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Author's profile photo Mark Childress

Definitions: Keeping the good while avoiding the bad (and the ugly)

Who doesn’t like a good definition? Snappy, to the point, pithy, and instantly able to tell you what you want to know about the term and the concept behind it.

All too often, it’s not like that. The writer serves up a mishmash of soggy sentences, self-referencing text, and even more vague, undefined terms. These definitions give terminology a bad rep.

How does one avoid bad (and ugly) definitions? What’s needed in a good definition?

  • For a start, avoid the temptation to just start writing and cross fingers that it’ll work out. Bad research and preparation results in bad definitions.
  • Summarize the unique characteristics of the concept in a succinct manner. Comprehensiveness may require a long definition. So be it, as long as the resulting definition is concise.
  • No repetition of the term being defined. No repetition of the subject area if it’s already clear what that is. No mealy-mouthed phrasings like “term used in” or “term seen in”.
  • Apply the same stringency to grammar and style as to other texts. A definition is just as important to a reader – indeed, a definition may be more important, and more likely to be read by more people, than any given text in which the term appears.
  • Know the audience and craft the definition accordingly. A grand, sweeping definition of a major subject area in an introductory textbook must keep the student or the layperson in mind and not introduce expert-level concepts. On the other hand, a definition of a specific key concept need not restate the obvious if specialists are the target audience.

The more good definitions you write, the easier it gets. A sound ecosystem of definitions is vital to long-term success – good definitions build upon each other. No term exists in a terminological vacuum. Good definitions make you want to look up other definitions, in the same way an interesting encyclopedia article tempts you into reading more, and more.

Follow these guidelines when writing definitions and avoid the worst pitfalls. It’s easy to write a fair definition on the fly and off the cuff and get away with it. But spend a little bit more time on it and make the definition a good one or even great.

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