When most people think of writing a process essay, they think of the more common “how-to” essay. The how-to essay is popular because readers love to educate themselves on everyday subjects such as how to cook, how to invest in the stock market, or how to find the perfect mate. However, the less popular form of the process essay, often called the “how” essay, is also useful in various situations.
The how essay typically explains how something happens, but the writer doesn’t expect the reader to perform the task being described. For example, every autumn, numerous magazine and newspaper stories explain how the leaves on the trees gradually change colors and eventually die and fall to the ground.
According to Robert Strauss, a writer for the New York Times, the green leaves of spring and summer actually contain other colors; these colors remain hidden, however, because the strong green pigment of the chlorophyll, which uses sunlight to produce food for the tree, overwhelms the lighter colors until late summer. At that point, when the temperatures begin to drop, the cool weather breaks down the chlorophyll, and the previously hidden colors — red, orange, and yellow — emerge.
So now that you know the basics of how that process works, could you take a green leaf from a tree and make it change colors? No, you could not. Thus, while the how-to essay is usually practical and possible to replicate, the how essay is written primarily for informative and educational purposes. Sometimes, too, authors will use the how essay to argue a position in a persuasive essay.
For instance, if you were writing against the death penalty, you might write a how essay to describe in gory and graphic detail what happens when a convicted murderer is electrocuted. Your purpose in that essay is not to teach your reader how to electrocute someone but, rather, to demonstrate how barbaric and inhumane the process is to a fellow human being.
By contrast, if you feel the death penalty is appropriate for a convicted murderer, you might use the how essay to describe the steps the criminal went through as he planned the murder, prepared for the murder, and executed the victim, again with gory and graphic details. Your purpose in that essay is not to teach the reader how to murder but to convince the reader that the convicted murderer deserved to receive the death penalty as punishment.
One other major difference between the how-to and the how essay involves the point of view. With the how-to essay, you will generally use the second-person point of view which means using the pronouns “you” and “your” in what is, essentially, a personal, teaching essay: “When you cook pasta, your cooking time will depend on the thickness of your pasta.”
By contrast, when you write the how essay, you should avoid the second-person point of view because you’re writing a more formal essay, perhaps even a research paper. Thus, you should use the third-person point of view and use pronouns such as “he, she, it, and they”: “When the NASA scientists prepared the spaceship to go to the moon, they knew they would need a rocket strong enough to escape the earth’s atmosphere.”
One final detail to consider when writing either the how-to or the how essay involves the use of transitional words and phrases. Since most process essays include at least three steps, try to use words such as “first, second, and third,” or “initially, later, and finally,” to move your reader through the essay. Note, too, that you should include the number of steps in your title and/or thesis, so your readers know ahead of time what to expect. For example, you might call your essay “The Four Stages of a Butterfly’s Life,” or you might write a thesis similar to the following: “The new skyscraper was completed in five gradual stages.”
So how do you decide between the how-to or the how essay? As mentioned earlier, if your instructor expects a personal, teaching type of essay, you can use the how-to essay. The how-to is perfect when you possess a special skill that you want to pass along to your readers. If, however, your instructor expects a more formal essay or a research paper about a person, a place, an event, or a completed process, you should use the how essay.
Strauss, Robert. “The Bright Side of a Wet Summer.” New York Times, 19 Oct. 2003, p. 4. New York State Newspapers, search.proquest.com/docview/432544095/fulltext/9CF69505024542B3PQ/1?accountid=6155