Advanced Writing for the College-Bound

Bruce A. McMenomy, Ph.D. for Scholars Online
2010-11: Thursday 9:00 AM to 10:30 AM Eastern Time

Unit 0:
A Preliminary Assessment

Unit 1:
The Right Question

Unit 2:
Purpose and Audience

Unit 3:
Getting Ideas

Unit 4:

Unit 5:

Unit 6:

Unit 7:
Supporting Your Claim

Unit 8:
Bad Reasoning

Unit 9:
Forestalling Counter-Arguments

Unit 10:
Research and Documentation

Unit 11:
Organizing: Overview

Unit 12:

Unit 13:

Unit 14:

Unit 15:
Beginnings and Endings

Unit 16:

Unit 4: Definition

“I am a star at rest, my daughter,” answered Ramandu. “When I set for the last time, decrepit and old beyond all that you can reckon, I was carried to this island. I am not so old now as I was then. Every morning a bird brings me a fire-berry from the valleys in the Sun, and each fire-berry takes away a little of my age. And when I have become as young as the child that was born yesterday, then I shall take my rising again (for we are at the earth’s easter rim) and once more tread the great dance.”

“In our world,” said Eustace, “a star is a huge ball of flaming gas.”

“Even in your world, my son, that is not what a star is but only what it is made of.”

— C. S. Lewis, The Voyage of the Dawn Treader

Drawing the Boundary and Painting the Picture

Getting to the essence of something — the unique characteristics that make any given thing what it is and not something else — isn’t always easy. We tend to be distracted, and slide into secondary matters — describing components, characteristics, uses, or other people’s opinions, without realizing that we are still not looking at the essence. These distractions make the various types of descriptive essays among the most difficult to write.

The philosopher Aristotle distinguished between essential characteristics, which make a thing what it is, and accidents, or characteristics that can change from one instance of a thing to another. For example, we might define as essential to the definition of “chair” that it has a seat and a back. But a given chair might be made of wood or steel, might be brown wood or covered with plaid fabric, and it might have armrests or it might not. Those features would be accidental characteristics of a given chair; the seat and the back would be part of its essence, which it shared with all other things we could call “chair”.

Chairs are relatively easy. What is essential about freedom? The Christian Church? Literature? The American political system? Describing or defining abstract concepts puts our abilities to perceive and articulate essential characteristics to the test, which is why such subjects show up so often on examinations.

main points for this unit

Writing a Descriptive Essay

There are several variants of the descriptive essay. A definition essay requires that we describe the essential characteristic of the subject at hand, the thing that can be used to identify the concept or thing and distinguish it from similar subjects. A description (narrowly considered) varies somewhat with the occasion. It requires that we list relevant characteristics and possibly its components; we may also need to fit the subject into the larger picture. It need not be as water-tight as a true definition essay. Compare and contrast essays require that we show what characteristics are shared by similar subjects, and how the subjects are different, both in essence and perhaps in accidents. A summary essay requires that we cover the principal components of the subject in an organized fashion, and show how they make up the whole. Broadly defined, a descriptive essay may require that we use several of these approaches to give the reader a complete picture.

In this unit, we will outline the range of descriptive essays, but the exercise at the end will concentrate on the first sort — the true definition.


Pure definition is harder than it seems. The test of a definition is the accuracy with which it draws the line, and it comes in two parts:

If the answer to either of those questions is no, you don’t have a definition even on your own terms. Definitions — true definitions — cannot leak.

Defining something simple with a clear real-world referent — say, “duck”, or “basket”, or “automobile” — is a good deal trickier than it originally seems. When you are asked for a definition, you need to produce an answer that confronts the question, “What is X?” head-on. Don’t derail the discussion onto what X can do, how big it is, what it tastes like, why it is better than something else, or why it isn’t currently in fashion. You need to produce a definition that will cover every species of duck, basket, or automobile.

The problem would appear to be all that much harder if we’re trying to define one of those common but vague terms like “civilization”, “peace”, “culture”, “poetry”, “science”, or “nature”. Such terms are often contested: they don’t have a simple objective reference point on which everyone can agree. This very looseness, however, confers upon you a great deal of power: it allows you to take charge of the question by limiting the domain to which it applies. You can decide what is going to be in the set you’re defining. If you decide that the only thing that deserves to be called poetry, for example, are limericks and double-dactyls, so be it. The consequence of making that decision is that you must live with it — from there on, you are not allowed to refer to epics, haiku, or sonnets as poems. If your definition of civilization requires flush toilets, you cannot refer to the civilization of the Romans or Greeks. This may prove constraining and inconvenient.

