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Notes From a Writer's Desk: The Genius of a Problem and Solution Framework

The Fellowships & Writing Center recently ran a workshop on writing abstracts and elevator pitches—two short forms of academic writing that are not discussed often enough. In our workshop, we proposed that both abstracts and pitches follow the same general structure: situation, problem, solution, significance.

Essentially, you begin by setting up the situation in your field or on your topic. You then describe a problem within that field, how your work provides a solution, and finally, the significance of your intervention. This structure can help you write a great abstract or prepare a networking pitch, but it can also be applied to a range of writing scenarios and roadblocks you may be facing. 

Imagine you are writing an article and there is a paragraph that just keeps getting longer and longer despite all your attempts to stop it. What would it look like to pause and think about the paragraph in terms of the problem and solution? First, ask yourself, what problem is this paragraph addressing? “Problem” can be defined loosely here and might be easier to think about if you reframe the question slightly: “What is this paragraph trying to do?” Your paragraph might be clarifying a logical step in your argument, explaining the context of your work or a particular theoretical or methodological approach, conducting a close reading of a primary source, or addressing a counterargument. Knowing what problem you want to deal with in the paragraph can help you to decide what else belongs in the paragraph (and, helpfully, what doesn’t belong). 

To see if a paragraph is complete, you can ask yourself if it solves the problem it presents. For example, if the goal of your paragraph is to put your work in conversation with other scholars, the problem (how does my work connect to x scholarship?) is resolved with a clear statement of that relationship. Without that statement, the paragraph will feel incomplete. If you merely describe the other scholarship without a framework, the paragraph might go on for pages, and readers will have trouble discerning what they should take away. Checking for the problem and solution in each paragraph can also help you to recognize material that doesn’t fit because it is related to a different problem. This process can show you when you need to split a paragraph into two or transplant several sentences into a new paragraph. Although your problems and solutions will look a little different paragraph by paragraph, this framework can help you to think about each paragraph as doing a specific job made up of smaller components. 

The problem and solution framework can also be helpful for thinking about your article or chapter as a whole. The traditional sections of introduction, body, and conclusion can be roughly mapped onto the situation, problem, solution, significance frame such that the introduction sets up the situation and problem, the body offers your solution through your research, and the conclusion explains the significance. Just like the shorter abstract, a strong article is going to do all these things, though often in a less linear way. 

Where an abstract will follow the situation, problem, solution, and significance frame in pretty much that order, a much longer article may move between these steps more fluidly and return to each several times throughout the paper. In setting the stage for your article, your introduction will likely go through each of these steps in miniature, and individual body sections may also go through each of these steps. Ultimately, establishing for yourself what step you are working on in a particular section or paragraph can help you to make sure your writing is clear and effective. And by keeping this framework in mind as you write and revise, you can better assess what your paper has already done and what it still needs to do. 

The problem and solution framework is flexible, allowing you to scale it up or down from a paragraph to a section, an article, and even the dissertation. As one among many tools in your writerly toolbox, this framework can help you to think about the narratives in each part of your paper and make sure that they are complete, memorable, and compelling.

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