To define a word, use a dictionary, a collection of simple definitions, usually including synonyms. The dictionary might define the word banal by using the synonym commonplace. It might also define a word by class.
The American Heritage Dictionary, for example, says that a martini is “A cocktail of gin or vodka and dry vermouth.” A cocktail manual might take this definition further by writing “A Gibson is a martini with an onion instead of an olive.”
Many dictionary definitions include the class to which the word belongs.
Some terms, however, are too complex for simple definitions. To define behavior modification, for example, you would have to write a definition paragraph.
A definition paragraph may elaborate a simple definition by going into more detail about the synonyms and class or subclass to which the term belongs. It may give examples, or it may detail a process. It may even define by negation—by saying what the term is not.
Begin your definition paragraph with the term to be defined, then devote the body of the paragraph to explaining that term.
My strangest job after college was my year and a half apprenticeship at a photo-retouching studio. Most people don’t know that every model in a fashion magazine, every soup can in a magazine ad, even many newspaper photos, are retouched. Before the advent of Photoshop, photo-retouchers, using brushes and paints and dyes and bleaches, did all the work by hand. They might have made small changes, such as darkening the ice cubes and erasing bubbles in a photo of a glass of Coca Cola. Or they might have radically changed a supermodel’s dress size and hair color. I once watched a retoucher shave thirty pounds from a chubby Bette Midler photograph for the cover of her Thighs and Whispers album. This was no easy task—Ms. Midler wore a strapless dress with crepe-like wrinkles. Using chemicals and paint, he had to erase the sides of her body, redraw the sides and the wrinkly dress further in, then extend the orange background to fill in the missing space. He slimmed her fat face too, took frizz out of her ghastly hair, and removed wrinkles and blemishes from her skin. And he had to do this so carefully that the changes were invisible to the human eye, which can pick up minute discrepancies in a photograph. If, for example, the retoucher drew the edge between the dress and the background too sharply, instead of blurring the edge in the manner of real photographs, the average music fan would see the sharpness as quickly as some of us see the face of a burn victim passing on the street. A good retoucher’s work is invisible.
Choose one of the terms below, or choose one of your own, and write a definition paragraph.
A psychiatric disorder, such as autism or ADD.
A job title, such as barista or sauté chef
A philosophy, such as dialectics or epistemology or atheism.
A foreign policy such as unilateralism or détente.
A controversial subject, such as arranged marriage or corporal punishment
A genre or sub-genre of music, such as jazz or bebop.
A lifestyle choice, such childlessness or single motherhood.
An area of expertise or deep knowledge, such as online gaming or EXCEL.