Process analysis explains a sequence of actions with a specified result (the process) by dividing it into its component steps (the analysis). The purpose of process analysis is to explain, but sometimes a parallel purpose is to prove something about the process or evaluate it.
Process analyses generally fall into one of two types:
- In a directive process analysis, you tell how to do or make something. You outline the steps in the process completely so that the reader who follows them can achieve the specified result. Generally, you address the reader directly, using the second-person you or the imperative mood of verbs (“Add one egg yolk and stir vigorously.”).
- In an explanatory process analysis, you provide the information necessary for readers to understand the process, but more to satisfy their curiosity that to teach them how to perform it. You may address the reader directly, but the third-person he, she, it, and they are more common.
Whether directive or explanatory, process analysis usually follows a chronological sequence. Most processes can be divided into phases or stages, and these in turn can be divided into steps. Following a chronological order, you cover the stages in sequence and, within each stage, cover the steps in sequence.
Transitional expressions that signal time and place—such as after five minutes, meanwhile, to the left, and below—can be invaluable in process analysis.
To find your subject, examine your interests or hobbies or think of a processes you want to research in order to understand them better. Explore the subject by listing chronologically all the necessary stages and steps.
While exploring the subject, decide on the point of your analysis and express it in a thesis statement. For instance:
Building a table is a three-stage process of cutting, assembling, and finishing.
You can increase your readers’ interest in the process by also conveying your reason for writing about it:
Changing a tire does not require a mechanic’s skill or strength; on the other contrary, a ten-year-old child can do it.
You might show how the process demonstrates a more general principle.
The process of getting a bill through congress illustrates the majority rule at work.
Or you might assert that a process is inefficient or unfair:
The overly complicated registration procedure forces students to waste two days each semester standing in line.
Remember your readers while you are generating ideas and formulating your thesis. Consider how much background information is needed, where specialized terms must be defined, and where examples must be given.
DEVELOPING AN ESSAY USING PROCESS ANALYSIS
Many successful process analyses begin with an overview of the process to which readers can relate each step. In such an introduction you can lead up to your thesis sentence by specifying when or where the process occurs, why it is useful and interesting or controversial, what its result is, and the like.
After the introduction, you should present the stages distinctly, perhaps one or two paragraphs for each, and usually in chronological order. Within each stage, also chronologically, you then then cover the necessary steps.
A process analysis may simply end with the result. But you might conclude with a summary of the major stages, with a comment on the significance or usefulness of the process, or with a recommendation for changing a process you have criticized.
Drafting a process analysis is a good occasion to practice a straightforward, concise writing style, for clarity is more important than originality of expression. Stick to plain language and uncomplicated sentences.
REVISING AND EDITING
When you’ve finished your draft, ask a friend to read it. If you have explained a process, he or should be able to understand it. Then examine the draft yourself against the following questions:
- Have you adhered to a chronological sequence?
- Have you included all necessary steps and omitted unnecessary digressions?
- Have you accurately gauged your readers’ need for information?
- Have you shown readers how each step fits into the whole process and relates to the other steps?
- Have you used plenty of informative transitions?
FOCUS ON CONSISTENCY
While drafting a directive process analysis, telling readers how to do something, you may start off with subjects or verbs in one form and then shift to another form because the original choice felt awkward. These shifts occur most often with the subjects a person or one:
Inconsistent To keep the car from rolling while changing the tire, one should first set the car’s emergency brakes. Then one should block the three tires with objects like rocks or chunks of wood. Before raising the car, you should loosen the bolts of the wheel.
To repair inconsistency here, you could stick with one for the subject (one should loosen), but that usually sounds stiff. It is better to revise the earlier subjects to be you.
Consistent To keep the car from rolling while changing while changing the tire, you should set the car’s emergency brake. Then you should block the three other tires with objects like rocks or chunks of wood. Before raising the car, you should loosen the bolts of the wheel.
Sometimes, writers try to avoid one or a person or even you with passive verbs that don’t require actors:
Inconsistent To keep the car from rolling while changing the tire, you should first set the car’s emergency brake. Then the other tires should be blocked with objects like rocks or chunks of wood.
But the passive is wordy and potentially confusing, especially when directions should be making it clear who does what.
One solution to problem of inconsistent subjects and passive verbs is to sue the imperative, or commanding, forms of verbs, in which you is understood as the subject:
Consistent To keep the car from rolling while changing the tire, first set the car emergency brake. Then block the three other tires with objects or chunks of wood.
ANALYZING PROCESSES IN A PARAGRAPHNora Ephron (born 1941) is a screenwriter, director, essayist, and novelist known for her sharp wit and strong female characters. This paragraph comes from “Revision and Life,” an essay first published in 1986 in the New York Times Book Review. (When she wrote this paragraph, Ephron composed on a typewriter. Even if she now uses a computer for writing, as seems likely, her process may well remain much the same.)
I learned as a journalist to revise on deadline. I learned to write an article a paragraph at a time—and to run it in a paragraph at a time—and I arrived at the kind of writing and revising I do, which is basically a kind of typing and retyping. I am a great believer in this technique for the simple reason that I type faster than the wind. What I generally do is to start an article and get as far as I can—sometimes no farther than a sentence or two—before running out of steam, ripping the piece of paper from the typewriter and starting all over again. I type over and over until I have got the beginning of the piece to the point where I am happy with it. I then am ready to plunge into the body of the article itself. This plunge usually requires something known as a transition. I approach a transition by completely retyping the opening of the article leading up to it in the hope that the ferocious speed of my typing will somehow catapult me into the next section of the piece. This does not work—what in fact catapults me into the next section is a concrete thought about what the next section ought to be about—but until I have the thought the typing keeps me busy, and keeps me from feeling something known as blocked.
Explanatory process analysis: tells how the author drafts and revises
Transitions (underlined) signal sequence
Process divided into steps
Details of the last step
Goal of process