ENGL 101
English Composition I
Home Page >> Writing Assignments >> Process explanation

Ultimately, process essays come down to writing about HOW. Either how to do something, or how something happens, but HOW is always going to be part of the equation.

A “How To Do Something” process essay is, as the title indicates, meant to be doable by the reader. You may be describing something that the reader wouldn’t WANT to do, like embalming a corpse, or cooking a squirrel, but the reader COULD follow the information and repeat the process. The key to this type of process essay is making sure that all of the steps are explained as completely as possible.

A “How Something Happens” process essay is more about explaining a process on a non-human scale. Explaining how stars are formed or how oxygen and hydrogen combine to make water are examples of non-human scale subjects. The writer is explaining a process, but it’s not a process that the reader can duplicate.

Process involves the steps necessary for an event to occur. In order to write about a process, the writer must be familiar with the process. The writer needs to be able to break the process down into smaller steps or events. Most people know how to walk, but do they understand the process, are they in control of the process enough to explain it, step by step, to somebody who doesn’t know how to walk? Many times, writing a process essay is as much of a learning experience for the writer as it is for the reader, since the writer is forced to slow down and actually pay attention to the steps. The Writing Process is an example of breaking a subject down into steps so that you can have both a better understanding of the process as well as better control over it.

However, the writer also needs to remember that this is AN ESSAY, not an instruction manual. A list of things to do written in fragmentary language next to bullet points is a to-do list, not an essay. Process essays MUST explain each and every step listed. So not only does the writer need to know what the steps are, but s/he also needs to be able to justify/explain those steps as well. If your answer to “why do you do it that way?” is “because,” then you won’t be able to write a successful essay. (This is one of the reasons why cooking is usually a bad topic for a process essay. Recipes don’t explain why – they just tell you what to do. That’s why they are recipes, not essays).

One technique that authors use is to take a specific example to analyze a process. A writer who wants to explain the process of creating a comic book might focus on “How Stan Lee and Steve Ditko Created Spiderman.” The writer is focusing on a particular comic book, but the process described applies to more than this one example. A writer might describe in detail the Krakatoa volcano explosion as a way of explaining “How Volcanoes Work,” etc. However, if this essay begins to analyze the larger cultural meaning of the process – why Spiderman has been so popular since 1963 or what effect the Krakatoa explosion had on the world’s climate – then it has moved beyond being a process essay.