How To Write Definition Essays In College Or University

Author: Ian McAllister

How to Write Definition Essays

Definition essays are compositions whose aim is to convey the writer’s understanding of what is included in and excluded from the meaning of an expression.


Science essays almost always require a definition which counts for two marks out of twenty. This is not a definition essay, because the definition is a minor part.

Before you start

Brainstorm the subject. Even if most of the words you write down will be discarded later, some of them will stimulate you to think of yet more words. Prepare brain maps.

Look through your brain map several times then delete keywords that you can’t link to the subject. Decide on an approach, then number keywords in the order in which you will use them.

Your point of view

Remember you must convey your own understanding of the expression, so try to be original. Try not to bore the reader with the same definition as everyone else.

You can write with your tongue firmly in your cheek, and be as far-fetched as you like. For instance you could define “love” as a psychotic disease that has caused the population explosion that will end the world as we know it. Remember, if your essay is part of your English subject, the facts don’t matter. How well you handle your particular way of looking at the subject is what matters.

Are you familiar with another culture? If so that point of view would be interesting.

Starting your definition essays

It is conventional to start with a formal definition. This is the sort of definition that you would find in a dictionary, so look at all the dictionaries and thesauruses that you can find. Take special note of multiple meanings. Now write your formal definition in the form of

Expression | means to me | class | particular instance of class

e.g. love means to me an emotion that is largely fictitious whose search causes most of the trouble in the world.

You now have the job of developing your assertion throughout the rest of the essay.

Don’t make the common error of overlooking alternate meanings. Make it clear that you intend to exclude the alternate meanings, and have not just forgotten about them. Or you could make a feature of them.

Don’t make the mistake of confusing definition essays with descriptive essays.

What is it not?

If there are alternative meanings that you want to exclude, you could have some paragraphs detailing why you do not include them in your definition. Remember it is your definition. You are in control.

Other types of essay

A large definition essay will probably include elements of other formats such as

Developing your definition essays

The main body of the text should now be taken up with developing the assertion with which you started. You can do this in several ways

  • Break the expression into sub-headings, for instance love can be divided into Philos, Agape, and Eros.
  • Are you defining a process? Then describe the procedure in chronological order.
  • Is it something with a history? Describe its origins and development since then.
  • The last two developments might use cause and effect or compare and contrast formats.
  • Examples and illustrations always make it more fun to write and read.

Support your assertions

If you are at school, this isn’t quite as important, but at college you are expected to give references to all the quotations and your other research. Take care never to claim someone else’s work as your own, because that is plagiarism, and you may be expelled from college for plagiarism.

You can get ideas from sample essays on the web but never copy any of them. You can’t copyright an idea, but a publication is definitely copyright. You can use ideas as long as you credit the author properly with the idea. At school nobody will be worried if you quote your textbooks or the teacher’s notes.

Personalize, Personalize, Personalize

Read my college essays to find more ideas to personalize your definition essays.

Do you want your reader to throw down your definition essays with a sigh of relief, or turn over the page in the hope of there being more? Personalize to avoid boring your reader.

Closing your definition essays

There are many ways to close, but the boring conventional way to do it is to summarize what has gone before, and show how what you have written supports your initial contention.
It is fun to combine an appeal with the summary ending. For instance, if you are talking about vandalism as an art form, you could finish with the inflammatory “I urge you, go out and vandalize government buildings now!”