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Writing A Process Paper

TIP Sheet
WRITING A PROCESS PAPER

A process paper describes to a reader how to do something or how something occurs. Stages in psychological development, steps in installing software or carrying out a marketing plan, or processes in science or historical change, for example, could all be described in a process paper.

How-to's and explanations
There are two kinds of process papers. The author of a how-to paper intends that, after reading it, the reader will be able to carry out the steps in order to accomplish something. For example, the writer of software installation instructions intends the reader to follow the steps to successfully install a program. Here is an example:

How-to
There are several steps you can take to get better help on your papers from an English tutor. First, make sure you spell check and proofread your own paper, making as many corrections and improvements as you can. That way, you won't waste time discussing diction "problems" that are really just typing errors. Next, read your paper again, and underline two or three sentences that you are uncomfortable with and would like to improve. At the same time, formulate two or three specific questions to ask the tutor, such as, "What is a comma splice, and how do I fix it?" or "How can I make my writing less choppy?" That way, you are taking responsibility for your own learning and giving the tutor a head start in helping you. Similarly, if you have already received feedback from your instructor on this or earlier papers, bring in the instructor's written comments if possible. Finally, don't ask the tutor for proofreading or editing; the tutor's job is to help you master the skills necessary to do your own proofreading and editing. Instead, try asking for "feedback." Feedback might range from an explanation of your comma errors to recommendations to improve your organization or thesis statement.

The second kind of process paper is an explanation. The writer of an explanation describes in narrative form how something occurs, without actually expecting the reader to carry out steps. The author of a paper describing how a nuclear fission power plant works, for example, probably does not expect readers to be able to manage one based on his explanation. To illustrate, the following explanation describes the development of insecticide resistance in the garden:

Explanation
Even non-organic gardeners should avoid broad-spectrum pesticides as much as possible. Broad-spectrum pesticides immediately kill the most vulnerable members of an insect population, giving the short-term impression that the infestation has been successfully overcome. However, a few stronger and more resistant insects always remain or recover. Poison-resistant insects breed with each other, producing offspring that are themselves more resistant than the previous generation. After a few cycles, the local insect population has become largely resistant to the insecticide. Meanwhile, the poison has also spread to the local bird population through the birds' feeding on insecticide-drenched insects. Birds that would have helped naturally control the insects die or fail to reproduce. And if the gardener switches to a new broad-spectrum pesticide, the development of pesticide resistance widens to accommodate the new product as well.

Identifying and organizing steps
Prewriting for process papers should focus on identifying the steps or stages in the process and putting them in logical order. The organization for process papers is sequential; the steps of the process are set forth in chronological order. (An explanation process paper may end up looking a lot like a cause and effect paper, since cause-effect relationships are by nature sequential. There is room for overlap among various modes of writing, and seldom does a piece of writing "purely" represent one mode only.) Once you have identified the steps, list them in sequential order.

If there is a trick to writing a process paper, it is to take the time to look at the steps you have listed as if you had never seen them before. Imagine you know nothing of the process you plan to describe. Read over your steps critically to see whether you have omitted anything. Sometimes the most ordinary processes are the most difficult to describe, as any writer of the "how to tie a shoelace" exercise knows! If you can, try following your own steps to the letter to see if they do, in fact, bring about the desired result. No cheating-if you must do something not already on your list of steps, add it.

Forming transitions
Listing and numbering steps for prewriting is relatively easy. Describing steps in prose is a little different. The use of "first," "second," and "third" is little more than listing; there are a whole array of signal words, or transitions, to help you shed light on processes. (Most of the following transitions are also suitable for narratives, which, like process papers, usually use chronological, or time, order.)

  • at first
  • initially
  • begin by
  • later
  • before
  • while
  • then
  • during
  • as soon as
  • meanwhile
  • when
  • until
  • at last
  • finally

Notice the signal words and phrases in the following student paper telling how to get to class on time (this paper combines how-to, explanation, and narrative elements):

Your success as a student begins with getting yourself to class, and getting yourself to class beginsnight before. Choose and lay out your clothes. That way in the morning, when you change your mind (and you know you will) you will have already started the process of elimination in searching for something to wear. This will save you time. Set up the coffee pot the night before, too. That way, even if you're not fully awake in the morning, you won't risk filling the coffee filter with something inappropriate, like Lucky Charms. In the morning, get up, start the coffee, shower, toss aside the clothes you laid out the night before (don't blame yourself; really there was no way to know then what you would feel like wearing today), rummage through your closet, choose something, and dress. Next, dash to the kitchen, spread peanut butter on a tortilla, roll it up, and take it with you out the door, for, in the wee hours the night before, you poured the last of the Lucky Charms into the coffee filter and they are irredeemably soggy now. Don't waste time blaming yourself. Just start the car and go, because 10,000 fellow students are vying for your parking place, and that's just on the freeway off-ramp. Follow the stream of cars into the parking lot and circle once or twice to make sure a close spot has not been overlooked by earlier, sleepier arrivals. Settle at last for a distant spot. Jog, don't walk, to the coffee vendor and put your money down. Inhale. Isn't that a great aroma? Nothing like the percolated Lucky Charms! Exhale. It's still only five minutes to eight. Finally, stroll to class nonchalantly. You are so ready to succeed. the

Once you have transformed your numbered list into prose as in the above example, read what you have written to make sure you have not omitted anything. Revise by moving or removing sentences if necessary, or by adding the steps or transitions needed to clarify the process.

Process writing has very practical applications. A business writer outlining a marketing plan uses process writing. Developmental psychologists study and describe cognitive development as a process. Hazardous-materials handlers write and follow strict processes for the safe handling of many substances. Any application of process writing requires attention to detail, sensible organization, and clarity of expression.

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