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).
What follows is a general structure, which you should adapt to fit the specific needs of your writing task.
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, names the most valuable player, and breaks down 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.
|If 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 random list of hacks, without a strict chronological organization.|
|Veterinary 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 sections.|
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)
Your introduction should be a concise paragraph that supplies a good sentence definition of the process.
|One 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.|
|Acid 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.|
|Acid 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.
|This document describes the process in general terms, in order to demonstrate the necessity for increased government regulation in sensitive areas.|
|This 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 each step?
- What local conditions or circumstances might affect each stage?
- How is each stage of the process significant to the overall process?
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
This would probably be the longest section of your document.
Depending on the complexity of your process, you might divide up your process into sections, and treat each one as a separate subsection, concluding each subsection with a description of how this process fits in with the other subsections.
If you do break your process down into substages, before you launch into the details of any subsection, begin with a general introduction that orients your reader to all the major stages your document is going to cover.
A local table of contents can help readers skip to just the section they’re interested in.
Name the parts and systems involved in those major processes, giving short sentence definitions of each major part, before you launch into the details.
Because a process takes place over time, you should probably organize each subsection chronologically; however, if various components of a process happen at the same time, you might instead organize this section in some other way (such as starting at the top and moving down, or starting with what is most important and moving on to what is less important, or starting with what non-experts perceive with their senses and moving on to what experts can perceive with specialized equipment).
Work carefully from known information to unknown information.
Begin each section with a summary that identifies the topics to be covered in this section, and make sure you cover how those main topics relate to each other before you launch into the complex details about each section.
For instance, if you are writing about human anatomy, you should first establish the big-picture basics, such as the fact that the heart and lungs work together to circulate oxygen through the blood stream, before you go into specific details (such as what exactly happens on the cellular and molecular level in the alevoli where oxygen and carbon dioxide pass in opposite directions).
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 contrasting examples, or notable exceptions that don’t perfectly fit the process you just described.
1997 — Handout created by Dennis G. Jerz, for the University of Toronto’s Engineering Writing
2003 — Updated version posted on jerz.setonhill.edu; modest tweaks over the years
03 Feb 2022 — After I noticed a spike in visits to this page, I freshened up the content, beefed up section 4, and added more cross-referencing links.