Expert Advice on Writing Definition Essays

What are Definition Essays?

Definition essays are types of writing that provide explanations about the meaning of various terms. A number of terms have clear, concrete and definite meanings e.g. book, flower, glass. Other terms, however, are of the abstract variety, which means they are less clear and more dependent on an individual’s viewpoint e.g. words like love, honor, and integrity.    

Three Quick Steps to Writing a Good Definition

  • Let your readers know what term you will be defining.
  • Give them a clear, concise and basic explanation of that term.
  • Use anecdotes, examples, or factual information to illustrate the term in a way readers’ can understand.

Selecting a Term to Define

Selecting a suitable term for your definition essay is an essential first step. Then, it is important you understand your chosen term before attempting to define it for your readers. Check a dictionary by all means, but you will need to do more than simply copy the definition provided in a dictionary. You will need to provide a brief explanation of the term using your own choice of words. It is additionally vital to limit your chosen term prior to beginning to try to define it. If one were writing, for instance, about the word “love”, it would be possible to write endlessly about it. Therefore, to apply limits, you could write about “family love” or “young love.”

Developing a Thesis Statement for Your Essay

Usually, a thesis statement mentions the term to be defined along with a short and basic description.  

Example: A promise is a commitment to do something.

How to Go About Writing a Good Definition

  • Start creating your definition. There are many ways of defining most terms. The following are some options:


    • Function-based definition: Explains what a given thing does or how it works.
    • Structural definition: Describes how a given thing is put together, built or assembled.
    • Analytical definition: This method involves comparing your chosen term to others like it and illustrating any differences or special features that distinguish the term. You could, for instance compare husky dogs to other breeds e.g. blood hounds, sheepdogs, etc.
    • Define your chosen term by the opposite of its meaning. This method often clarifies a term for the reader and helps them understand it better.
  • The use of anecdotes, examples and facts to properly explain your chosen term is the next important step. These should be easy to understand. Ask these questions of yourself: “What examples might help my readers better understand this term?” “Which examples would appeal most to readers?” “Would a short story explain the meaning of this term?” Avoid examples that do not support or explain a term’s meaning. 

NB: An essay of the definition variety is one that explains the meaning of a term. When you are writing this type of essay, do not forget to let readers know what term you will be defining, give them clear and concise information, and use easy-to-understand anecdotes, examples and facts.

The following are some popular topic examples for definition essays:

  • Love
  • Humor
  • Kindliness

Regardless of what topic you decide on, it is important it is familiar and interesting to you. Better still if you have some experience in the term you will be defining.

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