How to Write a Definition Essay

Writing a definition Essay may come in the form of preparing a document to define, for example, a political philosophy, a social service proposal, or a controversial practice. A definition Essay is more than listing a general meaning of a term; it involves a discussion of the idea’s cultural and associative meanings, sometimes called the connotation, along with the denotation.

When preparing to write a definition Essay, keep in mind the following guidelines:

  1. A definition essay stays on track in developing a single idea. Stay focused on the main meaning outlined in the introduction of your Essay. For example, if you’re writing a speech on the meaning of patriotism, don’t get sidetracked by related concepts like loyalty or nationalism. Be sure that each sub-point refers to or helps to define the main idea. It may help to restate the key term periodically throughout the document.
  2. Link each topic idea to the main concept. You can do this through repetition or exploring offshoot ideas that help to define the key point in a significant way. One paragraph may explain the literal meaning of “patriotism,” for example, while another paragraph discusses the cultural meaning, along with differences for the many groups of people that live in that culture. A third paragraph can outline some unusual or competing meanings of the concept.
  3. Begin on common ground that your audience can appreciate. Use a dictionary meaning that the audience will readily grasp. From there you can move into the more abstract or complex territory by considering related definitions, like those found in a numbered list in a typical dictionary. But be sure to define each new term or variation on the original definition in a basic way that your audience can follow and appreciate. Pause for questions or clarifications as you move from one point to another.
  4. Keeping your audience in mind, explore related meanings of the word. Some of these may already be held by members of your audience, or the entire group may be aware of, but not familiar with, other terms or meanings. For example, militant terrorists may consider themselves highly patriotic to their country or their culture when performing violent acts, but people from other cultures hold a negative view of such behavior. Contrasts like these offer great opportunities for discussion and reflection.
  5. Invite the audience to ask questions or share their understanding of the term. It may be some of the people who read your Essay or listen to your speech will have another view of the idea outlined in your presentation. Be willing to accommodate alternative views by mentioning these in passing or in explaining the differences between these and the view expounded in your Essay. Show respect even when you disagree with other interpretations.

A definition Essay offers both a denotation, or literal meaning, and a connotation, or cultural (or associative) meaning of an idea. Be prepared to share both in your document to give the audience a well-rounded view. Use examples to explain a word’s unusual meaning or application.

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