What is a Definition Essay?
A definition essay is writing that explains what a term means. Some terms have definite, concrete meanings, such as glass, book, or tree. Terms such as honesty, honor, or love are abstract and depend more on a person's point of view.
Three Steps to Effective Definition
- Tell readers what term is being defined.
- Present clear and basic information.
- Use facts, examples, or anecdotes that readers will understand.
Choosing a Definition
Choosing a definition is a key step in writing a definition essay. You need to understand the term before you can define it for others. Read the dictionary, but don't just copy the definition. Explain the term briefly in your own words. Also, it's important to limit your term before you start defining it. For example, you could write forever on the term "love." To limit it, you would write about either "romantic love," "platonic love," or "first love."
Thesis Statement of a Definition Essay
The thesis statement usually identifies the term being defined and provides a brief, basic definition.
(term) (basic definition)
Ex: Assertiveness is standing up for your rights.
How To Write an Effective Definition
- Create a definition. There are several ways to define a term. Here are a few options.
- Define by function. Explain what something does or how something works.
- Define by structure. Tell how something is organized or put together.
Define by analysis. Compare the term to other members of its class and then illustrate the differences. These differences are special characteristics that make the term stand out. For example, compare a Siberian husky to other dogs, such as lap dogs, mutts, or sporting dogs.
(term) (precise definition)
Ex: A Siberian husky is a dog reputed for its ability to tolerate cold, its distinctive features, and its keen strength and stamina.
- Define by what the term does not mean. This distinction can sometimes clarify a definition and help a reader to better understand it.
- Use understandable facts, examples, or anecdotes. Select facts, examples, or anecdotes to fully explain your definition. Ask yourself, "Which examples will best help readers understand the term? What examples would most appeal to my readers? Will a brief story reveal the term's meaning?" Do not use any examples that will not support the definition.
Remember: A definition essay is writing that explains what a term means. When writing a definition essay, remember to tell readers what term is being defined, to present a clear and basic definition, and to use facts, examples, or anecdotes that readers will understand
Here are the examples of popular definition essay topics:
- Sense of Humor
Whatever essay topic you choose, you should be interested in the subject and familiar with it. It would be great if you had your personal experience in the matter you are going to define.
It’s time to write yet another essay, and you’re looking for help so you can write a good definition essay. But how do you define “good”?
Both you and your instructor may have very different definitions of the word. That’s the inherent problem with defining terms that can be subjective. Each person can have a different idea of what the term means.
That’s where I come in. I’ve annotated two definition essays in this post to point out what makes them good (and in some cases, what makes some sections not so good).
If you’re looking for help writing your paper before you even look at definition essay examples, check out How to Write a Definition Essay with Confidence.
If you’re struggling to find a topic for your paper, here are 20 Definition Essay Topics That Go Beyond the Obvious.
And now, on with the show. Here are two definition essay examples that define it all.
2 Definition Essay Examples That Define It All
These two essays each use a subjective term as the focus and create an extended definition.
Notice that neither of these essays begins with the phrase, “According to Webster’s dictionary…” Yours probably shouldn’t start with this type of phrase, either.
In most cases, you’ll be defining terms that your readers will already have a basic understanding of. Thus, there’s no reason to include a dictionary definition.
For both definition essay examples, my commentary is below each paragraph. The specific text I’m discussing is notated with a bracket and a corresponding number [#]. When you see an asterisk in front of that at the end of a paragraph *[#], my comments apply to the preceding paragraph as a whole.
Now let’s get to those examples!
Definition essay example #1: Defining Beauty
 How do you judge if someone is beautiful for the first time you see them? By physical appearance is the most popular answer you may find.  To the majority of people, beauty is solely dependent on how a person looks on the outside. However, some might argue that inner beauty is more important than outer appearance. It is difficult to fully define beauty because everyone has their own views about beauty.  In my view, beauty has to deal with one’s self as the only rival.
 This essay opens with a rhetorical question to grab the reader’s attention. While using a rhetorical question is a good strategy, notice that the writer uses second person (you) in this question.
Second person isn’t usually accepted in academic writing, so check with your instructor to see if you’re allowed to use second person in your definition essay.
(Read: How to Read and Understand an Essay Assignment.)
Here, the writer establishes the focus of the essay: how people define beauty both by outward appearances and by inner beauty.
