Characterization of linewidth variation by a three-step methodology is presented. Via electrical linewidth measurement, sources of linewidth variation with distinct spatial signatures are first isolated by spatial analysis. Causes with similar spatial signatures are then separated by contributor-specific measurements. Unanticipated components are lastly identified by examination of the residuals from spatial analysis. Significant sources include photomask error, flare, aberrations, development nonuniformity, and scan direction asymmetry. These components are then synthesized to quantify the contributions from the three modules of the patterning process: photomask, exposure system, and postexposure processing. Although these modules are independent of one another, their effects on linewidth variation may be correlated. Moreover, the contributions of the modules are found to vary with exposure tool, development track, and lithography strategy. The most effective means to reducing the overall linewidth variation depends on the relative importance between these components. Optical proximity correction is efficacious only for a well-controlled process where proximity effect is the predominant cause of linewidth variation.