What is a definition essay?
You may have come across a definition essay in the past and never really looked at as being such. This category of writing is famous for taking on abstract, discrete concepts and ideas. What is love? What is the meaning of success? What is the real American dream? And so on and so forth. An essay that explains the meaning of a term, word, phrase or concept is considered to be a definition essay. How you decide to define your term may depend on your knowledge of the subject, research timeframe, personal experiences and which approach you feel will best suit your topic or assignment.
The writer's voice in definition essays
Some people may actually find this type of writing rather enjoyable; it opens the door for a host of personal thoughts, feelings, anecdotes and scenarios. Though all definition essays don't allow for personal experiences there is almost always a notable presence of the writer's voice. Take for example McLaughlin's book Dirt: A social history as seen through the uses and abuses of dirt. In defining dirt in one section the author states, "evidence of the imperfections of life, a constant reminder of change and decay. It is the dark side of all human activities.."
The reader is able to clearly identify the writer's voice through this excerpt. It's obvious that this does not match the dictionary's definition of dirt but through his writing McLaughlin is providing us with an alternative, personal definition of this concrete term (in his book you will also find very precise examples throughout history to help illustrate his point).
Preparing for your essay
When preparing for your definition essay
you want to consider the role your voice will play in your writing. Do you have a voice on this subject? Have you ever explored it before?
Its a good idea to identify your position on a topic or term before expanding on it. Abstract ideas in particular, for example freedom or happiness, mean different things to different people. They may even ignite an emotional response for some. To avoid sounding jumbled or confused in your writing remember to clearly define the topic and express your voice with lucid, precise examples.
Choosing a good topic
The topic you choose should be an actual term that can be clearly and distinctly explained to the reader. You may explain it through definitions, facts, examples, stories, classifications, compare and contrast or descriptions. Additionally, you can write about common terms such as dirt as seen above or abstract concepts such as love, courage, honor etc. Professional or formal explanations may also be provided when appropriate for technical terms or uncommon vocabulary.
Redefining or reanalyzing commonly misunderstood, controversial, or misinterpreted terms is another method to explore. An example of this would be the term "head of the household" (during tax time this item usually always comes up). Readers may find it intriguing to peruse an analysis of how this term is understood in 21st century communities or families as compared to past centuries.
If you don't have much direction for your essay and would like to select a compelling topic you definitely want to think about sources of inspiration. Its true that you may find a great idea by looking out the window or going for a walk but often times a little more action may be needed on your part.
Since many examples of definition essays involve personal beliefs and stances you may want to start figuring out where you stand on certain issues and which issues are of a particular concern to you. Below you will find prewriting techniques to help you select a topic for your essay.
1. List and Respond: This involves making a list of the speeches you hear on the daily or weekly basis (If you don't interact much with news or media it may take a bit longer than a day to gather a list). Simply make notes of advertisements, political speeches, public-service announcements or other public speeches and respond to each item. Your response should indicate your feelings on the subject and give you an idea of what terms or topics may be of interest to you.
For example, an advertisement for a low-fat sandwich that promises to help you lose weight may initiate some thoughts and ideas about health and nutrition. You may choose to define health in your essay. After explaining to the reader the dictionary definition of health you can easily delve into many other issues by providing short stories illustrating people that have what is perceived to be good or bad health or by examining misconceptions regarding health, the food pyramid, diets etc.
2. Blueprinting: As the name indicates this method of prewriting involves sketching a picture on a piece of paper to help generate writing ideas. Generally you would take a physical structure such as a house or room and sketch it out labeling each room or area on the paper. Then you would choose several items based on the labels you created.
For example, Social blueprinting is a great way to generate an appealing topic for a definition essay. In this example you would sketch a picture of your home or living space. Label each room according to a relationship description, i.e. close, distant, cordial, undefined etc. Next you would list the people from your social network that fall under each category. A wonderful topic for analysis, or redefinition would be one of these relationships. You can easily find key terms by scanning through your blueprint and then identify precise examples by using the people you listed. To be more specific you would try to choose relationships that would generate a lot of discussion or interest. The definition of a cousin for example may not initiate as much feeling as an explanation of what a father or mother is. The last two terms are more complex due to their significance in the social development of a human being.
One of the most important parts of any essay
is selecting a topic. Once you've tackled this you can begin outlining approaches to defining your term for your audience. Your personal experiences can play a key role in creating engaging, thoughtful content; you may be surprised to discover the very interesting and compelling views you can explore through definition essays.