Of course these big abstract definition questions are still tough if you take them seriously; for many they are also the most interesting. Philosophers and theologians struggle with such questions constantly, and here it is important to distinguish definitions that are merely terms of convenience from those where we are attempting to delineate something that has a real existence, even if it’s not objectively verifiable. There may really be, for example no fixed reality — no thing — that we can identify as “civilization”. Fine. Decide what you are going to mean when you use the term, and move on. Often this kind of low-level definition is really just a kind of practical quantifier, just as you might say that the temperature is hot when it’s over 75°. Neither you nor your friend, who insists that it’s only hot when it’s over 90°, has any real objective standard to point to, and hence no grounds for defending your definition over against the other person’s. Such definitions of terms merely tell us something about your plans for using the word in the future. It may, on the other hand, matter enormously to you to establish that there is such a thing as poetry, justice, or divine grace. If it does, then you take on a much greater responsibility: you are striving to reveal the shape of something that is both real and probably important. Your definition may not satisfy you completely, but a responsible job of it will explore the limits of your thinking.

Most reasonable teachers know something about these different categories of question, so when such a question shows up on an exam, you’re probably not expected to produce exactly the right answer as to posit and defend a position with rigor and disciplined thought.

Compare and Contrast

Comparison requires us to consider what the subject is like, and examine the ways in which it is like and unlike that thing to be compared.

An interesting usage question arises in the phrasing of such questions, and if you have any doubt about the intentions of your teacher, it’s probably smart to ask for clarification: the word “compare” is variously defined (even in the same dictionary) as “to note the similarities between two things” and also “to note the similarities and differences between two things”. One occasionally hears of examiners who only want to hear about similarities if they’ve simply asked for a comparison. This seems intellectually dubious, since recognizing likeness goes hand in hand with recognizing unlikeness. But be on your guard. If, of course, the question asks you to compare and contrast, you know that you’re expected to do both, and you can proceed without worrying about it.

Composition and Components

Here we look at the question from the point of view of the engineer, rather than the analyst. What is our subject made of? What are its parts? How might we (if we were in a position to do so) put one together?

Some essay questions will ask you to start here, with parts rather than causes. In that case, a really good approach is to brainstorm and list all the things that you can thing of that are associated with the subject, then organize those things into groups.

Contexts, Connections, and Consequences

Sometimes questions ask you how something fits into the broader scheme of which it is a part — seldom all the way up (eventually) to Life, the Universe, and Everything, but most often to the next-higher level of organization in whatever system is relevant. This is kind of like the composition or component approach, only it looks outward rather than inward.

An important sub-group here is the examination of the effects something has on other parts of its environment. An important aspect of the description of a medicine, for example, is its (expected or actual) results on the patient in clinical and practical use. Aspirin may be defined completely and accurately as acetylsalicylic acid, and that’s fine; but in certain contexts, what we really need is a functional description — namely, that it is used as a pain reliever and an anti-inflammatory agent. The concept of civilization has its own consequences; we might consider the actual interactions of civilizations (however we’ve defined them), or consider the changes that occur when a civilization develops in or expands into a previously uncivilized (by somebody’s standards) area.

Opinions and Usage

Sometimes, a term takes on a specific connotation to certain people, and becomes so much a part of the cultural lexicon that it cannot be considered apart from the people that use it. The concept of civilization could be such a category: if we say, “He acted in an uncivilized manner”, we mean that his actions were barbarous or savage, inappropriate, and dangerous to whatever civilization exists.

Dictionaries are good sources for this kind of usage-based “definition” — the practical exploration of the question, “How is this term used?” A dictionary entry for a word will reflect the common opinion of people using the language. A dictionary usually is not a good starting place for philosophically rigorous definitions of terms or ideas, precisely because they tend to represent an amalgam of the ways different people use the term.

Caution: Evaluative Questions Masked as Definitions

Watch out for words like “best” and “most” in essay questions: they’re signals that the question being asked isn’t really a definitional one at all. While you may need to write a description of what coffee is to answer “What is the best coffee?”, the intent of such an essay subject is evaluation, not definition or description, and requires you to use analysis and persuasion, in addition to any description you might include.


Based on one of the definition essay topics below of the subjects below:

  1. Write a thesis statement for it.
  2. Using brainstorming, freewriting, and the other techniques you learned last time in whatever way or proportion seems good to you, generate at least ten ideas for your essay, and then rank the ideas in order, from most to least useful.
  3. Write a draft essay of 200-300 words to answer your chosen definition question. Your essay should have an introductory paragraph explaining and expanding on your thesis statement (and may even include it as the topic sentence), at least three paragraphs in support of that position providing distinctions, examples, or set limitations to your definition, and a conclusion that does not merely reiterate the first paragraph and your opening points, but sets the subject into some larger context. Stay within the word limit. The point here is not to flesh out the details, but to understand the direction your essay must take and its overall organization.
  4. Keep your essay organized as specified, but get a substantive definition down. Remember that a true definition needs to be 100% leak-proof.

  1. What is poetry?
  2. What is civilization?
  3. What is justice?
  4. What is courage?