Writing a Definition

If you’re working on modes of development in a writing class, you may be assigned a definition paper. Writing a definition can be challenging! Here are some tips to get you started.

First let’s define “definition essay.”

A definition essay is a general description of a broad category of things or people.

That phrase “broad category” is essential. Don’t write about one specific thing. For example, you could define “godparents,” but you couldn’t write an entire essay about your own godparent.

If your instructor assigns a definition essay, you will need to write more than a simple dictionary definition of a word or term. You have to provide details and examples to bring your paper to life.

Many writers enjoy writing definition papers because they allow you to showcase your personality and experience. You can be humorous or serious, an advocate or an opponent. To get you started, here are some possibilities:

good/bad date

Republican/Democrat

good/bad instructor

good/bad roommate

good/bad/boss

New Yorker

redneck

perfect [anything]

bigot

liberal

jock

By now you’ve probably noticed that taking an attitude towards your topic is a big help when you’re writing a definition paper. Defining something neutral (like an egg) or abstract (like love) is much harder than defining something you can pin down, like a “true friend.”

Here are elements you might include in your essay:

  • a dictionary definition if the term might be unfamiliar to readers
  • details
  • negations (what makes your item different–for example, a motel won’t offer room service and other benefits you expect from a hotel)
  • causes (such as experiences that might make a person adopt a particular political viewpoint)
  • results (pointing out that a bad boss eventually causes firings and resignations)

As I mentioned earlier, definition writing can give you a chance to show off your sense of humor. Here are some examples that could be expanded into essays:

A bride is a radiant young woman who’s oblivious to her parents’ panic about the cost of her wedding.

A cat is a small, furry mammal with a long tail, a sharp brain, and a total inability to learn any tricks.

First love is a temporary form of insanity.

Many famous people have written clever definitions. You can find examples at using definition as a Google search term. Here are a few examples:

Experience is the name everyone gives to their mistakes.  (Oscar Wilde)

A cynic is “a man who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing.”  (Oscar Wilde)

Politics is the art of looking for trouble, finding it everywhere, diagnosing it incorrectly, and applying the wrong remedies. (Groucho Marx)

Writing a good definition can be both challenging and fun. If you’re stuck for an idea, think about the people around you and the roles they perform. You’ll soon be on your way.

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