60 Writing Topics for Extended Definitions

These essays go beyond dictionary entries using analysis and examples

Book in library with old open textbook
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Simply put, a definition is a statement of the meaning of a word or phrase. An extended definition goes beyond what can be found in a dictionary, offering an expanded analysis and illustration of a concept that might be abstract, controversial, unfamiliar, or frequently misunderstood. Take, for example, writings such as William James' "Pragmatic Theory of Truth" or John Berger's "The Meaning of Home."

Approaching the Abstract

Abstract concepts, including many of the broad terms in the list that follows, need to be "brought to earth" with an example to relate what they mean to your reader and to get your point or opinion across. You could illustrate the concepts with anecdotes from your personal life or examples from the news or current events, or write an opinion piece. There's no single method for developing and organizing a paragraph or essay by extended definition. The 60 concepts listed here can be defined in various ways and from different points of view.

Brainstorming and Prewriting

Start with brainstorming your topic. If you work well with lists, write the word at the top of the paper and fill the rest of the page with all the things that the word makes you think of, feel, see, or even smell, without stopping. It's OK to go off on tangents, as you might find a surprising connection that could make a powerful, insightful, or even humorous essay. Alternatively, brainstorm by writing the word in the middle of your paper and connect other related words to it and each other.

As you develop your angle, think about the concept's background, features, characteristics, and parts. What is the concept's opposite? What are its effects on you or others? Something in your list or word map will spark a writing idea or theme to use to illustrate the abstract concept, and then it's off to the races. If you run into a dead end the first time, go back to your list and pick another idea. It's possible that your first draft turns out to be prewriting and leads to a better idea that can be developed further and can possibly even incorporate the prewriting exercise. Time spent writing is time spent exploring and is never wasted, as sometimes it takes a bit of pursuit to discover the perfect idea.

If seeing examples will help spark your essay, take a look at "Gifts," by Ralph Waldo Emerson, Gore Vidal's "Definition of Prettiness," or "A Definition of Pantomime," by Julian Barnes.

60 Topic Suggestions

Looking for a place to start? Here are 60 words and phrases so broad that writings on them could be infinite:

  • Trust
  • Kindness
  • Sexism
  • Gumption
  • Racism
  • Sportsmanship
  • Honor
  • Modesty
  • Self-assurance
  • Humility
  • Dedication
  • Sensitivity
  • Peace of mind
  • Respect
  • Ambition
  • Right to privacy
  • Generosity
  • Laziness
  • Charisma
  • Common sense
  • Team player
  • Maturity
  • Integrity
  • Healthy appetite
  • Frustration
  • Optimism
  • Sense of humor
  • Liberal
  • Conservative
  • A good (or bad) teacher or professor
  • Physical fitness
  • Feminism
  • A happy marriage
  • True friendship
  • Courage
  • Citizenship
  • Success
  • A good (or bad) coach
  • Intelligence
  • Personality
  • A good (or bad) roommate
  • Political correctness
  • Peer pressure
  • Leadership
  • Persistence
  • Responsibility
  • Human rights
  • Sophistication
  • Self-respect
  • Heroism
  • Thrift
  • Sloth
  • Vanity
  • Pride
  • Beauty
  • Greed
  • Virtue
  • Progress
  • A good (or bad) boss
  • A good (or bad) parent