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?)
- 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!
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…)