Doyle Online Writing Lab

Definition Essays

Definition essays involve taking an abstract concept and clarifying it for the reader by making it concrete. Implicitly, part of making an item "concrete" involves dividing the item into its composite parts or properties. As writer Diane Hacker points out, division--like classification--should be made "according to some principle": she notes, "to divide a tree into roots, trunk, branches, and leaves makes sense; to list its components as branches, wood, water, and sap does not, for the categories overlap" (and seem random and disconnected).1 Your essay should reveal how the parts of your definition, like the parts of a tree, relate and form a whole.

Genre Objectives

In assigning definition essays, we hope that you will sharpen certain skills. First and foremost, we hope that you will practice supporting assertions with textual evidence (quotes and detailed examples). Second, we want you to develop your organizational skills. Definitions are a good place to do this since they provide a model of synthesis. Rather than starting with details (the roots, branches, leaves) and asking you to imagine a whole (the tree), we ask you to examine a whole with respect to its parts. In this sense, the definition essay prepares you to do a close reading of a passage, since it shows how details can come together to create a larger image.

Requirements: What Qualities Does a Successful Definition Essay Usually Have?

  1. A Thesis that is a debatable assertion.
  2. Specific Examples. I am particularly interested in seeing if you can introduce and explain your quotes. We will go over strategies for doing this in class and/or in paper conferences.
  3. Analysis of the examples. How are they relevant? What do they tell us about the thing as a whole? You should only spent part of the time giving a synopsis of what was said in the text. The majority of your paper was spent ANALYZING its strengths and weaknesses.
  4. Logical Progression: Have you made a tree or a bag of lawn debris? Not making a bag of lawn debris means examining how your paragraphs relate to each other and how they work together to explain the concept you are defining. It also means the sentences within a paragraph must develop systematically.

Need More Help?

Take a look at the following essays/handouts in the Writing Center:

Sylvan Barnet, "Paraphrase and Explication"
Sylvan Barnet, A Short Guide to Writing About Art
Richard Marius, "Paragraphs," A Writer's Companion
Edgar Roberts, "Two Themes Based on a Close Reading"
Annette Rottenberg "Definition," The Structure of Argument
"Writing More Interesting Introductions & Conclusions"