Expository Writing Prompt: Process Paper (How To)

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This assignment is an exercise in exposition, which is writing to inform or explain. The task, simply, is to explain how to do something. Choose an activity that requires a sequence of steps, and walk your reader through the process.

This is a simple idea, but don’t be fooled. Using the written word to explain a process can be more difficult than you think. To make it trickier (and therefore more fun!), we’ve added some rules:

1)     No pictures, charts, diagrams or other illustrations

2)      No numbered steps — you must write in paragraph form.

3)      No separated headings for each step — paragraph form only.

Of course, illustrations, numbers, and headings are good things that can make explaining a process simpler and clearer, but we’re looking to challenge you to write clearly without those props. If we were intending to publish a how-to book, we certainly would employ all the pictures and numbered steps we could for clarity’s sake.

Give careful thought to the process you choose to explain. If you pick the wrong process, you will make your paper much more difficult to write.  Here are some tips:

1) Don’t pick anything that would require illustrations. Tying shoes or throwing a curve ball, for example, would be hard to explain clearly without visual aids.

2) Don’t pick anything too complex.  If you try to explain how to rebuild a carburetor, you won’t be able to give enough detail to make it clear.

3) Don’t pick anything technical. Besides being too complex (and really boring), technical processes, like writing a computer program or assembling a transmission, require the use of specialized terminology — jargon — which the average reader will not be familiar with. Avoid technical processes and all jargon.

4) Don’t pick something too simple either. It’s possible to choose a process that can be thoroughly explained in just a few sentences (like making toast or lighting a match). You’ll end up with a paper that’s too short, or you’ll have to fill it in with fluff.

5) Don’t be too detailed. Even if you choose a common process like making a bed, riding a motorcycle, or knitting a sweater, assume your reader is of average intelligence. It’s not necessary to define “pillow” or explain where to buy yarn. Don’t get so detailed that the paper becomes tedious or ridiculous.

6) Try to pick something unusual and interesting. This kind of writing can be dull, so look for something that many people wouldn’t naturally know how to do. We’ve had great papers about loading a black powder shot gun, cleaning a moose carcass, and creating dramatic masks for plays. Papers on cleaning a bird’s cage, parking a car, or making a peanut butter sandwich were less interesting.

7) Be creative. Just because this is an expository paper doesn’t mean you can’t use your imagination. Some of the more creative and interesting topics we’ve seen are “How To Annoy Your Older Sister,” “How To Be a Nerd,” and “How To Create a Monster, by Dr. Frankenstein.”

8) An Optional Twist. If you are particularly inclined toward creative-type writing, a twist you might put on this assignment is to write a “how to” paper about something can’t actually be done. Some ideas might be “How to travel in time,” “How to levitate,” or “How to conquer Venus.”

Keep in mind that the most important element of this paper is clarity. Creativity is nice, but not what matters most in this assignment. Once you’ve selected a topic, think carefully through the steps required, and be sure to include all information needed to accomplish the task successfully. Then be sure you communicate the process in a way that an average reader could successfully follow your instructions.

About the Author

Brian Wasko

Brian WaskoBrian is the founder and president of WriteAtHome.com. One of his passions is to teach young people how to write better.View all posts by Brian Wasko

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