Composition Type: Problem-Solution Essays

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?
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In composition, using a problem-solution format 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).

In many types of report writing, the thesis statement is posed front and center, in one sentence. Author Derek Soles writes about how the thesis statement in a problem-solution paper differs from a straight "report of findings" type of text:

"[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." ("The Essentials of Academic Writing," 2nd ed. Wadsworth, Cengage, 2010)

Readers need additional context before you get to your thesis, but that is not to say that the thesis has to be posed as a question in the introduction:  

"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)

Sample Introductions to Problem-Solution Essays

It can be helpful to see completed examples before writing, in order to examine what makes for an effective piece. See how these intros give some context before posing the topic and lead naturally into the body paragraphs, where the evidence will be listed. You can imagine how the author has organized the rest of the piece.

  • "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")

    Organization

    In "Passages: A Writer's Guide," how to organize a problem-solution paper is explained: 

    "Though to some extent [your organization of the paper] depends on your topic, do make sure that you include the following information:

    Introduction
    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.

    Conclusion
    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)