How to write a definition essay

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In definition essays, we take a word and write about its definition, meaning, historical context, and different perceptions.

The word we write about in our essay should be conceptual and debated instead of a commonplace. 

Step 1: Choose your word and research

If you’re not assigned a specific word, choose one that is suitable for a definition essay. Have a look at the following questions and choose one.

Checklist for choosing the word

A word with a certain definition would not be suitable for this essay. This is because you won’t have anything to debate or add to the table with such a word (ex. chair, table).

Examples of conceptual words would be love, religion, beauty, happiness…

If you can’t understand the definition of a word, you can’t write an essay about it. Choosing a word that means something to you can ease your essay writing process.

One thing to avoid is telling the exact dictionary definition of a word to your readers. You need to make your own contributions to the definition to enhance its meaning.

If your answer to these questions is “yes,” then it’s a good word. 

For our guide, I have chosen the word “success.” Because it is a conceptual word that is debatable, a word we can understand and make our own definition.

How to write a definition essay

Do your research

This step is essential for every academic essay you write. Similar to other essay types, you need to do an extensive research on the word you choose.

Step 2: Prepare an outline

As with any other essay, preparing an outline will help organize your thoughts. There is a traditional outline structure for an academic essay which you can see below:

essay outline infographic (740 × 540 px) 3

A definition essay also follows the traditional introduction, body paragraph, and conclusion essay format unless your teacher or instructor states otherwise.  

Step 3: Definition essay introduction

Your introduction paragraph is the section where you introduce your word. In this paragraph, you can choose from 7 types of definitions on which to base your essay.

In this type of definition, you break down the word into its elements and talk about each section in detail. This one is recommended for more technical essays. Chances are you will not be needing this much technical information.

Analytical definition example

The word "sagacious" refers to someone intelligent, wise, and capable of making sound decisions. It is frequently used to describe someone capable of comprehending and analyzing difficult circumstances and making sound judgments based on their knowledge and experience.

If you choose this type, you will be defining the word according to the classes to which the word belongs.

Classification definition example

The word "canine" refers to a member of the Canidae family of animals, which includes dogs, wolves, coyotes, and foxes. Canines are distinguished by their sharp teeth, powerful jaws, and razor-sharp claws. They are also recognized for having an acute sense of smell and hearing.

The type of definition where you will compare and contrast various similar words and concepts.

Comparison definition example

A cat is larger than a mouse but smaller than a lion.

You define the word through its unique details such as etymology, relations to other languages, or unique syntactical rules.

Details definition example

"Gargantuan"

The word gargantuan is used to indicate something gigantic in size or scale. It is frequently used to portray a sense of vastness that is difficult to grasp or fathom. The term "gargantuan" comes from the name "Gargantua," the name of a massive king in Rabelais' satirical novel "Gargantua and Pantagruel." The phrase conjures up images of something genuinely massive, one-of-a-kind, and unrivaled, something that stands out for its sheer size and is difficult to notice or ignore. It is frequently used to describe structures, mountains, or even a person's hunger.

This one is a tricky style where you define the word through what it isn’t. Might be a great idea for philosophy lessons.

Negations definition example

"Insignificant"

Insignificant is an adjective that describes something that has little or no importance or influence. It is frequently used in contrast to anything important, notable, or significant. It is the polar opposite of notable, significant, or substantial. It may be neglected or dismissed as though it makes no difference.

In this style, you primarily focus on the word’s origins and historical context.

Origins and causes definition example

"Quixotic"

Quixotic is an adjective that describes an idealistic, passionate, and unrealistic person who frequently acts foolishly or impractically. The term "quixotic" was used in the early 1700s to characterize someone naively unrealistic, particularly in their pursuit of ideas. It has since been used to define a broad spectrum of persons and acts marked by unrealistic and impractical idealism, particularly those of a romantic or chivalrous type. The historical circumstances in which the term was coined and the literary character from which it was drawn give it a rich and nuanced meaning, adding layers of complexity and depth to its definition.

This is the style where you define the word through its causes, effects, results, and potential uses.

Results, effects and uses definition example

"Hypertrophic"

The word hypertrophic refers to a state in which an organ or tissue has expanded more than its usual size due to an increase in the size of its cells. It is most typically used to describe a heart muscle disorder known as hypertrophic cardiomyopathy.

Hereditary factors or other underlying medical disorders can cause hypertrophic cardiomyopathy. Chest discomfort, shortness of breath, exhaustion, and an increased risk of sudden cardiac death can all be the effects of this illness.

Aside from medicine, the term "hypertrophic" can also be used in biology and sports science to denote an increase in muscle growth caused by greater exercise or muscle-building drugs.

Once you choose the definition type and your word, start writing your introduction paragraph.

Success is a word that each person can define differently. Hook: Draw the reader’s attention by emphasizing a striking quality of the word. Oxford Languages defines success as the “accomplishment of an aim or purpose.” Definition:Include the dictionary definition of the word without any opinions. The aim or purpose this definition mentions varies significantly for each person. Therefore, it is understandable why the word success awakens different feelings in everybody. It is safe to say that there are endless definitions when it comes to success, and our life is built around finding our own definition of it. Thesis statement: Present the main idea behind the essay.

Take the example above as a guideline and follow it when you write your introduction paragraph.

Step 4: Definition essay body paragraphs

In the supporting paragraphs, further investigate your word in a way that makes your readers understand it in broad terms.

In this section, you can use real-life examples to make the word more understandable. The definition style you choose plays an essential part in this section.

The various definitions of success are evoked by one’s life background personality. For one person, success could be having a booming career and being independent. For another, it could be having a family and raising kids. Emphasize difference: Emphasize the different potential meanings of the word. When we compare these two definitions of success, we see that one overrules the other. For a person aiming to have a career, devoting oneself to kids and family would seem like the opposite of the definition of success. Example: Real life examples for further understanding of the different definitions. However, for the other person, their lifestyle might be the exact definition of success. This is what makes the definition of this word so personal; we can find a different definition for success in every person we come across. Definition analysis: Your deduction and interpretation of the paragraph

Step 5: Definition essay conclusion

In the conclusion paragraph, go back to our thesis statement with the newfound information and perspectives you have provided.

Also refer to your main points and give an overview of your whole essay in a few sentences. You can finish the conclusion by providing room for further research or stating your final thoughts.

As seen from these points, success may be one of the most challenging words to define in one sentence. For every life story, there is a different definition of success. Restatement: Emphasize your thesis statement once more and refer to your body paragraphs. We have, in fact, seen that this definition can change for the person during the course of their life as well. Therefore, success is a very personal term that is almost impossible to define inclusively. Concluding sentences:Present your final thoughts and insights on the subject and the word.

Key takeaways and common mistakes

Now we know how to structure and write a definition essay. But there are common mistakes you need to avoid and best practices you need to follow.

Important points to consider

Definition essay best practices

Common mistakes to avoid

Now that you know what a definition essay is, what steps you should follow, what to do, and what to avoid, you can start writing a decent one.
Ibrahim Akturk
Ibrahim Akturk
Content editor at Tamara Research. Translation major, huge coffee and baking nerd. Addicted to good music and great articles.

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