TWC Chapter 10: Process Explanation and Instructions

Pfeiffer, W. S., & Adkins, K. E. (2013). Process explanation and instructions. In J. Neuleib & K.S. Cain (Eds.), Technical
writing for CCNY
(pp. 257-287). Boston, MA: Pearson Learning Solutions.


In Pfeiffer and Adkins' chapter on process explanation and instruction, the authors introduce the main difference between a process explanation and instructions. They make it clear that a process explanation is meant to help the reader understand what is being done, while the instructions help a person perform the process themselves. Instructions and process explanations share some important similarities. Both have the same goal which is to accurately describe the steps leading to a specific desired goal. The difference between the two include, their purpose, audience and format. By employing a sort of instruction-esque style in this chapter, Pfeiffer and Adkins explain both how to write what they consider to be proper process explanations and instructions.

Process Explanation

Process explanations are used to provide information to the reader, when they themselves do not need step-by-step instructions. A process explanation is usually a smaller component of a larger document. A process explanation is formatted using paragraph descriptions, lists or a combination of the two. It also uses an objective point of view rather than a command point of view as process explanations are not meant to tell the reader exactly what to do. The authors provide five specific guidelines that they claim one should follow when writing a process explanation:

  1. Know your purpose and your audience. By knowing specific information such as the audience’s technical background, what they require and their understanding of the technical subject, you will be able to shape the process explanation in a way that is best fitted to the situation you are faced with.
  2. Follow the ABC format. The ABC format (Abstract/Body/Conclusion) is a basic format that is used for many, if not all technical documents. This involves a brief summary, the process explanation itself and a wrap up and/or a lead-in to the continuation of a bigger whole that this process explanation is most likely a part of.
  3. Use an objective point of view. Describe the process rather than directly telling the reader what to.
  4. Choose the right amount of detail. Depending on your intended audience, you might include a lot of specific details or a little amount of details.
  5. Use flowcharts for complex processes. Using a flowchart helps the reader visualize how and when each step in a process should be done, especially in rather complex processes with overlapping steps.

The following are examples of process explanations in different professions:

Accounting. You are going over all of a company’s papers, and you are required to write a report detailing your results and how you got to them. You do not necessarily need to explain step by step. But the person reading your report must be able to understand how you got to the numbers, but not the instructions for each step.

Laboratory work. You write a memo to colleagues detailing the assembly process for a new gas chromatograph. You are writing this to explain the process to somebody, but not necessarily so that someone else can duplicate it.


Instructions are only successful if the person reading them can successfully implement whatever the instructions were. The writer’s job is to give the user a correct road map for a successful project. It needs to warn the person of possible errors, and prepare them for the procedure so that the person can duplicate the process based solely on your instructions and/or diagrams. The format of a set of instructions is usually a list with either bullet points, numbers and task headings. Because instructions demand that the reader follows the steps accurately, Pfeiffer and Adkins provide a larger list of guidelines:

  1. Select the correct technical level. When writing instructions, make sure you know the technical background of your audience and how much of the technical situation are they familiar with.
  2. Provide introductory information. Add information that the reader might use throughout the body of the instructions. Information such definition of terms, the theory behind how something works, warnings and cautions.
  3. Use numbered lists in the body. A numbered list of steps makes it easier for readers to refer back to previous steps within the body of the instructions.
  4. Group steps under task headings. Task headings make the instructions easier to read and give the reader a sense of accomplishment as they proceed into the next task grouping.
  5. Place one action in a step. This prevents the frustration and confusion of readers.
  6. Lead off each action step with a verb. This form is called the command form. By employing this structure you convey a sense of action to your readers.
  7. Remove extra information from the step. If you want to add some follow-up information to a step within your instructions, separate it from the actual step by labeling it. Some appropriate labels include Note or Result.
  8. Use bullets or letters for emphasis. Bullets and letters highlight important information while also making sure that the reader recognizes that the information is still part of the same information.
  9. Emphasize cautions, warnings, and dangers. Doing this helps prevent bodily harm, injury or death to the reader when they perform the action that you want them to do. Graphics and varying font style is a great way to emphasize cautions, warnings and dangers.
  10. Keep a simple style. Simplicity leads to an easier reading experience and a clearer understanding of the action you want the reader to perform
  11. Use graphics. Illustrations help readers understand complicated set-ups or allow readers to glance at the steps quickly.
  12. Test your instructions for usability. Check to make sure the instructions can be followed or understood.

These are some applications of instructions in the technical workplace:

Accounting. You are going over all of a company’s papers, and you are required to write a report detailing your results and how you got to them. You do not necessarily need to explain step by step. But the person reading your report must be able to understand how you got to the numbers, but not the instructions for each step.

Laboratory work. You are required to rewrite instructions for the assembly of a gas chromatograph so that a different group of people could assemble it properly.

Instructions as opposed to process explanations are important because in this case, somebody is actually relying on your instructions to properly conduct the process.

Notable Quotes

"Your instructions must explain steps to thoroughly that the reader will be able to replicate the process without having to speak in person with the writer of the instructions” (p. 261)

“Are your readers technicians, engineers, managers, general users, or some combination of these groups? Once you answer this question, select language that every reader can understand” (p. 265).

“Usability does not happen automatically, but should be a concern from the earliest stages of the design of products and documentation” (p. 271).


This chapter puts a very strong focus on process explanations and instructions. It is an important differentiation between the two, and one that must be established prior to the writing process. Since each of these kinds of writing are aimed at different audiences and are meant to achieve two very different goals. This chapter is very adamant about the certain steps that need to be taken in order to successfully write a set of instructions. Some of which I found very interesting, was the specifics of indicating cautions warning and dangers. Though it is crucial for the person performing the experiment to know, sometimes when we relay instructions on how to do something we tend to skip over some of the precautions. we may also think that the people performing these task will be aware of the dangers, but we cannot take any of that for granted and therefore, we must make sure to include everything in our instructions.

The chapter was written with simplicity in mind. It made sure to keep every point they made simple and concise. The authors of this chapter made sure that we understand the difference between a process explanation and instructions. They focus on showing us what they consider to be the proper way to write both types of pieces and I see it as not only simple but also very straightforward. By emphasizing the importance of emphasizing specific information making sure your process explanation and/or instructions are clear to your intended audience, it feels as if the authors succeeded in helping us understand how to write a good set of instructions or a good process explanation.

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