afflicted by its violence will find that they too suffer from some sort of psychological disturbance, even if they are unable to articulate it. Acts of terrorism seek to destroy their victims and to intimidate members of society in the name of a particular social, religious, or political belief system. In the case of the Sutherland Springs shooting, the motivation was no doubt religious. In the case of the Oklahoma bombing, political motives were primary. And in the case of 9/11 a political agenda, attacking the very American way of life was center. While categorizing acts of terror according to their motivations can illuminate the minds of the attackers, in reality, at its core, terrorism is contempt for humanity in the name of a cause.

References

CNN.com. (2017, August 24). September 11th Terror Attacks Fast Facts. Retrieved from https://www.cnn.com/2013/07/27/us/september-11-anniversary-fast-facts/index.html

CNN.com. (2018, March 25). Oklahoma City Bombing Fast Facts. Retrieved from https://www.cnn.com/2013/09/18/us/oklahoma-city-bombing-fast-facts/index.html

Godlasky, A. (2017, November 6). When is it terrorism? When is it a hate crime? Retrieved from https://www.usatoday.com/story/news/nation/2017/11/06/when-terrorism-definition/835288001/

How we can help

Writing a definition essay can really appear daunting given how inundated most people are to the idea that a definition should be short. Often the biggest obstacle in writing a definition essay is realizing that you can talk about the meaning and details of a concept or thing for five full paragraphs. However, we know that it’s easy to get stuck, even when it comes to just drafting the outline. This is why we pride ourselves in hiring the most inventive writers who are able to write about the nuances of an idea, pattern or thing from a variety of angles, going in-depth with ease. For an item or phenomenon that you can only think of a couple sentences to put down on paper, our writers can easily churn out pages on the same subject. Often times, ordering a custom sample essay gives you an example of how to extend and expand on a subject. Moreover, this is a sample that you can ask the writer to adjust until its perfect, and keep it for life to refer back to.

Conclusion

A definition essay, while challenging, does give you a marked opportunity that is so different than many other writing assignments. It gives you the chance to examine a concept or thing in great depth. You have the valuable chance to increase your reader’s impression of this item or phenomenon and to widen their perspective on the thing and how it functions within the greater world or within society. It’s common to get stuck when engaging in such a stimulating endeavor, but it’s not the end of the world. Our writers are always here to assist with suggestions and examples to help you get the ball rolling again.

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