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How to Write a Definition Essay: A Step-by-Step Breakdown

Virginia has been a university English instructor for over 20 years. She specializes in helping people write essays faster and easier.

Writing a definition essay

Writing a definition essay

6 Easy Steps for Writing a Definition Essay

In a definition essay, you will gather evidence about different views people hold on a topic and analyze those differences. Here are the six steps for writing your definition essay:

  1. Choose a word.
  2. Look up your word in the dictionary.
  3. Ask other people what they think your word means.
  4. Look for uses of your word in movies, commercials, magazines, literature or social media.
  5. Analyze the different ways people define this word.
  6. Use my instructions below to organize and write your essay.

Topic Ideas for a Definition Essay





Good Self Image

Ideal Body Weight


Politically Correct




Ideal Job



Best Friend

Perfect Day





A Problem


Enough Money



American Dream





Good Movie






Definition Topic Question Ideas

You will need to take your topic idea and turn it into a question. Often you can just ask "What is . . . ?" Sometimes, you might want to narrow the topic further.

Here are some ideas:

  1. What is real friendship?
  2. How do you define procrastination?
  3. How does nature make you feel?
  4. What is a "safe place"?
  5. What is abuse?
  6. What makes a person happy?
  7. What makes a good life?
  8. What is a mother's job?
  9. When is schoolwork just busy work rather than being meaningful?
  10. What kind of cheating should be reported?
  11. What does it mean when teenagers say they are "talking"?
  12. What is social media?
  13. What is an online personality?
  14. What is Instagram?
  15. What does moving really mean for a teenager?
  16. Who is really homeless?
  17. What does it mean to be socially awkward?
  18. What is love that lasts forever?
  19. What are panic attacks?
  20. When does negative talk become a "hate crime"?

Step-by-Step Instructions for Writing a Definition Essay

Detailed instructions are below, but here is an outline of what you will do:

  1. Choose a topic idea (see the table for topic ideas).
  2. Look at several dictionary definitions of your topic and write them out.
  3. Look online to see if there are any articles, websites or videos which define and describe your topic.
  4. Prepare interview questions on your topic.
  5. Interview a variety of types of people, looking especially for people who would define this topic differently. Think about people of different ages, social backgrounds and experiences.
  6. Post questions about your topic on social media (optional).
  7. After you have gathered all of your sources, you will read them all through and analyze them. You will look for similarities and group the answers into categories for writing your essay.

4 Easy Ways to Organize Your Paper

Type of OrganizationIntroduction IdeasBody OrganizationConclusion Ideas

Good and Bad

Tell what people first think of when they hear that word.

Good meanings vs. Bad meanings

Explain what the best and worst meanings have in common.

Dictionary Definition vs. Common Use

Use dictionary definitions.

Dictionary definition vs. what most people think it means

Suggest why most people define the word differently than the dictionary.

Changing Meaning Through Time

Tell how meaning of word has changed through time. You might want to consult the OED for this.

Trace the different definitions you've gotten from your sources and talk about how culture, age, race or gender affected the way people defined the word.

Tell why knowing the history of a word, or the variety of definitions can help us understand the word better.

Two Contrasting Definitions

Give two contrasting examples of how people defined the word very differently.

Analyze the two different types of definitions and then talk about any definitions which don't fit those two groups.

Explain why you think the groups defined the word that way.

How to Analyze Your Sources

When writing a definition essay, you will need to take all of your source data from interviews and dictionaries and analyze it for patterns. You will be looking for some contrasts and/or similarities in the definitions you have gathered that you can use to organize your data into an interesting essay.

You will use this contrast or pattern in order to form a thesis for your essay about the information in your interviews. Start your analysis by doing the following (save all your analysis to be turned in with your essay):

1. Prepare for your essay by analyzing your data. Begin by reading the first interview and writing a number for each meaning the person gives. Then read the second interview and if they repeat a meaning, give it the same number you gave it in the first interview. If that person gives new meanings, then give these new numbers. Continue doing this through all of your interviews.

2. Make a numbered list (or a chart) of all the meanings you got from your interviews and write the names of the people who gave you each meaning.

3. Analyze your list of meanings. Write down your observations. Some things to look for:

  • Which meaning was given by the most people?
  • Which meanings are favorable?
  • Which meanings are unfavorable?
  • How are some meanings related to others?
  • How are the meanings different?
  • Can you trace a pattern or relationship between the meanings?
  • How do the interview meanings compare to the dictionary definition?
  • Is there a pattern in the responses of the different groups you interviewed? Older vs. younger people? Men vs. women?

What kind of sources should you use?

Here are some of your best options:

  • Dictionary definitions
  • Personal interviews
  • Social media questionnaire
  • YouTube videos
  • Books
  • Magazines

Peer Editing Questions

You can use the following questions to edit your own work; however, it is often better to get someone else to edit it also.

1. Definition: Analyze how well the definitions are presented. Do you understand which was the most common? Are the other meanings presented clearly? Is the relationship between the different definitions clear?

2. Organization: Is the thesis clear? Do the topic sentences present the argument clearly? Are they in the right order? Are there good transitions?

3. Use of Sources: Does the paper use the interviews and dictionary definition appropriately? Is the source material integrated into the paper well? Are the quotations well-chosen? Are there places the student needs to add more from the sources?

4. Evidence and Argument in Body of Paper: Are the evidence and argument convincing? Do you see points where it is weak? Where did the author need to add more information or argument? Points where the argument is confusing? Does the author move from the least to most convincing evidence/argument? Is the paper written climatically?

5. Title, Beginning, and End: Does the title fit the paper? Does the beginning interest the reader? Does the conclusion make a final point rather than just repeating?

6. Sum Up: What is best about this essay? What most needs improvement?

How to Revise Your Paper

Take all of the suggestions you got in the peer editing and carefully go through your paper, using these suggestions to rewrite. For your final edit, print out a hard copy and read it aloud to yourself. That is an excellent way to catch small errors, especially in spelling and missed words.

You will also notice sentences that don't quite sound right or are hard to read. If you stumble over reading a sentence, it probably means you should reword it to make it read more smoothly. Watch out for:

  1. Not starting sentences in a paragraph with the same word.
  2. Using a variety of sentence lengths and types.
  3. Adding in transition words at the start of sentences.

Writing a definition essay can be a challenge, especially if you've not written using a lot of sources before, but if you follow these tips you should have a solid paper you can be proud of!


Virginia Kearney (author) from United States on October 11, 2017:

Hi Terrie--You might want to clarify the assignment with your instructor, but from what you have told me, I think that what you need to do is to spend most of the essay defining what historical fiction is and then use the movie as an example of each of aspect of the definition.

Terrie Hughes on October 11, 2017:

How do you write a definition essay on historical fiction using the movie we are soldiers

Do you still write mostly on what historical fiction is or state what makes the movie fiction

Virginia Kearney (author) from United States on July 16, 2015:

Shea--I'd start by giving a vivid description of the restaurant, or by telling a story of going to it, or what you were expecting (especially if it turned out differently than you thought).

shea on July 16, 2015:

how to start a definition eassay on restraunt

live-business from Somewhere in the USA on January 16, 2012:

Nice hub, thanks for sharing!