Genre Makeover: Problems and Solutions

For some reason, in the usual litany of rhetorical modes that are mistaken for genres in writing textbooks, problem/solution is often omitted, which is unfortunate because this one is actually useful. But before you rush to class and assign a “problem/solution essay,” let’s give it the genre makeover treatment and consider why anyone might write about problems and their solutions.

I was giving a new ESL writing textbook series the old thumb-test treatment a little while back, and I was pleased to see a chapter on problem/solution writing. It even started with a couple of decent examples, which followed the usual pattern in this kind of text:

  • Situation (background to the problem)
  • Problem (what’s wrong and why should we care?)
  • Solution(s)
  • Evaluation(s) (does/would each solution actually work?)

Simple, right? Wrong. After analyzing the models (good!), the book gave a graphic organizer to plan their “essay” (uh-oh), which crammed the text into a five-paragraph essay complete with a thesis statement (the solution!) at the end of the first paragraph (the situation!). Oh dear. In other words, by refusing to believe that writing might take a form suited to its purpose, the book taught students to do something that the rest of the chapter shows will not be good writing!

Rant over.

Just because problem/solution texts follow four predictable stages of development does not mean we can just give students a template to follow. I’m drawing here on an excellent chapter in Swales and Feak’s Academic Writing for Graduate Students (3rd edition; University of Michigan Press), which shows how writers use the basic structure strategically according to:

  • the purpose and context of the task
  • the reader’s familiarity with the situation
  • the writer’s confidence in the solutions and evaluations

Where can we situate problem/solution texts in pedagogical, professional, disciplinary, or everyday genres? Here are a few ideas for class assignments:

  • case studies are a special type of problem/solution, often used in business, information systems, or engineering courses: students can write an actual case study or — as they often do in MBA classes — a case write-up or analysis
  • proposals (to school/university administrators, to the city council, to a student group, etc.) — as letters, emails, petitions, presentations, or another effective format!
  • some editorials and newspaper opinion columns suggest solutions to local, national, or international problems
  • many “research papers” (an unfortunately vague term) can be effectively structured as problem/solution texts
  • and for more public genres: advice columns, lonely hearts (cliched, I know, but they work), and open letters (h/t to Dana Ferris and this Tweeter…)

What other problems can genre solve? Collect all the genre makeovers for more ideas, and leave your comments and suggestions below! For more ideas on moving beyond the five-paragraph essay, check out our new book, Changing Practices in the L2 Writing Classroom.

Author: Nigel Caplan

Nigel Caplan, Ph.D., is an associate professor of ESL and materials developer in Delaware, in the United States.

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