Schreiner University, ENGL 1301: Rhetoric & Composition—Illustrative Definition Essay

Below appears an authoritative set of guidelines for the Illustrative Definition Essay (IllDef), superseding any previously published information about the IllDef.


One of the things that first-year composition courses are supposed to do is begin to bring students into the patterns of discourse that prevail in academia. In general, those patterns are argumentative in nature, asserting an idea and supporting that idea through the systematic application of informed reasoning to present evidence. In itself, “argument” is a broad rubric, too broad to be treated meaningfully as a monolithic construct; as such, argument tends to be broken down into a number of types, of which names differ across institutions, programs, and disciplinary identities.

Whatever the organization, however, arguments made as part of it will benefit from being grounded in solid definitions; that is, to make an argument well requires that the core terms used in producing the argument have meanings that remain stable throughout the argument. Yet arriving at definitions is not a given; even looking up words in dictionaries shows multiple meanings for most words, and the dictionaries do not always agree upon those definitions. (Connotations add another layer of complexity, and a thick one, to the issue.) Each of those definitions, however, is not capriciously decided upon; it is instead culled from common patterns of usage. That is, lexicographers—those who make dictionaries—look at how a given term is used and assert consistencies in that usage as the denotations of the words being defined. The IllDef works to the same end, identifying examples of a writer-determined group and using the common features of those examples to arrive at a definition of a term that can be used for later work in the course.

Completing the IllDef will require students to do a number of things:

Information about each follows, along with a copy of the relevant grading rubric and notes.

Decide upon a Group and Quality

Defining a term requires some framing; there needs to be some group to be treated and some quality to be applied to the group, the combination of which forms the term to be defined. For the IllDef, following the general course theme for the Fall 2016 term at Schreiner University, students are asked to consider rooms as their group. That is, students should consider rooms in which they have been or in which they still often find themselves. Many types of room are available, however, so the broad group of “rooms” will need to be narrowed down in some useful way. Ideally, the type of room treated in the Desc will be the overall group handled by the IllDef, but even the individual room described in the earlier essay belongs to several groups; any such are acceptable for the current project.

With a group chosen, a quality needs to be selected. That is, for a given type of room, some form or characteristic needs to be identified. At its simplest, the quality can be a one-word descriptor such as “good,” “bad,” or “ugly.” More helpfully, however, a phrasal descriptor could be applied, something like a “good for studying” or “bad for bringing a date back to.” What the quality will be is open to the writer’s determination; the IllDef is a place to explore and to advance ideas, and far-ranging work opens the opportunity for excellence.

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Identify Representative Examples of the Group

With a group and quality determined, the work of definition begins—and it begins with finding source materials. To determine what it means for a member of the chosen group to demonstrate the asserted quality means that an idea of that quality, as applied to that group, and such an idea comes from members of that group. That is, they come from examples of the group. Accordingly, students writing the IllDef should identify several representatives of the group they decided upon—typically some five to seven—making sure that those representatives are, in fact, representative of the group (e.g., a group of “teenagers’ bedrooms” should probably not include one shared among five members of a family when one, but only one, is a teenager). There will preferably be some divergence among the group representatives, as that divergence allows for a more accurate idea to be developed—but that will depend upon the group being named; “suburban powder rooms” likely admits of more diversity than does a group composed of one floor of a dormitory.

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Identify Common Features

Once the representative members of the group are identified, describing them will be necessary (the skills practiced in developing materials for the Desc will come into play). A list of features—and perhaps even the impressions conveyed by those features—for each representative will be useful, as such lists will facilitate the development of yet another: a list of features common among representative members of the group.

It is not necessary that all features be shared by all representatives; indeed, it will rarely be the case that any two representatives will share all features. What matters is that there are patterns of occurrence among the representatives. A feature that shows up in six of seven examples is compellingly typical of the group; one that shows up in four or five of seven is less so, but still useful. A feature occurring in three of seven examples is not likely to be telling, and one in one or two may well be odd and idiosyncratic, not fit to use as a nascent standard.

The number of features that emerge will differ depending on the group, the quality, and the representative examples chosen. A good range for a paper of the requested length, however, might be four to seven, which range allows for enough detail to make an informed decision while not demanding more than a paper of the requested scope can adequately treat. As noted above, those shared by more members of the group are likely to be of greater importance than those shared by few; attention should focus on those which have the most evidence supporting them.

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Compose a Thesis

Armed with an idea of the group, the applicable quality, and descriptive features culled from representative examples of the group, students should draft a one-sentence thesis statement. The thesis is the single most important sentence in the paper; it is the central idea that the essay will lead into through its introduction, support in its body, and move forward from in its conclusion. It is, in effect, the whole point of the paper.

