43 2. The Process Essay

Now that you have completed the narrative essay, we are going to move on to “expository” writing. The rest of the essays you write will “explain” a topic. You will provide your reader with a specific thesis and then support that thesis through a series of related paragraphs, all tied together by the topic.

Your first expository essay will be the process essay. In some ways, this essay is similar to the narrative: you are writing about a moment in time, doing something that doesn’t take very long, and you are using chronological order. Your steps, identified in a series of paragraphs in the body of your essay, should be placed in a manner where your reader can begin with the first step and carry through to the last step.

There are two types of process essays: those that explain how to do something (how to tune a guitar; how to build a bird house; how to study for a test) and those that explain how something works (transmitting a fax; describing the growth of a cell; going through the steps of a piece of equipment at work). In the first, you are expecting your reader to complete the task and understand it fully. In the second, you may be providing information to satisfy your reader’s curiosity. In other words, you could describe the process of sending a fax, dialing the number and all the other physical steps; or you could describe how the fax actually transmits information from here to there- the hidden intricacies of the process.

There are also concrete and abstract processes. A concrete process is one that has clearly defined steps and obvious tools and equipment. Things like recipes and car repairs and craft work are concrete processes. Then there are processes that don’t have obvious tools involved: how to get rid of the blues; how to influence someone to like you; how to prepare for that test.

You need to be an expert at the process you choose to write about. Pick something you are interested in- a hobby or a skill you have, something you might do at work or have done often in school. You have to be able to develop your steps into complete, thorough paragraphs. An expository essay typically has well-developed paragraphs of 8 to 10 sentences each. If you have a series of paragraphs with only two or three sentences each, your reader will wonder why you don’t have more to say, will feel the info is incomplete.

I have a few pointers I’d like to share with you about developing process paragraphs. Using one or combining several might help you add depth and support to your writing:

  • Be specific- Use exact amounts. Great chefs can approximate; we need to know exactly what to include. If you’re writing about how to build a campfire, give specific sizes for the wood you want your reader to gather. Large wood thrown on the fire early will only smother it. Be as specific as you possibly can be.
  • Define terms- If you tell your reader to gather kindling for the fire, is your reader going to know what that means? If you have any doubts, explain what the term is. No one needs a definition for a screw driver, and very few would not know what a Phillips screwdriver is (you may just give a brief description: star-tipped). But if you have a complex tool that the reader won’t recognize, define it.
  • Include reasons- Readers love to take short cuts. You have to be prepared to guide your reader through the steps correctly. So explain to them why they might be doing a step the way you want them to do it. In baking cookies, you may say “preheat the oven.” Most people ignore that. If you give a reason why it is important, your reader may be convinced to do as you say.
  • Include don’ts- It’s not a good idea to check to see if the electricity is out by putting your finger in an empty socket while changing the light bulb. Advise your reader against it. Sometimes it’s easier to say what not to do than what to do. Warnings are wonderful influences.
  • Mention possible pitfalls- Sometimes, things go wrong. Let your reader know before hand that success may sometimes be out of their control. They’ve got the cake in the oven and a big truck goes by outside. The vibrations cause the cake to fall. Knowing this before hand can at least reduce the heartache if something does go wrong.

As with all expository essays, this paper should have an introduction and a conclusion. The intro should state a thesis and give the reader some kind of background info that will attract his/her interest. The conclusion should suggest benefits to the process or point to related processes the reader may try in the future. Both intro and conclusion should be shorter than body paragraphs. They are more emphatic.


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