Process Description: How to Write about a Sequence of Events

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This document describes how to write a process description (or process analysis), a variation of the short report designed to help a reader understand how a change takes place over time, through a series of stages.

You might use a process description to examine the photosynthesis of plants, the migration of animals, or the impeachment of presidents.

By contrast, the mechanism description focuses on an object in space (e.g. the physiology of a plant), and instructions focus on actions the reader takes to make the process happen (e.g. how to care for a plant).

Parts of a Process Description

What follows is a general structure, which you should adapt to fit the specific needs of your writing task.

  1. Abstract
  2. Introduction
  3. Description
  4. Step-by-Step Description
  5. Conclusion

 

1. Abstract

While the reader sees the abstract first, the author should expect to write it last.

We live in a tl;dr world. Summarize any professional document more than a few paragraphs long, for the benefit of a busy reader who may be reading hundreds of similar documents each day.

An abstract is a compressed summary that boils down the most important contents into a few sentences. (See “Short Reports: Begin with the Conclusion.”)

An abstract is not a list of promises. Don’t think of it like a “stay tuned, we’ll tell you who won the big game and we’ll show you the best plays after these messages from our sponsor” teaser. Instead, an abstract actually gives the final scores and shows the game-winning play.

In general, break the whole process up into smaller stages, and describe each stage in order. If the process is part of a continuing cycle (such as the evaporation and condensation of water), say so.

Caution: Students who are unfamiliar with the “process description” genre sometimes confuse it with “helpful hints,” by which I mean a collection of many details that do not need to take place in any particular order.

Bad ExampleIf neglected, pets’ teeth will succumb to tooth decay. A simple process is available to all pet owners that will help in the fight against tooth decay. The process outlined will be using a toothbrush and a tube of toothpaste, mouthwashes, dental treats, and yearly dental appointments. This process involves both owner and veterinarian intervention….
This author is really describing instructions for the care of a pet’s teeth. The writer has almost complete control over where each element of the process goes… for instance, do you have to use the toothpaste first, and then the mouthwash? Maybe there is some scientific reason, but the above passage isn’t set up to explain the science. The end result is that instead of a process, we get a list of pet dental hacks, without a strict chronological organization.
Good ExampleVeterinary dentistry includes the cleaning, adjustment, filing, extraction, or repair of your pets’ teeth and all other aspects of oral health care. These procedures should be performed by a veterinarian or a board-certified veterinary dentist. Subject to state or provincial regulation, veterinary technicians are allowed to perform certain dental procedures under the supervision of a veterinarian. —Pet Dental Care (AVMA)
The author successfully introduces the various “procedures” that comprise veterinary dentistry. It’s not designed to be a step-by-step set of instructions for pet owners to follow, nor is it written for veterinary dentists to follow. It’s not a set of instructions at all — it simply describes a complex process by breaking it down into separate procedures.

2. Introduction

A good introduction is a concise paragraph that will accomplish two things:

  • define the overall process in a single sentence.
  • describe the document (you are describing the scope and purpose of the document you are writing; this is not the place to demonstrate your ability to introduce the field of knowledge you are about to draw on in order to help your reader understand the process)

Process Definition

Your introduction should be a concise paragraph that supplies a good sentence definition of the process.

Bad ExampleOne of the greatest environmental threats to our nation’s agriculture is the growing acid rain problem.
This introduction is too general; the paper appears to be about “threats to our nation’s agriculture” instead of acid rain.
Iffy ExampleAcid rain is one of the greatest environmental threats to our nation’s agriculture.
While this version does properly emphasize “acid rain,” it merely makes a claim about the significance of the subject, and seems to introduce a comparison with other environmental threats (each of which should probably properly be dealt with in separate documents). We still don’t know what acid rain is.
Good ExampleAcid rain is environmentally harmful precipitation that forms after the combustion of fossil fuels releases nitrogen and sulfur oxides into the atmosphere.

Purpose and Scope of the Document

Like any technical document, it should also state the scope and purpose of the paper.

Good ExampleThis document describes the process in general terms, in order to demonstrate the necessity for increased government regulation in sensitive areas.
Good ExampleThis paper cites recent studies by Smith and Jones (1997, 1998) to assist EPA officials with their efforts to determine which parts of the country should be designated “at risk” or “potentially at risk” over the next five years.

3. Brief Description

As part of a brief paragraph (or, for a shorter document, possibly the same paragraph as the introduction), answer the question, “How does it happen?

Provide any necessary context, such as who or what performs the action, under what conditions, and how is the process significant.  Give a concise overview of the process. This brief description should stand alone — that is, it should not refer to details, facts, or terms that aren’t explained within the summary.

You will probably have an easier time writing this section if you save it until you have written out the complete description. Conclude this section by breaking the process up into stages: “The principle stages of writing process are planning, drafting, revising, and proofreading.”

Your next section will work through each stage in turn.

4. Step-by-step Description

For each step in your description, write a miniature process description:

  • define the step
  • state its purpose (or function within the process)
  • providing the necessary context, and
  • include brief mechanism descriptions for any components that may be involved

 

Divide this stage up into substages, if necessary.

5. Conclusion

Without being excessively redundant, review the major steps in the process. Walk the reader through one complete cycle, emphasizing how the completion of each stage contributes to the final overall effect. You might provide multiple different examples, or troubleshooting tips.

0 thoughts on “Process Description: How to Write about a Sequence of Events

    • Those terms may have specialized meanings in some fields. In general, I would say a mechanism description describes a thing with many parts, and typically focuses on the relationship of those parts in space. An operation description would focus on time — what conditions are necessary before you start step one, how you know when you are ready to go onto step two, that sort of thing. Beyond that, the answer would depend on the context.

  1. mechanism operation and conceptual process are both process descriptions. how are they different? what is the outline that can be used as a guide? kindly answer.. thanks

    • What is the context for this question? If this is part of a classroom assignment, your instructor and your textbook would be the sources most likely to help your grade. If you are trying to solve.a problem for a client, the subject matter experts and other technical writers who have worked on this problem before will be a better resource.

  2. can you give me an example paragraph of a mechanism description and process description?please… thank you so much!

    • This page does contain a brief example of a process description, as well as a link to a similar page on writing a mechanism description. Any technical writing textbook should contain more detail. Good luck!

  3. Merhaba. ben türkiyeden bu siteye bakıyorum. fakat bir türlü bulamıyorum. benim paragraflarım var onlari ingilizceye çevirmem gerek ama çeviremiyorum. İngilizceyi daha yeni öğrenmeye başladım. Lütfen cevap verin. Please

    • Clifford, if this is a job assignment or homework assignment, whoever assigned the task is your best resource. There is nothing special about the use of an illustration in a description process that does not also apply for using an illustration in any technical document. The general subject of using illustrations is not something I tried to tackle on this short page.

    • Yes, it is possible to write a process description about how acid rain is formed and how it impacts the environment. If you focus instead on the chemical composition of acid rain, or you present a debate about what the government and corporations should do about acid rain, or you write a poem about how mad you are about companies that contribute to acid rain, then no.

    • There is no one correct answer. Can you ask an expert to recommend a particularly well-written process description to use as a model? Does that model use paragraphs or bullets? My students have generally been trained to write in paragraphs, because they are used to writing for teachers who want to teach them how to write paragraphs. I often encourage them to try out bullet points, but that doesn’t mean paragraphs are wrong.

    • That sounds like a homework assignment. If you had made some effort, and asked what I think about your attempt, I might have given you an opinion. If you make no effort at all, and expect me to do all the work for you, I will probably go watch cat videos.

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