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Part 1 :: Process Analysis :: IN DEPTH

Writing about Doing

When to Use Process Analysis

For college writing assignments

Much of your college work appears as process analysis. Instructors and instructional materials, such as this document, are explaining how things are done or how things occurred.

In labs you experiment with processes and learn to perform tasks. To demonstrate your knowledge of what you have learned and your ability to perform tasks, you write paragraphs, essays, and reports, and you take tests.

Having a systematic pattern for organization for writing these process analyses will enable you to write with efficiency.

In careers and at the workplace

Process analysis is central to both career preparation and workplace activities. You learn what to do and how to perform.

As you work with others, as a member of a team or as a supervisor of new employees, you will need to write memos and directives as process analysis to explain what to do and how something is or was done.

Whether you do the technical writing or advertising copy, you will need to explain, often in writing, how your products and services are used and how they are beneficial.

Process Analysis in a Cartoon


Writing Process Analysis

If you have any doubt about how frequently we use process analysis, just think about how many times you have heard people say, “How do you do it?” or “How is [was] it done?” Even when you are not hearing those questions, you are posing them yourself when you need to make something, cook a meal, assemble an item, take some medicine, repair something, or figure out what happened. In your college classes, you may have to discover how osmosis occurs, how a rock changes form, how a mountain was formed, how a battle was won, or how a bill goes through the legislature.

If you need to explain how to do something or how something was (is) done, you will engage in
process analysis
. You will break down your topic into stages, explaining each so that your reader can duplicate or understand the process.

Two types of process analysis:

The questions “How do I do it?” and “How is (was) it done?” will lead you into two different types of process analysis: informative and directive.

Informative process analysis
explains how something was (is) done by giving data (information). Whereas the directive process analysis tells you what to do in the future, the informative process analysis tells you what has occurred or what is occurring. If it is something in nature, such as the formation of a mountain, you can read and understand the process by which it emerged. In this type of process analysis, you do not tell the reader what to do; therefore, you will seldom use the words

Directive process analysis
explains how to do something. As the name suggests, it gives directions for the reader to follow. It says, for example, “Read me, and you can bake a pie [tune up your car, read a book critically, write an essay, take some medicine].” Because it is presented directly to the reader, it usually addresses the reader as “you,” or it implies the “you” by saying some- thing such as “First [you] purchase a large pumpkin, and then [you]. . . .” In the same way, this textbook addresses you or implies “you” because it is a long how-to-do-it (directive process analysis) statement.

Working with Stages

Preparation or Background

Informative process analysis may begin with background or context rather than with preparation. For example, a statement explaining how mountains form might begin with a description of a flat portion of the earth made up of plates that are arranged like a jigsaw puzzle.

In the first stage of directive process analysis, list the materials or equipment needed for the process and discuss the necessary setup arrangements. For some topics, this stage will also provide technical terms and definitions. The degree to which this stage is detailed will depend on both the subject itself and the expected knowledge and experience of the projected audience.

Steps or Sequence

The actual process will be presented here. Each step or sequence must be explained clearly and directly, and phrased to accommodate the audience. The language, especially in directive process analysis, is likely to be simple and concise; however, avoid dropping words such as
and, a, an, the,
, and thereby lapsing into “recipe language.” The steps may be accompanied by explanations about why certain procedures are necessary and how not following directions carefully can lead to trouble.


The order will usually be chronological (time based) in some sense. Certain transitional words are commonly used to promote coherence:
first, second, third, then, soon, now, next, finally, at last, therefore, consequently,
and—especially for informative process analysis—words used to show the passage of time such as hours, days of the week, and so on.

Basic Forms

Consider using this form for the informative process (with topics such as how a volcano functions or how a battle was won):

How Coal Is Formed
I. Background or context
A. Accumulation of land plants
B. Bacterial action
C. Muck formation
II. Sequence
A. Lignite from pressure
B. Bituminous from deep burial and heat
C. Anthracite from metamorphic conditions

Consider using this form for the directive process (with topics such as how to cook something or how to fix something):

How to Prepare Spring Rolls
I. Preparation
A. Suitable cooking area
B. Utensils, equipment
C. Spring roll wrappers
D. Vegetables, sauce
II. Steps
A. Season vegetables
B. Wrap vegetables
C. Fold wrappers
D. Deep-fry rolls
E. Serve rolls with sauce

Combined Forms

Combination process analysis
occurs when directive process analysis and informative process analysis are blended, usually when the writer personalizes the account. For example, if I tell you from a detached point of view how to write a research paper, my writing is directive process analysis, but if I tell you how I once wrote a research paper and give you the details in an informative account, then you may very well learn enough so that you can duplicate what I did. Thus, you would be both informed and instructed. Often the personalized account is more interesting to the general reader, but if, for example, you need to assemble a toy the night before your child’s birthday you just want information.

Many assignments are done as a personalized account. A paper about plant- ing radish seeds may be informative—but uninspiring. However, a paper about the time you helped your grandpa plant his spring garden (giving all the details) may be informative, directive, and entertaining. It is often the cultural framework provided by personal experience that transforms a pedestrian directive account into something memorable. That is why some instructors ask their students to explain how to do something within the context of experience.

Career-Related Writing as Process Analysis

When you are new on the job, you will be expected first to learn how to execute your job description according to employer expectations, doing work the “company way.” Knowing the techniques for process analysis presented here will help you master the workplace subject material more easily. Then at some point, you will probably be expected to train others. The training you do may require you both to talk and to write. Whatever the method, knowing how to deliver a clear, logical, and correct process analysis will be an asset. Fortunately for you, the two basic organizational patterns of process analysis—informative and directive—are as logical as they are simple.

Process analysis will serve you particularly well in writing memos and guidance sheets, and in giving PowerPoint presentations. In PowerPoint presentations you can treat your outline as an overview, or as part of your introduction, and then proceed to discuss the specific steps or stages for development. The essay by Tina Sergio, “Doing a Flame Hair Tattoo,” offers both an outline and a written example of what can be done with a single unit of workplace process.
You can read it here (but this link will only work for my students):

Transitional Words

Consider using the transitional words in the following collapsible lists to improve coherence by connecting ideas with ideas, sentences with sentences, and paragraphs with paragraphs.

Preparation and Background
Steps and Stages

Useful Prewriting Procedure

All the strategies of freewriting, brainstorming, and clustering can be useful in writing a process analysis. However, if you already know your subject well, you can simply make two lists, one headed
and the other
. Then jot down ideas for each. After you have finished with your listing, you can delete parts, combine parts, and rearrange parts for better order. That editing of your lists will lead directly to a formal outline you can use in the writing process. The following is an example of using the listing technique for the topic of how to prepare spring rolls.


Patterns of Process Analysis

A definite pattern underlies a process analysis. In some presentations, such as with merchandise to be assembled, the content reads as mechanically as an outline, and no reader objects. In other presentations, such as your typical college assignments, the writing should be well developed and interesting. Regardless of the form you use or the audience you anticipate, keep in mind that in process analysis the pattern will provide a foundation for the content.

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