WRITING CAN LIFT US TO FLIGHTS OF FANCY or, like a draft mule, it can pull the plow of practicality from one end of the field to the other. Here, we explore the mule end of the spectrum, with what’s called a “process essay.”
The process essay (which you might remember from your Comp 1 class) offers step-by-step directions to guide a reader through a task. Sure, it’s more about treading the well-tilled field of communication than lifting off into the wild blue of fantasy. But it can be a playful form as well as an informative one—and it’s a good exercise in organizing your thoughts on the page. (Sound too boring to even consider? Look below for some reasons you might want to give it a try!*)
Writing prompt: the process essay (which, with some clever packaging, can double as a holiday gift, if you’re well and truly stuck!*)
Start by identifying a skill at which you excel. It could be something simple, like writing an Amazon review, driving a stick shift, or grooming a standard poodle. On the more complex end of the spectrum, you might know exactly how to prepare for an Ironman Triathalon, paint the exterior of a house on the National Register of Historic Places, or outline a novel!
This is the stuff of YouTube video tutorials … but you’re going to slow it down, writing out each step in a way that a reader can follow. (Think IKEA assembly instructions—only with words … and humanly possible.)
*Why write a process essay?
Since ’tis the season, you might include a process essay as part of gift! For example, you could write out your mulled cider recipe and package it with the ingredients needed to brew up a pot. Or you might wrap up a few dreidels, with instructions about how to play the classic Hanukkah game. Or, if you’re a killer door-wreath creator, along with the wreath you give, share the details of how you fancy up those bauble-laden bad boys!
If you blog or teach or coach, you might want to use this opportunity to create written instructions for something your students or readers would benefit from, then use those instructions in a blog post or lesson. (Handouts, anyone?)
And if you write fiction, writing a process essay can take you deep into your main character’s area of expertise. Our fictional folks have entire lives gliding beneath the surface of the stories we tell about them. Knowing your stuff about what they do and how they do it will add depth and authority to your literary worlds!
Finally, if you really, really, REALLY like doing this exercise, you might have a calling as a technical writer.
Travel essays often include aspects of process writing. For instance, the writer might explain how to get to a location, how to stay safe once you’re there, how to find the best bargains, or how to discover the most exotic meals. Check out the 2019 edition of the annual THE BEST AMERICAN TRAVEL WRITING, edited by Jason Wilson and Alexandra Fuller for examples.