How to Write a Problem-Solution Essay
Problem: you’ve been assigned a problem-solution paper. Solution: this handy, 16-step guide will help you successfully tackle the assignment. You may even change the world—or at least your own backyard!
1) Take a walk. A good problem-solution paper addresses a problem that is worth pursuing and can be solved practically. World peace is out, sorry. So are your personal gripes with security, cafeteria food, or that annoying guy in the library—these are personal nuisances, not problems. National issues are too big and too broad to be analyzed and solved; you need to think locally. Get out and examine your immediate environment: what problems do you encounter every day that can and should be addressed? What questions arise? What answers are there?
2) Develop a proposal. The first person you’ll need to convince of your topic is yourself. Take these four steps to get the ball rolling:
- Develop a rationale for your selection: why it matters, why it’s a problem, and why it can be solved.
- Define your initial understanding: clarify what you know about the problem and what you think you know about potential solutions.
- Determine what you need to learn: develop questions to help you begin your research or writing.
- Design a research plan: poke around your library and/or online databases, and figure out what information is out there. Pick three people who could help your research and arrange to talk to them about the issue.
3) Get early feedback. While most people can’t give advice on Shakespeare, everyone has an opinion about the world’s problems, no matter how small. Make it known to others what your plans are: talk to your teacher, friends, parents—anyone—about your ideas. When you solicit their opinions, ask for their response to both your take on the topic and your plans for gathering information.
4) Don’t jump to conclusions—any. Let’s face it: we’re all know-it-alls; we all think we have the answer to life’s problems. Unfortunately, in our rush to judgment, we often miss key details that would help us make better decisions. The same goes for a problem-solution paper: those who establish their solution first and remain steadfast to it tend to demonstrate a limited understanding of both the problem and logical solution; in other words, they don’t do well on the assignment. It’s okay to brainstorm some initial ideas, but set them aside until later: the most informed decisions come when you’re well-informed. Wait until you’ve researched the topic and fully defined the problem before finalizing your call for action.
5) Research, research, research. No matter how much you already know about your topic, there will likely be plenty out there that you don’t, and perhaps this source may even have helpful statistical information. Read as much as you can about your topic, starting with broad discussions on your topic (i.e., articles about your problem at a national or state level rather than specific to your area) and then moving on to more local coverage. Some key sources are those materials that describe how your problem is/was dealt with in other communities like yours. You can use this information as a comparison tool or to inform your solution.
6) Research some more—but creatively. If you’re tackling a school or local community issue, printed materials may be scant, but consider it an opportunity to collect your own data. The two best methods: construct a survey to be given to the audience affected by your problem or interview key people associated with the problem (or solution). Both methods can provide significant credibility to your analysis and proposal.
7) Map, plan, or outline your essay first. Know where your paper needs to go before you begin. Problem-solution papers have a lot of components and thus need to follow a tight structure: you address the problem, you establish middle ground between all concerned parties, and you present your vision for how to solve the problem. Review steps 8 through 10 before beginning to write, and then organize your notes and data around the components discussed below.
8) When you’re ready to begin writing, start with the problem section first. It’s the easiest and most logical place to start, and it should be the component of the paper on which you have the most information. Take the following steps to define the progression of your “problem” paragraph(s):
- Define the nature of the problem.
- Establish its existence by explaining what has caused or led to the problem
- Explain the extent of the problem.
- Explain its effects and why it is an issue that needs to be solved.
- Finally, warn readers about future effects if no solution is offered. Apply prior experiences from other communities to this section.
9) Your middle section must establish common ground. You’ve addressed the problem, sure, but before anyone will accept your solution, you need to show you've taken the concerns of others to heart. To do so, you’ll need to explain how others view the topic and the concerns of those people when it comes to trying to solve it. Address opposing arguments, and anticipate your audience’s questions and concerns. Establish criteria for a good solution that will appease everyone involved.
10) Before you propose your solution, address other alternatives first. Show you’ve put some thought into your solution by acknowledging and critiquing other possible solutions to your topic. Explain your reasons for rejecting them. Your goal: make your solution appear to be the best solution.
11) Propose a plan of action. Make sure it’s clear to your readers not only what you’d do but how you would do it. Clearly describe your solution so that your audience can imagine what it will be like. Address the potential arguments your opposition might have to your solution. Let your audience know why they would be satisfied with your approach.
12) Conclude with a call to action. Encourage your audience to accept your views and join the cause. Use projection: show your audience what your community will be like if they do or do not adopt your solution. Or ask them to take simple steps to bring about the change you desire. Help them continue the fight.
13) Write your thesis last. A strange idea, but theses for problem-solution papers are pretty straightforward; wait until you’ve clearly established your ideas before putting them into a single sentence. Your thesis statement, by the way, should identify both problem and the solution. For example, “Schools shouldrequire uniforms in order to minimizegang violence.”
14) Revision advice #1: Use visualization whenever possible. Detailed descriptions evoke strong emotions and help your audience “see” the problem. You can do so with examples from your area or another area with the same problem, or you can create hypothetical scenarios that scare or encourage your audience. Make the problem and solution come alive.
15) Revision advice #2: Make your audience care about your ideas. As you read over your paper, ask yourself, “Am I connecting with those people affected by the problem?” Address their needs and concerns. Show them why your ideas matter.
16) Publish—or perish. Go public with what you’ve learned! A problem-solution paper is just that—a paper—unless those people affected by the problem are made aware of what you know. Talk to your instructor about expressing your knowledge in a new form: a documentary, a pamphlet, or a new club.