Problem-Solution (Composition)

Glossary of Grammatical and Rhetorical Terms

Problem solving
Why did it take the Democratic Party so long to select a candidate for the 2008 presidential election, and what can the party do to make the process more efficient in the future?. Chuck Kennedy-Pool/Getty Images

In composition, problem-solution is a method for analyzing and writing about a topic by identifying a problem and proposing one or more solutions.

A problem-solution essay is a type of argument. "This sort of essay involves argumentation in that the writer seeks to convince the reader to take a particular course of action. In explaining the problem, it may also need to persuade the reader concerning specific causes" (Dave Kemper et al., Fusion: Integrated Reading and Writing, 2016).

Classic Problem-Solution Essays

  • "Look at Your Fish!" by Samuel H. Scudder
  • "A Modest Proposal" by Jonathan Swift
  • "On the Art of Living With Others," by Arthur Helps
  • "Portrait of an Ideal World," by H.L. Mencken
  • "What Is Wrong With Our System of Education?" by George Bernard Shaw

Examples and Observations

  • "[One] expository mode is the problem-solution essay, topics for which are typically framed in the form of questions. Why did fourth-graders from poor families score low on a nationwide math test, and how can educators improve math education for this group? Why is Iran a threat to our national security, and how can we reduce this threat? Why did it take the Democratic Party so long to select a candidate for the 2008 presidential election, and what can the party do to make the process more efficient in the future? These essays have two parts: a full explanation of the nature of the problem, followed by an analysis of solutions and their likelihood of success."
    (Derek Soles, The Essentials of Academic Writing, 2nd ed. Wadsworth, Cengage, 2010)
  • Organizing a Problem-Solution Essay
    "How do you organize a problem-solution paper? Though to some extent this depends on your topic, do make sure that you include the following information:
    Identify the problem in a nutshell. Explain why this is a problem, and mention who should be concerned about it.

    Problem Paragraph(s)
    Explain the problem clearly and specifically. Demonstrate that this is not just a personal complaint, but a genuine problem that affects many people.

    Solution Paragraph(s)
    Offer a concrete solution to the problem, and explain why this is the best one available. You may want to point out why other possible solutions are inferior to yours. If your solution calls for a series of steps or actions to be followed, present these steps in a logical order.

    Reemphasize the importance of the problem and the value of your solution.
    Choose a problem that you have experienced and thought about—one that you have solved or are in the process of solving. Then, in the essay itself, you may use your own experience to illustrate the problem. However, don't focus all the attention on yourself and on your troubles. Instead, direct the essay at others who are experiencing a similar problem. In other words, don't write an I essay ('How I Cure the Blues'); write a you essay ('How You Can Cure the Blues')."
    (Richard Nordquist, Passages: A Writer's Guide, 3rd ed. St. Martin's Press, 1995)
  • Sample Introductions to Problem-Solution Essays
    - "We buried my cousin last summer. He was 32 when he hanged himself from a closet coat rack in the throes of alcoholism, the fourth of my blood relatives to die prematurely from this deadly disease. If America issued drinking licenses, those four men—including my father, who died at 54 of liver failure—might be alive today."
    (Mike Brake, "Needed: A License to Drink." Newsweek, March 13, 1994)

    - "America is suffering from overwork. Too many of us are too busy, trying to squeeze more into each day while having less to show for it. Although our growing time crunch is often portrayed as a personal dilemma, it is in fact a major social problem that has reached crisis proportions over the past twenty years."
    (Barbara Brandt, Whole Life Economics: Revaluing Daily Life. New Society, 1995)

    - "The modern-day apartment dweller is faced with a most annoying problem: paper-thin walls and sound-amplifying ceilings. To live with this problem is to live with the invasion of privacy. There is nothing more distracting than to hear your neighbors' every function. Although the source of the noise cannot be eliminated, the problem can be solved."
    (Maria B. Dunn, "One Man's Ceiling Is Another Man's Floor: The Problem of Noise")
  • Thesis Statements in Problem-Solution Essays
    "In a problem-solution essay, the thesis statement usually proposes the solution. Because readers must first understand the problem, the thesis statement usually comes after a description of the problem. The thesis statement does not have to give details about the solution. Instead, it summarizes the solution. It should also lead naturally to the body of the essay, preparing your reader for a discussion of how your solution would work."
    (Dorothy Zemach and Lynn Stafford-Yilmaz, Writers at Work: The Essay. Cambridge University Press, 2008)
    The best solution to controlling deer populations is to stay as close to nature's ways as possible, and game management by hunting meets this criterion.
    Discussion: The writer of this thesis is developing a problem-solution essay. Essays following this pattern usually begin with a discussion of the problem and its causes and then examine possible solutions. In this essay, the writer presents a problem's history, causes, and effects. He then identifies and dismisses some solutions before arguing for one solution in particular.
    (Randall VanderMey, Verne Meyer, John Van Rys, and Pat Sebranek, The College Writer Brief: A Guide to Thinking, Writing, and Researching, 3rd ed. Wadsworth, Cengage, 2009)
  • Sample Introduction and Statement of the Problem: "The Frosh Fifteen"
    "College is a time for accumulation: of knowledge, friends, experiences, Cliffs Notes, student-loan debt. Unfortunately the first year, especially this first quarter, many students also accumulate unwanted weight—the dreaded Frosh Fifteen.

    "'A lot of things kind of conspire to impact students,' says Mark Mitsui of North Seattle Community College. As manager of its Physical Education and Wellness Center, he sees many of the traps that befall students. 'They are in a new environment, they have a new schedule, new friends, new food choices, and some are living away from home for the first time.' . . .

    "Students often fall into a pattern that sabotages the day: staying up at night to study, sleeping in as long as possible, getting up late, skipping breakfast, then rushing off to class. By midmorning, they're famished and the nearest food is in a vending machine. In response to junk-food snacks they skimp on lunch, and by dinner are so hungry again they chow down. Later rendezvous with friends often revolve around fast food and beer. . . ."
    (Molly Martin, "The Frosh Fifteen—This Is The First Quarter Of The Rest Of Your Life." The Seattle Times, October 4, 1998)