A Definition essay will share your special understanding about some idea or thing. Such things as water or bird are very specific and concrete, so there's almost nothing you can add to the readers' understanding of them. However, such objects as integrity, music, or love are very abstract, and each can interprete them differently. Sometimes a definition will prove to be a small but important part of an essay; sometimes a definition will be the sole work of an entire essay. When it's the major impetus of an essay, there are several points to remember.
First, don't rely on that old cliche of the dictionary or encyclopedia definition. Even if your intent is to show how inadequate or wrong-headed the dictionary might be, this device has been used far too often to be effective. The point of your essay is to provide your reader with a new way of looking at things - your way.
One way of defining something is to say what it is not. If you're defining the idea of "home," you could begin by suggesting that the old saying "There's no place like home" is silly because there are, in fact, many places like home - or you could insist that home is really not a place at all. The opportunity to define is an opportunity to exercise your poetic imagination, to show how most people's sense of something is faulty or inadequate and that there is a better understanding (yours!) to consider.
In selecting a topic to define, look for something that you can define within your own experience and that will allow your poetic imagination some room to play. It might be a big mistake for your English instructor to define reggae or rap music, but there are many students who could do a great job. If you try to define something that is beyond the comprehension of your paper or your own experience, the task will become overwhelming and get mired down in details or abstractions. You could write a book trying to define a concept such as conservatism or liberalism and you still wouldn't have said anything that more than two other people would agree with. Students would be wise to avoid abstract notions such as patriotism, beauty, justice, love, or being a good sport.
On the other hand, it can be useful - even fun - to take a rather abstract notion and put a spin on it. There doesn't appear to be much point in defining a student, for example, but defining what we mean by a good student could be interesting. Push that definition to the limit to make a special point. A good student is not necessarily one that earns good grades or even one that does his or her best; a good student is one that makes the teacher feel like a good teacher. Or try defining a good teacher, a good parent, a good doctor, a good lover. In any case, if you are going to define something that everyone else has some idea about, you will need to shed fresh, even surprising light upon your subject.
Some important rhetorical points about defining things:
- Avoid using the phrases "is where" and "is when" in your definition: "Total Quality Management is when management and labor agree to..." "A computer virus is where..."
- Avoid circular definitions (repeating the defined term within the predicate, the definition itself): "A computer virus is a virus that destroys or disrupts software..."
- Avoid using a too narrow definition, one that would unduly limit the scope of your paper: "Reggae music is sung on the Caribbean island of Jamaica..."
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