The Process Essay
The first essay assigned in a Composition course is often the so-called process essay, the writing project in
which we describe how to do something or tell how something happens. The nice thing about the process
essay is that it can be truly helpful. When our readers finish this essay, they will know how to do something
that they didn't know how to do before or they will understand some process that had mystified them before.
There are several cautions to keep in mind in choosing a topic for a process essay.
Don't write about something that is too complicated. Don't try to write a brief process essay about something
that needs an instruction manual. When you have to drive from Hartford to St. Louis, you start by getting to
Waterbury. You don't like being overwhelmed by directions, and you don't want to overwhelm your reader.
Also, don't write about something that needs to be accompanied by visual aids. We could read a good essay
about how to wallpaper around a window or a bathroom vanity, but it would be much better to watch a
videotape of the same process. There are some things that are much better seen than read. Try describing the
process of tying your shoes and you'll see what we mean.
Be especially careful of the connections between your sentences in a process essay. There is a temptation to
connect each sentence with "And then," "then," "and then." That's all right when Aunt Gloria is telling you
how to make meatloaf, but it's boring in an essay. Try writing the essay with all the
's you want, and
then go back and eliminate most of them; you'll probably find you don't need most of them. Try for a variety
of transitional tags. Don't number the steps of your essay, and avoid using words like "secondly," "thirdly,"
etc. You might want to say "first" and "second," but then let the numbering go. Also, although it would be
tempting to use graphical embellishments — even something as simple as bulleted paragraphs or sentences
— avoid doing this for the purpose of this essay. The trick here is to let the language do all the work for you.
(You might want to ask your instructor about this matter of graphical elements, especially if you are writing a
more technical essay.) Oh, and speaking of meatloaf, avoid using abbreviations — tsp., oz., etc. — in formal
academic writing. Write everything out and save the abbreviations for Aunt Gloria's recipe card.
At first glance, it seems that beginning a process essay would be easy: just start with the first step, right?
Well, perhaps so, but if your readers aren't interested in your process, they might just put your essay aside
and go watch television, and you don't want that. Your beginning ought to involve readers in the human
dimension that makes knowing your process important to them. If you're going to write about how to jump-
start a dead car battery, don't start with hooking up the cables. Start with the dark snowy morning in the