The thesis for the IllDef will do well to follow a basic pattern: A [quality] [group] is one that [list the most common qualities]. Variations on the pattern are to be expected, of course; a phrasal quality will need different presentation than a one-word, and a more narrowly defined group will do more work to form a central idea than will one conceived of only broadly.

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Compose the IllDef PV

Taken together, the four items noted above constitute a sequence of prewriting that should guide student thinking about the topic and the desired approach to it. That is, the aforementioned do not produce deliverable writing in themselves, but they lead towards the first deliverable for the project: the IllDef PV.

The IllDef PV should be a reasonably complete argument, one that conveys an idea about a place-related concept and support for it to a primary reader belonging to the general public of the United States in the early twenty-first century. That is, readers should be able to read the IllDef PV and get a clear idea of the argument being made without having to ask the writer additional questions (although wanting to ask the writer additional questions is often a sign of engaging writing). Readers have to be able to follow along easily and well as they are presented with evidence supporting the central idea of the paper and explanations of how the evidence serves to offer that support. They also need to be brought into the paper smoothly and well, and they need to be given some indication of what they can do with the thesis once it is validated. The paper will do well to offer an introduction that leads to a statement of thesis, followed a series of paragraphs that each explicates a given feature (using evidence from the representative group members in support), and a culminating paragraph that returns to the thesis briefly before motioning forward to future utility of that thesis.

The IllDef PV should be approximately 1,300 words in length (+/- 25), exclusive of heading (student name, instructor name, course/section, and date of composition), title, and any necessary end-citations (see Note 1, below). It should be typed in black, double-spaced, 12-point Garamond, Georgia, or Times New Roman font on letter-sized pages; the heading should be flush left, the title centered horizontally, and the body flush left with the first lines of paragraphs indented one-half inch from the left margin. Page numbers should be in the margin at the top of the page on the right margin, preceded by the writer’s surname, and in the same typeface as the rest of the paper.

Each writer should bring a IllDef PV that represents the writer’s best work to class as a typed, physical copy on 24 October 2016. Class that day will be taken up with peer review, during which other writers will read and comment upon the content and organization (not the mechanics) of the paper, making suggestions for improvement and indicating places where the paper works well—and explaining the comments so that the underlying principles can be used in future writing.

As peer review progresses, the instructor will call for individual papers, checking to see if they are present as requested and whether or not, in general terms, they do what they need to do. Time constraints in class will prevent detailed reading by the instructor during peer review, so specific comments will be few, but the setting does allow for a holistic sense of each paper’s direction to be developed. That sense will be noted as the score for a minor assignment grade; the score will conform to the grading scale in Table 2 of the course syllabus. (Obviously, those students who do not arrive in class with their IllDef PVs in hand will not be able to receive any helpful score for the assignment. Note the “Late Work” section of the course syllabus.)

Although a reasonably complete paper is expected, it is understood that the IllDef PV is a work in progress. Changes to it are therefore also expected; they should not be viewed as failures, but seized upon as opportunities to improve writing techniques and to enhance the connections between writer and topic and writer and readers. Also, see Note 2, below.

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Revise the IllDef PV into the IllDef RV

After peer review, writers should take their papers, review the comments made by their readers, and incorporate those found useful into their ongoing work. That is, they should work to improve their theses’ phrasing, the quality and extent of evidentiary support for the same, the rigor and detail of explanations of the evidence, motion among the various parts of the papers, and entries into and exits from the argument. The result will become the IllDef RV.

The IllDef RV should (still) be a reasonably complete argument, one that conveys an idea about a place-related concept and support for it to a primary reader belonging to the general public of the United States in the early twenty-first century. That is, readers should (still) be able to read the IllDef RV and get a clear idea of the argument being made without having to ask the writer additional questions (although wanting to ask the writer additional questions is often a sign of engaging writing). Readers still have to be able to follow along easily and well as they are presented with evidence supporting the central idea of the paper and explanations of how the evidence serves to offer that support. They still also need to be brought into the paper smoothly and well, and they need to be given some indication of what they can do with the thesis once it is validated. The paper will continue to do well to offer an introduction that leads to a statement of thesis, followed a series of paragraphs that each explicates a given feature (using evidence from the representative group members in support), and a culminating paragraph that returns to the thesis briefly before motioning forward to future utility of that thesis.