(Read: How to Make a Thesis Statement the Easy Way (Infographic).)
 This sentence begins with first person (my).
Third person is generally preferred in academic writing, so again, check with your instructor to see which point of view you should use in your essay.
(Read: Why Third-Person Writing Is Critical to a Great Essay.)
 The term “beauty” was originated from Anglo-French beute. It was first known used in the 14th century as “physical attractiveness,” and also “goodness, courtesy.” The meaning of beauty also came from several different places including: Old French biaute “beauty, seductiveness, beautiful person,” and Latin bellus “pretty, handsome, charming.” For the most part, beauty was originally associated with physical attractiveness. Therefore, many people use beauty as something to deal with outer appearance in today’s world. On the other hand, beauty could be meant as “goodness, courtesy,” and “charming” from its origins. For a long time, two different trends of thoughts about beauty as physical appearance as well as personality have been formed.
 The above paragraph provides background information to establish the origins of the word “beauty.”
By the writer defining the word’s origins, readers can better understand the current definition(s) of the word.
 The first and most popular interpretation of the word “beauty” is seen as outer appearance. On that perception, “beauty” and “attractiveness” have a significant difference even though they are word cousins. A beautiful looking person may be attractive, but an attractive person does not need to be beautiful. One person may look at someone beautiful with “deep satisfaction in the mind” because that person admire how beautiful the other is. Someone, who is not striking beautiful looking, may attract other people just by how they express their personalities. The others who are attracted to that particular individual because they feel connected, happy, and comfortable around that person.
 In the above paragraph, the writer begins to define the current meaning of beauty.
The writer also explains the difference between outward beauty and what personality traits might make someone attractive.
Again, these types of definitions help clarify the term and how it is defined in today’s culture.
While attractiveness may result in long lasting relationships, physical beauty only brings short term pleasant feeling in the mind. Yet, beauty as outer appearances conquers many societies around the world.  For instance, American culture tends to value the way a person looks. That value is transmitted from one generation to the next by families, peers, and media in the process of enculturation. Young children come to adapt ways of thinking and feeling about physical beauty from their families first.  The show Toddlers & Tiaras is an example because it follows families of young contestants in child beauty pageants. Contestants’ moms train and force their young girls closely resemble their adult counterparts including waxing eyebrows and wearing heavy makeup. Thus, these young girls are shaped to think that beautiful outer look is the only thing to get them to win and gives them what they want. Especially Daisey Mae, an 8-year-old pageant pro, said that “Facial beauty is the most important thing, in life and in pageants.”
 This sentence is the topic sentence of the paragraph and identifies America’s focus on outward beauty.
In this case, the topic sentence doesn’t appear as the first sentence of the paragraph, yet it is well-placed to identify the paragraph’s focus.
(Read: Here Is the Right Way and the Wrong Way to Write Topic Sentences.)
 An example from pop culture is included here to help support the idea that America is focused on outward beauty.
This example works well as it even includes a quote from an 8-year-old beauty contestant who feels that “facial beauty is the most important thing in life and in pageants.”
Beside families, the media plays a significant role in influencing people to view beauty as having good faces and sexy bodies. According to “The Wound in the Face” by Angela Carter, images from women’s magazines give women the ideas of what beautiful faces and bodies are “supposed to be looking like.” To achieve beauty like models and celebrities, women usually waste tons of money in fixing themselves because they think their bodies are ugly and in need of a makeover.  Carter refers to “the burden of having to look beautiful” which many women and even men today suffer. This burden is wearing heavy makeup masks to conceal their imperfect naked face, undergoing strict diets and painful plastic surgery. In some extreme cases, women even lose their own lives. Another example is the impact of television in changing the idea of beauty in small areas. There was no television in Fiji, a South Pacific nation, before 1995. The “thin” idea did not affected them yet because “skinny legs” was used in order to insult someone. After television was introduced, girls in Fiji began dieting and showing in signs of anorexics. This was a response to the beautiful, tall, and skinny woman on the TV. *
 Quotes from a source are used in the above paragraph to further define beauty and illustrate how media emphasizes the importance of outward beauty.
While using a quote is an excellent strategy to help support claims, the writer should also include a proper in-text citation and a corresponding Works Cited (MLA) or References page (APA).
(Read: The Stress-Free Guide to MLA Essay Format (8th Edition) or The Stress-Free Guide to APA Essay Format.)
