Writing a Definition Essay
You've selected a term or two, gathered denotations and connotations and other details, and created a working thesis statement. You're ready to draft your definition essay. The following activities will help you build a strong beginning, develop middle paragraphs, and create an ending that effectively wraps up your definition.
Writing the Beginning Paragraph
The first sentence or two of your definition essay needs to grab your reader's interest. You can experiment with a number of different strategies to write an effective lead.
Write a lead sentence.
Experiment with leads for your essay using each strategy below. Read the examples for ideas. Then choose your favorite lead to start your essay. Make a copy of this Google doc or download a Word template.
- Start with an interesting quotation.
“I was such a nerd, a complete geek, but then I was lucky enough to have a fancy career, where I can be like ‘See, I'm not a nerd. Look, I'm in Vogue.’ ”
- Ask an engaging question.
So, just how did the nerds come to rule the universe?
- Provide an anecdote.
Fifty years ago, the only people who sat in front of computers were nerds. Now, all kinds of people carry computers in their pockets and read them in their palms and hold them in front of their faces and smile.
- Make a shocking statement.
One way to beat a bully is to turn an insult into a badge of honor.
Write your beginning paragraph.
Start with your lead, and then provide background information and develop a paragraph leading to your thesis statement.
Writing the Middle Paragraphs
Develop middle paragraphs that fully explore the meaning of your term(s). Start each paragraph with a topic sentence that names the main point. Thoroughly support each topic sentence using denotations, connotations, etymology, synonyms, antonyms, and other details. Make sure to select words that show your enthusiasm for the topic and connect to your reader.
Write your middle paragraphs.
Develop a paragraph of support for each main point about your thesis statement.
Allow students to develop these paragraphs first if they wish. Sometimes, students prefer to work from the details up to the thesis statement rather than the reverse direction.
Writing the Ending Paragraph
Your ending paragraph draws your definition essay to an effective close. You can develop this paragraph using a number of different ending strategies.
Try ending strategies.
Write a sentence for each ending strategy. Read the examples for ideas. Then consider using some or all of these sentences in your ending paragraph. Make a copy of this Google doc or download a Word template.
- Reflect on how the term has changed over time.
Geeks began as unskilled carnival workers and ended up as the richest people in the world.
- Connect to popular culture.
Heroes come in all forms, from the Hulk with his erupting rage and giant green fists to Doctor Who with a police call box and a sonic screwdriver.
- Use another powerful quotation.
Felicia Day once noted, "The substance of what it means to be a geek is essentially someone who's brave enough to love something against judgment. The heart of being a geek is a little bit of rejection."
- Leave the reader with a strong final thought.
We live at a time when sports fans proudly call themselves "baseball nerds" and geek out over the World Cup and organize fantasy football leagues.
Write your ending paragraph.
Use some or all of the strategies you tried above as you build an ending paragraph for your definition essay.
Reading a Definition Essay
Read a student sample.
As you read this draft, notice how the writer puts the parts together.
Listen to "Get Your Nerd On"
Sample Definition Essay
Get Your Nerd On
Beginning Paragraph In the days of traveling circuses, the lion tamer, trapeze artist, and tightrope walker were royalty. The bearded lady and wolf boy themselves had a certain cachet. Etymology But lowest of the low was the wild man whose only skill was biting the heads off chickens. That was the geek. Savage. Lowbrow. Grotesque. Thesis Statement In the last fifty years, the terms geek and nerd went from insults for social rejects to badges of honor for some of the most successful people in the world. How?
Middle Paragraphs While geek began its career as a name for an outcast sideshow carney, nerd got its start in Dr. Seuss's 1950 book If I Ran a Zoo:
And then, just to show them, I'll sail to Ka-Troo
And bring back an It-Kutch, a Preep, and a Proo,
A Nerkle, a Nerd, and a Seersucker too.
The nerd in the zoo was just like the geek in the carnival—an oddity that people would pay money to gawk at. Quotation In 1951, Newsweek gave the first definition of nerd for people: "In Detroit, someone who once would be called a drip or a square is now, regrettably, a nerd." This sense of being a social outcast persists in the modern definition of each term. Denotation Merriam-Webster defines a nerd as "an unstylish, unattractive, or socially inept person; especially one slavishly devoted to intellectual or academic pursuits," and defines a geek as "a person often of an intellectual bent who is disliked." The nerd is a socially awkward bookworm. The geek is a know-it-all.
Topic Sentence These negative definitions predominated in the middle of the last century. In 1965, Milton-Bradley released the Mystery Date game, in which girls opened a little plastic door hoping for a handsome, athletic suitor rather than then bookish, socially awkward "dud." In 1975, National Lampoon published a poster that asked "Are You a Nerd?" and showed a gangly young man with black plastic glasses taped in the middle, a white button-down shirt with black tie and pocket protector, Farah Slacks that did not cover his white socks, and a pair of wingtips. The text below began, "Let's hope not. . . ." In 1984, the film Revenge of the Nerds presented the hilarious concept that a group of socially inept bookworms could somehow win out over the jock fraternity Alpha Beta and its cheerleader sorority, Pi Delta Pi.
Somehow, though, that's exactly what happened. Nerds and geeks became prominent in the computer revolution of the 1970s, but they didn't become socially acceptable until the Internet revolution of the 1990s, and didn't become masters of the universe until the social-media revolution of the 2000s. Fifty years ago, only losers spent any time sitting in front of computers. Now, everyone carries a pocket computer and checks it every few minutes and lifts it to smile and share and be popular. Bill Gates and his generation of nerds began by building computers in their garages and ended by becoming the richest people in the world. Even Hollywood has been taken over by nerds and geeks, with comic books and fantasy novels inspiring the biggest blockbusters. We've all lived through the Revenge of the Nerds, but this time it wasn't for laughs.
Connotation So, now that the outcasts have risen to the top of the heap, we should think a little bit about the shades of difference between the words nerd and geek. Merriam-Webster offers them as synonyms for each other, but each has a slightly different focus. A nerd is "slavishly devoted to intellectual or academic pursuits," which connotes a serious, laborious, scholarly interest. A geek is "an enthusiast or expert especially in a technological field or activity," which connotes a joyful, active, techie interest. Nerds are obsessed introverts. Geeks are obsessed extroverts.
Examples Now that both terms have shucked many of their negative connotations, they are used by people about all kinds of non-academic, non-techie subjects. We live at a time when sports fans proudly call themselves "baseball nerds" and geek out over the World Cup and organize fantasy football leagues. In addition to wine connoisseurs, we have beer nerds; in addition to gourmands, we have food geeks. We have election nerds and gardening geeks. Anyone with a serious, scholarly fascination can proudly wear the nerd badge, and anyone with an exuberant, wild-man interest can fly the geek banner.
Ending Paragraph These onetime insults have undergone re-appropriation, a process by which a marginalized group takes on a slur and turns it into a source of pride. Though nerd and geek have lost most of their negative connotations, a sense of social isolation still exists within them. The actress Felicia Day reflected, "The substance of what it means to be a geek is essentially someone who's brave enough to love something against judgment. The heart of being a geek is a little bit of rejection." Though the bookish nerds have progressed from being the "duds" of Mystery Date to the CEOs of Amazon, Google, and Microsoft, they still sometimes feel that their intense interests leave them just outside of the circle of "popular kids."
Show students how strong word choice creates interest: cachet, wild man, savage, lowbrow, grotesque, carney—and those appear just in the first paragraph. By selecting evocative nouns, precise verbs, and colorful modifiers, students can engage readers and show their investment in the topic.