The IllDef RV should be approximately 1,300 words in length (+/- 25), exclusive of heading (student name, instructor name, course/section, and date of composition), title, and any necessary end-citations (see Note 1, below). It should be typed in black, double-spaced, 12-point Garamond, Georgia, or Times New Roman font on letter-sized pages; the heading should be flush left, the title centered horizontally, and the body flush left with the first lines of paragraphs indented one-half inch from the left margin. Page numbers should be in the margin at the top of the page on the right margin, preceded by the writer’s surname, and in the same typeface as the rest of the paper.

Each writer should submit a typed, electronic copy of the IllDef RV to the instructor through Schreiner One before the beginning of class time on 28 October 2016. The copy needs to be in .doc, .docx, or .rtf format so that it can be opened and read by the instructor; other file formats potentially present difficulties in that regard, and a paper that cannot be read cannot receive a useful score or commentary. It will be assessed according to the grading rubric below for a minor assignment grade, and comments will be offered on a copy thereof that are meant to guide further improvements to the work. (Obviously, those students who do not submit the IllDef RV in timely fashion should not expect to receive any helpful score or commentary for the assignment. Note the “Late Work” section of the course syllabus.)

Although a reasonably complete paper is expected, it is understood that the IllDef RV is still a work in progress. Some changes to it are therefore also expected; they should not be viewed as failures, but seized upon as more opportunities to improve writing techniques further and to enhance the connections between writer and topic and writer and readers yet more. Also, again, see Note 2, below.

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Revise the IllDef RV into the IllDef FV

After receiving instructor feedback, writers should take their papers, review the comments made by their reader, and incorporate those found useful into their ongoing work. That is, they should work to improve their theses’ phrasing, the quality and extent of evidentiary support for the same, the rigor and detail of explanations of the evidence, motion among the various parts of the papers, and entries into and exits from the argument. The result will become the lllDef FV.

The IllDef FV should (still) be a reasonably complete argument, one that conveys an idea about a place-related concept and support for it to a primary reader belonging to the general public of the United States in the early twenty-first century. That is, readers should (still) be able to read the IllDef FV and get a clear idea of the point of the argument being made without having to ask the writer additional questions (although wanting to ask the writer additional questions is often a sign of engaging writing). Again, readers have to be able to follow along easily and well as they are presented with evidence supporting the central idea of the paper and explanations of how the evidence serves to offer that support. They continue also need to be brought into the paper smoothly and well, and they need to be given some indication of what they can do with the thesis once it is validated. The paper will still do well to offer an introduction that leads to a statement of thesis, followed a series of paragraphs that each explicates a given feature (using evidence from the representative group members in support), and a culminating paragraph that returns to the thesis briefly before motioning forward to future utility of that thesis.

The IllDef FV should be approximately 1,300 words in length (+/- 25), exclusive of heading (student name, instructor name, course/section, and date of composition), title, and any necessary end-citations (see Note 1, below). It should be typed in black, double-spaced, 12-point Garamond, Georgia, or Times New Roman font on letter-sized pages; the heading should be flush left, the title centered horizontally, and the body flush left with the first lines of paragraphs indented one-half inch from the left margin. Page numbers should be in the margin at the top of the page on the right margin, preceded by the writer’s surname, and in the same typeface as the rest of the paper.

Each writer should submit a typed, electronic copy of the IllDef FV to the instructor through Schreiner One before the beginning of class time on 4 November 2016. The copy needs to be in .doc, .docx, or .rtf format so that it can be opened and read by the instructor; other file formats potentially present difficulties in that regard, and a paper that cannot be read cannot receive a useful score or commentary. It will be assessed according to the grading rubric below as a major assignment worth 15 % of the total course grade, and comments will be offered on a copy thereof that are meant to guide further improvements to the writer’s technique. (Please note the “Late Work” and “Revisions” sections of the course syllabus.)

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Grading Rubric

The rubric that will be applied to the IllDef RV and FV appears here: ENGL 1301 IllDef Rubric.

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Notes

1. Because the IllDef is to be written using numerous examples, recourse to outside materials is not unexpected, although it is not obligatory. If any outside materials are used in the essay, they must be attested in accordance with the guidelines expressed by the Modern Language Association of America. Failure to do so may be regarded as an academic integrity violation, with potentially adverse effects.

2. Consulting with the instructor and/or with the Writing Center throughout the process of composition is likely to be of benefit. No specific grade item will attach itself to doing so, but past practice suggests that those writers who do seek such input and attention generate far better writing than those who do not (which, for the grade-conscious, translates to higher scores).

3. Samples of definitions in the same vein as the IllDef are available. One is being drafted for the course and will be posted to www.elliottrwi.com when it is finished. Others can be found in such places as

The formatting and length on display will necessarily differ from those required of students in the course. Even so, they offer useful models to follow during the process of composition and should be consulted to that end.

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Geoffrey B. Elliott
11 October 2016

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