Guide: How to write a definition essay

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  • Subject area(s): Types of essay
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  • Published: December 5, 2019*
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  • How to write a definition essay
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In a definition essay, the writer defines a word. A definition essay must go beyond a dry dictionary interpretation, however. It can look at the word in different contexts, examine varying meanings of the word and compare and contrast it to similar words.

Choice of Word

The best choice for a definition essay is either a word that conveys an abstract concept or a word that can have many meanings. Examples of good words would be “courage,” “success” or “citizen.”


A thesis statement for a definition essay should give the writer’s basic interpretation of the word. The thesis should be as concrete as possible but not overly detailed as the body of the essay will then go on to expand on that definition. Here’s an example: Courage is showing the fortitude to carry on even when one is afraid.

A thesis statement might also name particular points of focus for the essay: A citizen is someone who votes regularly, contributes to society in some way and was born in or naturalized in a particular country.

If this approach is taken, the specific points need to be named in the same order they are discussed in the essay.

Defining the Word

The above thesis statement about citizens uses attributes to define the word. There are a number of other approaches to effectively defining a word. An essay defining courage based on the sample thesis statement might give three very different examples of ways courage is displayed in the face of fear. The writer might describe how courage can be both physical and mental or emotional in these examples.

Words can also be defined by what they are not. The writer of the citizen essay may argue that simply being born in a particular place is not enough to make one a true citizen; the courage essay might point out that someone who rushes into a burning building who is unafraid is not truly displaying courage because that person never had to overcome fear.


By their very nature, definition essays are somewhat personal because they rely on the fact that individuals will have different interpretations of words such as friendship or patriotism. However, the formality or informality of the writer’s tone will depend on the parameters of the assignment, and when in doubt, it is always best to err on the side of formality.

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