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 and then'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 parking lot, and there's no garage around, and sleet is dripping down your neck, and how do you hook up these stupid cables you find in the trunk? If you're going to write about how to make a soufflé, don't start with the eggs. Start with how you'd feel if your new mother-in-law came over for dinner and your souffleé came out looking like a pile of scrambled eggs — and then tell your readers how they'll feel if they do things your way! Your readers might not be interested in car batteries or soufflés, but they will be interested in the human condition of being stuck and miserable or embarrassed, and they will read on.

Allow one of your steps to stand out from the others; in other words, don't let all the steps in your process feel equally important. Equally important means equally unimportant. Attach a special warning to one of your steps. If you don't connect the positive pole to the positive pole of the batteries, you could cause an explosion or melt down your battery. If you don't do such-and-such with your crockpot just at this point in the process, your soufflé is headed for culinary disaster. This special moment or warning in the process will lend the essay a variety of tone, some texture, another human dimension, and remind your readers that someone (you, the writer) is trying very hard to be helpful to them, and that's going to keep them reading.

As you write your essay, be watchful of your pronouns. If your frame of reference has consistently been yourself, and you have said, over and over, how "I" do things: first I do this, then I do this, and then I do this, you want to remain consistently within that frame of reference. When you get to the conclusion of the essay, don't suddenly address the reader and say "You do it this way"; the shift in perspective can bewilder the reader. Consistency is the chief virtue here.

There is, of course, a difference between a process essay that tells readers how to do something and a process essay that describes the process by which something gets done by someone else or by nature. You could write a great process essay describing what happens when Mother Nature decides it's time for trees to lose their leaves in the fall. Something in the changing angle of sunlight tells these two rows of cells in the leaf's stem to begin to dry up, and the chlorophyll begins to dry (allowing the leaf's other colors — the red, the orange, the yellow of fall — to show through) and then the stem breaks at just that point (the same for every leaf) and the leaf falls off. Neither you nor your readers are actually, physically, involved, but the process is fascinating in its own right.

Here is a simple process essay on how to retrieve an e-mail message in the computer labs.

How to Start Up Your E-Mail Client

Nothing can be more frustrating than knowing that your best friend has just sent you some e-mail, but you don't know how to get into the computer system at school to read your e-mail. It doesn't do any good to know that there is help available online because you can't even start the machine, and it's embarrassing to ask lab assistants who are busy helping others with complex spreadsheet questions. So you sit there looking at a blank screen as if your fervent wishes could make it turn itself on.

Turning the computer on really isn't hard. There are two buttons you have to push: the large rectangular button on the CPU (the box beneath or next to the monitor) and the little round button on the monitor (the screen). If you forget to turn on the monitor, the computer will start, but you won't see anything on the screen. After you press these buttons, it sometimes takes a few minutes for the computer to start up and go through its own set-up process and automatically check for new computer viruses. There is nothing for you to do but twiddle your thumbs while this is happening, so practice your thumb-twiddling beforehand so you look like a pro. If the computer doesn't start up properly, it's probably not something you did wrong, and you should try another machine or ask the lab assistant for help.

Eventually, the computer will warm up and a small grey box, called a dialog box, should pop onto the screen. Click on the TAB key until the top window on the dialog box is highlighted. Type your username into this box. (As soon as you start typing, the highlight will disappear and your typing should show up.) Your username is your last name and the last four digits of your social security number, without any spaces. When you've typed your username, click on the TAB key again and the password window will be highlighted. Type in your password, which consists of the first six digits of your social security number—no spaces, no hyphens. However, your typing will not show up in the window. This is so that people behind you cannot see your password as you type it. When you're done typing in the password, click on the ENTER key and the computer should open up your account.

Be very careful as you type in your username and password. You are allowed three chances to type this information correctly, and if you fail your username will be locked out of the system for twenty-four hours. This is done because the computer system thinks that some hacker might be trying to figure out your password to break into your account. If you don't type this information carefully and correctly, you can be locked out of your own account for a whole day.

The computer should open the computer now so that the monitor reveals its basic desktop arrangement, with a group of little icons along the left-hand edge. If the icons appear elsewhere, don't be alarmed; the system should still work for you. Move the mouse over the mouse-pad so that the cursor-arrow on the monitor moves over the icon called INBOX. Using the left-hand button on the mouse, double-click on the INBOX icon. Double-clicking is a skill that veteran computer-users take for granted but "newbies" sometimes find challenging. You might want to practice. It requires a quick click-click, clicking twice within about half a second. If you wait too long between clicks, the computer will think your attempt at a double-click is two separate clicks and nothing will happen. Also, the cursor-arrow has to remain on the icon during both clicks of the mouse-button. As soon as the computer recognizes that you have double-clicked the INBOX icon, it will open the e-mail program using your account. (A small hour-glass or clockface will show up on the screen while the program opens.)

When INBOX finally opens, allow the program a couple of minutes to download your new mail from the system. It should do so automatically, but if it doesn't, you can click on the menu item item called TOOLS (at the top of the screen) and then click on the item called SEND AND DELIVER. (Single clicks should do the job here.) Your INBOX will then download your mail. The e-mail you've been promised should be sitting in your IN folder now. Simply double-click on the name of the e-mail message you want to read and it should open up for you. We hope it's the news you've been waiting for!

Don't forget to quit out of the INBOX program and out of your computer account, or the next person to sit down at that computer will be able to read your e-mail account and send out messages under your name! The QUIT command is under the FILE menu of the INBOX. To shut down the computer itself, hold down the CONTROL key and the ALT key (lower left-hand corner of the keyboard) and press the DELETE key on the number pad. You can then click on the SHUTDOWN option. Make sure that the computer shuts down properly before you leave the computer station.


Points to Ponder:

  • Did the writer consistently address the reader?
  • How did the writer get readers involved in reading about a process they might not have been interested in?
  • Did any of the elements of the process stand out from the others or did they all feel the same?
  • How are the paragraphs connected? Would you have used other transitions between ideas?
  • Do you think the essay ever becomes too simple-minded?

Additional Reading:

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Here are links to two extensive and intriguing articles on the language acquisition process in infancy — a process all of us have gone through, but don't remember very well.