* The goal of this paper is to define beauty.
This paragraph, however, strays from the focus as it discusses the media’s influence across the world.
In order to use the information in this paragraph, the writer should make a stronger connection to the paper’s focus by explaining more about Fiji’s definition of beauty.
This would allow the writer to create a more detailed discussion about how people in various parts of the world define beauty.
(Read: How to Narrow a Topic and Write a Focused Paper.)
 Even though outer beauty is dominant, it does not mean that everyone has to agree with that idea. There are people who believe that inner beauty is more important. Sadly, societies nowadays have narrowed down the appreciation of beauty to only visual sense, but we forget that the inside of a person can also determine their true beauty. We tend to judge others’ quickly and harshly merely based on their appearance.  For example, a guy with black skin, thick beard, and big muscles is considered violent and fiery. Another guy is seen as cute and trustworthy because he has white skin and a baby face. Those judgments are not often true because we do not get to know their real inner side. A beautiful looking person with an ugly heart is truly ugly. Time will soon age his or her outer look. They cannot reserve their youth forever even if they ask for the knife helps. That person’s ugly personality chases away the people around him or her. As a result, he or she will end up being ugly from inside out.
 Here, the writer successfully transitions to the second component of the paper: how beauty is defined by inner beauty.
(Read: 97 Transition Words for Essays You Need to Know.)
 This paragraph includes several examples of how people are judged by outward appearances and how people should take time to understand the beauty within.
Though the ideas in these examples are on track, the actual examples are weak because they are generalized.
To improve this paragraph, the writer should include more specific examples and perhaps evidence and quotes from sources.
(Read: 3 Types of Essay Support That Prove You Know Your Stuff.)
In contrast, a not good looking person with a beautiful heart is beautiful. Inner beauty is considered as personality and morality. They express their inner self by caring and loving other people. Their inner beauty attract and create long lasting bonds with others. Inner beauty is always young, so it covers a person’s aged looking. Despite of being old, a person with beautiful personality will always feel beautiful and happy because there are people who are willing to love and care for them in return. There are people who are perfectly beautiful because not only they own good looking bodies but also have kindness within their hearts. They use their success to do charity work in order to return back to the community.  Namely, Taylor Swift has an ideal body and is a successful singer at a young age. She does not let her outer appearance to cover up her inner beauty. She received the Ripple of Hope Award for donating $4 million to the Country Hall of Fame Museum and topped many lists as most charitable celebrity for her work with children who have cancer. Many of her fans around the world admire her not just her talents but by her personality.
 At the end of this paragraph, the writer uses a specific and effective example to define inner beauty.
Besides the two traditional meanings of beauty, the thinking about beauty has been altered and extended more overtime. Beauty is not necessary being felt and appreciated by other people because it can be formed within one’s self. To me, beauty is to overcome your bias against your body, learn to appreciate and love what you’re naturally created with. Alice Walker is the one who shapes my idea of the term “beauty.” In “Beauty: When the Other Dancer is the Self,” Walker explains her journey to find the love for her right eye.
 The conclusion wraps up the essay by asserting a final definition: how individuals define beauty within themselves.
This works well to not only wrap up ideas but to also leave readers thinking about their own definition(s) of beauty.
(Read: 12 Essay Conclusion Examples to Help You Finish Strong.)
Definition essay example #2: Swimming Up Mainstream: The Hipster Culture
 Every generation has had its movements and fads among young people. After women got the right to vote, they experienced new, scandalous freedoms in the 1920s in which they strove to be modern and fashionable. After World War II, disgruntled young people were magnetized toward movements like civil rights and women’s liberation. Their hair became longer and views more radical when they were called “hippies” in the 1970s. In the 1990s, style was edgier and grungier. What fad has dominated the twenty-first century?  The rebels of the 2010s are the hipsters: the thrift-store shoppers, indie music junkies, and do-it-yourselfers. In the past few years, this movement has grown from a passing fad to an entire subculture among millennials. So how has the hipster culture become so popular?
 This essay effectively opens with background information about subcultures throughout history.
This strategy starts the paper broadly to grab the reader’s interest, then narrows to the focus of the paper: hipsters.
(Read: How to Write an Essay Introduction in 3 Easy Steps.)
 These lines identify the focus of the paper: the hipster subculture and its definition.
