This week I’m doing a series about modes of development (also called “patterns of development”). Today’s topic is process writing – showing step-by-step how to do something or how something happens. Process writing focuses on a series of steps that people do over and over: Taking an inventory at work. Making potato salad. Changing the oil in a car.
Note that process writing is always about a repeated act, such as a routine or a ritual. It’s never a story about something that happened once: That’s a narrative, which we’ll be discussing tomorrow.
The other requirement for process writing is that you go beyond mere directions to show why the process you’re describing is better than the usual way, or risky, or unusually interesting, or has some other special quality.
Here’s an example. Suppose you were the director of a prenatal clinic, and you wanted to convince expectant mothers not to drink alcohol during the pregnancy.
Describing the process of consuming alcohol might be much more persuasive than a conventional “three reasons why you shouldn’t drink” approach.
You could show exactly what happens when a pregnant woman drinks a beer: The alcohol is absorbed through her stomach wall, enters her bloodstream before it has time to break down, goes through the placenta and umbilical cord into the unborn baby’s bloodstream, and soon hits the baby’s unformed brain, which is unequipped to handle it. Result: The permanent brain damage we call fetal alcohol syndrome.
That’s a good example of process writing. The hallmark is that the director chose the best way to fulfill her purpose. A different mode – such as comparison, classification, or narrative – probably wouldn’t have worked as well.
Too few students think about purpose when they write a process paper. They just write a set of directions for doing something – baking a cake, peeling a banana, washing a car. That’s appropriate in a technical writing class. But in a composition class you need to showcase the process you’ve chosen.
If you’d like to see an example of what I mean, writer David Updike wrote an excellent process-with-a-purpose essay for the New York Times Magazine about drinking and driving. (Click here to read it.)
Here are some other ways that a process essay can showcase an idea:
- Explain how to do a common process in a better way. For example, show gym patrons how to avoid exposure to other exercisers’ germs during a gym workout.
- Explain why a process is important. For example, discuss the barre exercises that ballet dancers do at the beginning of each class, showing the purpose of each exercise: Warming up the legs, preparing for jumps, stretching the feet, strengthening arm muscles, and so on.
- Explain how a process can be enhanced. For example, show how a bedtime routine can be changed to soothe children and get them ready to sleep.
- Take your readers step-by-step through an unusual process, showing why it’s different and interesting. For example, describe how astronauts eat a meal in outer space.
- Convince readers not to do a harmful process, such as overpruning palms.
There are endless possibilities. Think of processes you do regularly at work, at home, in your social life, at school. What’s better about the way you do it? Or have you come across a process that’s risky, a waste of time, or not worth the money?
What’s most important is to remember that process writing only begins with a set of directions. You have to dig in to show why the process you’ve chosen is interesting, better, important, risky, or special in some other way. If your finished paper looks like a recipe or the directions in an owner manual, start over (unless you’re taking a technical writing course).
(For an introduction to modes of development, click here. To read about narratives, click here. For suggested topics, click here. You can also click links for other modes: cause/effect and classification.)