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Teacher Tips and Answers

Prewriting for Definition Essays

The word define comes from a Latin word that means "find the edges of something," or "mark out the boundaries or limits of something." Your definition essay should therefore explore the meaning of a word in the same way that you would explore a campsite—walking edge to edge, checking out the fire pit, figuring out where to pitch a tent, noticing where the trails lead, taking in the view. You need to explore the topic of your definition essay just as you would explore a place. In fact, the word topic comes from the Greek word for "place." These activities will help you explore your topic and set up camp within the word.

Prewriting to Select a Topic

The topic of your essay can be any word that fascinates you. It could be a word from a school subject or just a word that you find intriguing:




angle, parallel, congruent, linear, average, significant, variable, fraction, difference, symbol


force, mass, vector, field, wave, gravity, cycle, system, biome, organism, consciousness, microbe, process, symbol

Social Studies

era, policy, right, rule, produce, consume, conflict, genocide, compromise, belief, symbol


thesis, argument, verb, preposition, literature, theme, character, mood, tone, symbol


intrigue, nerd, geek, donnybrook, widdershins, eclectic, obtuse, inordinate, sensation, spectacle, symbol

What word fascinates me most and why?

I often hear the words nerd and geek, but some people insist that they are nerds and not geeks and some that they are geeks and not nerds, and some people say they are both. I know these words used to be negatives, but a lot of people see them as positives. I'd like to know what the difference is between them and how they started to be used the way they are used now.


Note that each of these lists ends in the word symbol, which directly relates to each subject. Look back over the lists. Many of the other words in the individual lists also relate to the other subjects. For example, angle, parallel, congruent, linear, average, significant, variable, and so on relate not just to math but also to science, social studies, life, and language. The best topics for definition essays do not have one meaning but many meanings. (In other words, you could explore the word triangle or even equilateral over many pages, but you'd be hard pressed to write much about isosceles.)

Think of fascinating words and pick a topic.

Create a chart of interesting words from your school subjects and words that intrigue you from everyday life. Choose a word or a set of words that you want to explore in a definition essay. Make a copy of this Google doc or download a Word template.

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