(Read: How to Write a Thesis Statement in 5 Simple Steps.)
First, the term “hipster” is not clearly defined. One person might say a hipster is someone who follows all the latest trends, while another might think it is someone who has his own unique style. The term “hipster” can define a wide spectrum of people; therefore, what makes a hipster a hipster is ambiguous. Does a “true” hipster follow the latest trends, or does he invent his own, unconventional fashion? Since the hipster style has become fashionable among younger people, a hipster can be someone who follows popular trends; however, a hipster can also be someone who has his own unique, if not odd, style, in thought, appearance, and overall lifestyle. The more the term hipster is used, the broader its definition becomes. An individual who still follows the nineties grunge style might still be considered a hipster because of his unique style, even though he does not fit into the twenty-first century hipster stereotype. Since the definition of who a hipster really is is unclear, there are different hipster subcultures making the culture broader and more diverse. *
* The writer uses the above paragraph to provide a broad and generally accepted definition of hipster.
This establishes a basic definition to work from and allows the writer an opportunity to then define the word in more specific terms.
Mainstream culture, especially music, has also played a part in popularizing the hipster lifestyle. The stereotypical hipster would find this ironic since he tends to live outside of the mainstream – or at least he likes to think he does. For example, folk and indie music became popular in the early 2010s when bands like Mumford & Sons, The Lumineers, and The Civil Wars released platinum albums and chart-topping singles. Indie rock bands like Imagine Dragons suddenly rose to stardom and entered the mainstream culture. This is an almost seismic shift compared to the rap and hip-hop that was popular less than ten years ago. What is difficult to determine is whether the music inspired the hipster or the hipster inspired the music. There is no way to truly find out how the movement came so suddenly into the mainstream except that it was propelled by the public. *
*The above paragraph discusses the origins and influences of the hipster lifestyle but focuses only on music.
In order to develop this discussion, the writer should also include other cultural influences, such as other social or political movements.
This would also be a great place to add evidence from outside sources to help support the definition.
Additionally, because this paragraph discusses the origins of the movement (background information), it might be better placed as paragraph two.
(Need help with organization? Read: What Is a Reverse Outline and Why Should You Use One?)
 The hipster mentality is very independent and inventive, which is a change from American’s thought patterns in the past. Instead of doing things the way he has always done it, a hipster asks, “Why have we always done it that way when this way is so much easier?” The “do-it-yourself”, or DIY, mentality comes mainly from the progressive beliefs of hipsters. The movement stresses what makes someone unique. Hipsters pursue what they are passionate about without fear of judgment or failure. Americans are becoming even more independent and individualistic, so it is easy for them to feed off of this belief. A person thinks he is special when he listens to a band his friend has never heard of, or wears drastically different clothes than his classmates. In a world of seven billion people, one wants to somehow feel important. By deviating from the norm, hipsters have inspired this individuality and new way of thinking.
 Here, the writer attempts to define a hipster as someone who is “independent and inventive.” While this definition is appropriate, the writer also states that this is “a change from American’s thought patterns in the past.”
This statement contradicts the introductory paragraph, which explains that previous subcultures were also independent and inventive.
The hipster culture has become popular because it has not been clearly defined, has been influenced by popular culture, and stresses the importance of the individual. The modern hipster has not been around for a long time, but most of them are young and are emerging as leaders and activists in the modern world. Their culture encourages uniqueness and creativity, a welcome change for millennials who feel that tradition has become too harsh and rigid.  Every decade or so America sees a shift in the way young people think and behave, and their ideas and beliefs have stuck around. After all, women in the 1920s changed the lifestyles of future generations of women, and young people in the 1960s changed the lives of a whole race of people. Maybe the hipster is just another passing fad, or maybe it has inspired America’s culture enough that it is here to stay.
 This sentence effectively sums up the essay (and the hipster) and provides a clear definition of the subculture.
 The author closes the essay with a “bigger thought” about how the hipster may be the latest manifestation of how American youth change the culture.
(Read: How to Write a Killer Essay Conclusion.)
The Definition of a “Good” Definition Essay
The essays I’ve included here are examples of good definition essays because they provide reasonably detailed extended definitions. Is there room for improvement? Most certainly. And if you’ve just written a draft of your own definition essay, chances are there’s room for improvement in your essay too.
Need a few tips on how to make your paper even better than “good”? Check out these posts:
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