Problem-Solution essays (or, as they may also be referred to, Proposing Solutions or Proposal essays) serve an important role. These essays inform readers about problems and suggest actions that could be taken to remedy these problems. People write proposals every day in business, government, education, and other professions. Proposals are a basic ingredient of the world’s work.
As a special form of argument, problem-solution essays have much in common with position essays. Both analyze a subject and take a definite stand on it. Both seek to convince readers to share this position by giving reasons and evidence and by acknowledging readers’ likely objections or questions. Proposals, however, go beyond inviting readers to share the writer’s views; they urge them to support a particular policy or take specific action. They argue for a proposed solution to a problem, succeeding or failing by how well they argue for the solution.
To most disciplines and professions, problem solving is a basic way of thinking. For example, scientists use the scientific method, a systematic form of problem solving; political scientists and sociologists propose solutions to troubling political and social problems; engineers regularly employ problem-solving techniques to build bridges, automobiles, or computers; attorneys find legal precedents to solve their clients’ problems; teachers continually make decisions about how to help students with specific learning problems; counselors devote themselves to helping clients solve personal problems; business owners or managers define themselves as problem-solvers. Problem solving depends on a questioning attitude, what is called critical thinking. In addition, it demands imagination and creativity. To solve a problem, writers need to see it anew, to look at it from new angles and in new contexts.
Since a proposal tries to convince readers that its way of defining and solving the problem makes sense, proposal writers must be sensitive to readers’ needs and expectations. As students plan and draft a proposal, they will want to determine whether their readers are aware of the problem and whether they recognize its seriousness. In addition, writers will want to consider what they might think of any other solutions. Knowing what the readers know, what their assumptions and biases are, what kinds of arguments will be appealing to them is a central part of proposal writing, indeed of all good argumentative writing.
Basic Features of Problem-Solution/Proposal Essays
(From The Concise Guide to Writing by Axelrod and Cooper, 1993, St. Martin’s Press)
A Well-Defined Problem
A proposal is written to offer a solution to a problem. Before presenting the solution, a proposal writer must be sure that readers know what the problem is. The writer may also have to establish that the problem indeed exists and is serious enough to need solving. Sometimes a writer can assume that readers will recognize the problem. At other times readers may not be aware of the problem.
A Proposed Solution
Once the problem is established, the writer must present and argue for a particular solution. Be sure that the topic is narrow and that the solutions are reasonable.
A Convincing Argument
The main purpose of a proposal is to convince readers that the writer’s solution is the best way of solving the problem. Proposals argue for their solutions by trying to demonstrate:
Regardless of the proposal or the argument made on its behalf, problem-solution writers must adopt a reasonable tone. The objective is to advance an argument without “having” an argument. The aim is to bridge any gap that may exist between writer and readers, not widen it.
Writers can build such a bridge of shared concerns by showing respect for their readers and treating their concerns seriously. They discuss anticipated objections and reservations as an attempt to lay to rest any doubts readers may have. They consider alternative solutions as a way of showing they have explored every possibility in order to find the best possible solution.
Problem-solution essays are a common essay type, especially for short essays such as subject exams or IELTS. The page gives information on what they are, how to structure this type of essay, and gives an example problem-solution essay on the topic of obesity and fitness levels.
What are problem-solution essays?
Problem-solution essays consider the problems of a particular situation, and give solutions to those problems. They are in some ways similar to cause and effect essays, especially in terms of structure (see below). Problem-solution essays are actually a sub-type of another type of essay, which has the following four components:
The 'situation' may be included in the essay prompt, in which case it will not be needed in the main body. If it is needed, it can often be included in the introduction, especially for short essays, as with the example essay below. The 'evaluation' may be included as part of the conclusion (also as in the example below), or omitted altogether, especially for short essays. For these reasons, problem-solution essays are more common than situation-problem-solution-evaluation essays (or SPSE essays).
There are two main ways to structure a problem-solution essay. These are similar to the ways to structure cause and effect essays, namely using a block or a chain structure. For the block structure, all of the problems are listed first, and all of the solutions are listed afterwards. For the chain structure, each problem is followed immediately by the solution to that problem. Both types of structure have their merits. The former is generally clearer, especially for shorter essays, while the latter ensures that any solutions you present relate directly to the problems you have given.
The two types of structure, block and chain, are shown in the diagram below. This is for a short essay, which includes the 'situation' in the introduction and 'evaluation' in the conclusion. A longer essay, for example one of around 1,000 words, with citations, would probably have these two sections as separate paragraphs in the main body.
Below is a problem-solution essay on the topic of obesity and poor fitness. It uses the block structure. Click on the different areas (in the shaded boxes) to highlight the different structural aspects in this essay, i.e. Situation, Problem, Solution, Evaluation. This will highlight not simply the paragraphs, but also (for problems and solutions) the thesis statement and summary, as these repeat the problems and solutions contained in the main body.
Consumption of processed and convenience foods and our dependence on the car have led to an increase in obesity and reduction in the fitness level of the adult population. In some countries, especially industrialized ones, the number of obese people can amount to one third of the population. This is significant as obesity and poor fitness lead to a decrease in life expectancy, and it is therefore important for individuals and governments to work together to tackle this issue and improve their citizens' diet and fitness.
Obesity and poor fitness decrease life expectancy. Overweight people are more likely to have serious illnesses such as diabetes and heart disease, which can result in premature death. It is well known that regular exercise can reduce the risk of heart disease and stroke, which means that those with poor fitness levels are at an increased risk of suffering from those problems.
Changes by individuals to their diet and their physical activity can increase life expectancy. There is a reliance today on the consumption of processed foods, which have a high fat and sugar content. By preparing their own foods, and consuming more fruit and vegetables, people could ensure that their diets are healthier and more balanced, which could lead to a reduction in obesity levels. In order to improve fitness levels, people could choose to walk or cycle to work or to the shops rather than taking the car. They could also choose to walk up stairs instead of taking the lift. These simple changes could lead to a significant improvement in fitness levels.
Governments could also implement initiatives to improve their citizens' eating and exercise habits. This could be done through education, for example by adding classes to the curriculum about healthy diet and lifestyles. Governments could also do more to encourage their citizens to walk or cycle instead of taking the car, for instance by building more cycle lanes or increasing vehicle taxes. While some might argue that increased taxes are a negative way to solve the problem, it is no different from the high taxes imposed on cigarettes to reduce cigarette consumption.
In short, obesity and poor fitness are a significant problem in modern life, leading to lower life expectancy. Individuals and governments can work together to tackle this problem and so improve diet and fitness. Of the solutions suggested, those made by individuals themselves are likely to have more impact, though it is clear that a concerted effort with the government is essential for success. With obesity levels in industrialized and industrializing countries continuing to rise, it is essential that we take action now to deal with this problem.
Below is a checklist for the main body of an essay. Use it to check your own writing, or get a peer (another student) to help you.