In many ways, the definition essay is the most fundamental essay type, since it requires the student to examine in detail the characteristics of a given thing or concept. Essentially all writing emerges from the mental habit of analyzing things according to their constituent parts that the definition essay helps you to practice. Even a literature essay, for example, examines the definitive characteristics of a given work and is therefore a kind of definition essay in its own way. "What are the central themes of Moby Dick?" "What are the ironies inherent in 'Young Goodman Brown'"? "How Does Amy Tan use dialogue to show generational differences among her first- and second-generation characters?" All of these questions emerge from the definition essay, and, for this reason, it is essential to master the art of defining things and ideas as precisely as possible early in the semester.
Students often approach the definition essay as if it required quoting a dictionary definition: "According to Webster's, love means . . ." While the dictionary provides a decent starting point for the definition essay and should certainly be consulted, it should not stand as the final authority. Creative writers, philosophers, scientists, and researchers are constantly busy defining and redefining terms and objects in the world. Use your imagination! Even if you're using your definition essay to define something as simple as a shoelace, you should look for something about the shoelace that nobody else has noticed. Furthermore, in an English class, you're usually not constrained to defining something general in your definition essay. Instead of writing a definition essay about shoes in general, for instance, why not write a more specific essay called "My Grandfather's Shoes"? In a short essay, it's far more interesting to define something unique than something general, and most professors will appreciate the extra effort you make to go beyond what the dictionary says.