Making Problems: How to Begin Writing an Academic Essay

Making Problems: How to Begin Writing an Academic Essay

Academic Writing

The worst thing to hear from your reader is not "I disagree;" it's "I don't care." Make your reader care about your academic essay by posing a problem worth writing about.

Table of contents

Mainstream EFL textbooks instruct English learners to create a purpose statement before writing academic essays.

A purpose statement, according to one popular EFL writing textbook, is "a short sentence that clearly defines the point of the essay." Thus:

Topic: How to play chess
Purpose Statement: The purpose of this essay is to explain to the reader how to play the game called chess.
Topic: The effects of exercise
Purpose Statement: The purpose of this essay is to tell the positive effects or results of exercising.
Topic: The most beautiful place I have ever been
Purpose Statement: The purpose of this essay is to describe the most beautiful place I have ever been.

It's a useful exercise for writers to consider the goal of their writing before they start writing. This prevents them from straying away from the point.

But the goals identified in the examples above - to tell; to explain; to describe - do not correspond at all to the purpose of academic writing. Instead, they lead students to write essays that are:

  • Boring to write,
  • Boring to read,
  • Not worth the paper they're printed on.
The purpose of an academic essay is to solve a problem that the writer and reader care about.

If you want to write an academic essay worth reading, it's time to set aside purpose statements and consider the problem you're trying to solve. This attempt to solve a problem is what makes your writing valuable. In fact, the word essay derives from the French word for 'to try.'

When piece of writing attempts to solve a problem, it becomes an essay.
The word 'essay' is derived from the French word for 'to try, attempt.'

When we move from purpose statements → problem statements, a few things happen.

  • The writer is motivated to research evidence and think logically. Descriptions and explanations are self-evident. Problems, on the other hand, are controversial, so they require evidence and logical thinking in order to be considered valid. And when a writer examines evidence and uses it to make inferences towards a solution to a problem, that writer is engaged in a meaningful, valuable enterprise.
  • The reader follows along. Good writers understand their readers and respect their time. When we orient our essay around a problem (rather than just information), we ensure that it has value.
  • The reader is engaged. When an essay addresses a problem of any importance, it makes claims that require evidence and support, the validity of which will be assessed by the reader.
  • The world is a better place. You've identified a problem and tried to solve it. Thanks to your essay, a negative outcome may have been avoided, or a gap in our understanding may have been filled.
In short, problem statements will help you set up an essay worth writing.

In The Craft of Argument, Joseph Williams (18 August 1933 - 22 February 2008) and Gregory Colomb (5 September 1951 – 11 October 2011) lay out an excellent approach to setting up problems that will transform your writing into an academic essay.

📝 What Is a Problem Statement?

The most important part of your academic essay is the problem statement — more important than the thesis, evidence, reasoning, language accuracy, etc. Of course, these elements are also important. But outside the context of a problem, these elements are meaningless; the problem statement is what coordinates them into a coherent argument.

In The Craft of Argument, Williams and Colomb identify three key moves within a problem statement:

  1. Status Quo
  2. Destabilizing Condition
  3. Cost / Consequence

1. Status Quo

Set the context

A problem statement begins by establishing a shared context, a background for your argument.

A fact on its own means very little, e.g.:

An EFL student who engaged in pleasure reading for 6 weeks scored 500 on the TOEFL exam.

But when we introduce a baseline against which that fact can be measured, it becomes much more significant, e.g.:

Before engaging in pleasure reading, an EFL student scored 463 on the TOEFL exam; after 6 weeks of pleasure reading, the student scored 500 points.

The status quo thus prepares the reader for the new information that your essay presents. If you jump straight into the key ideas, there is no context within which the reader can recognize their value. The new ideas require old ideas to push off of.

In order to introduce the reader to a problem, we need to first establish the current state of things. Beginning with the status quo serves two important functions:

Background information: by introducing the topic, you allow the reader to summon background information, which is an important element in interpretation and understanding. If you miss this step and jump straight into the argument, the reader doesn’t have a chance to integrate her previous knowledge with the new information presented in your essay.
Status Quo: This serves as a baseline against which the reader can measure the consequence of your argument.

2. Destabilizing Condition

Show the reader a problem within that context

This is where the problem begins.

After establishing the status quo, we want to show the reader what’s wrong with that situation.

A destabilizing condition might highlight the way in which the current situation is causing an undesirable effect, or it might point out a hole in our understanding of the topic. In either case, this point is a transition away from the way things are towards the way things should be.

3. Cost or Consequence

What happens if we don’t solve that problem?

These are the stakes.

Even after pointing out a problem with the way things are, the reader might still say, So what? Who cares?

This is the part of the problem statement that makes the reader care. We want to make obvious the cost of leaving the problem unsolved, or the way in which our lack of understanding something prevents us from solving larger problems.

In either case, we can imagine that this part of the problem statement answers the question, So what?

This is the conceptual framework of a problem statement, but it’s not a script. That is, you don’t need to write one sentence for each part of the problem statement. But if the introduction to your essay moves through these three parts in general, your reader is guaranteed to be motivated to read the rest of your essay.

🙅‍♀️ What a Problem Statement is NOT

It might be useful to consider essays that were written without a problem statement. Below is a variety of common mistakes that, in one way or another, fail to move through the three parts of a problem statement.

In each case, I think you’ll agree that the writing doesn’t exactly motivate the reader to continue reading.

A Topic or Subject

Essays that address a mere topic or subject instead of a problem end up far too broad and unfocused.

These essays, which often identify their purpose as to ‘discuss a topic,’ move aimlessly from point to point without arriving at any conclusion.

Consider the following introduction, which is from a student essay about “the link between language and culture.”

EFL student essay about “the link between language and culture.”
This semester, I’ve been studying English language and culture to better understand the link between language and culture, as well as how they influence and shape one another. I’ve been focusing on themes like discourse community, cultural keywords, meaning as sign, cultural identities, cultural stereotypes, and so on throughout the course. I have talked about and expressed my thoughts on a variety of topics relating to language and culture. In this essay, I will discuss how cultural keywords relate to the relationship between English language and culture.

The writer moves from a broad theme — the connection between language and culture — to a specific topic within that theme — cultural keywords. And these are fascinating and rich subjects, to be sure.

But what is this essay trying to do, exactly?

In the final sentence, the writer announces that he will “discuss” the relationship of this topic to the broader theme.

  • Would a busy person want to read this?
  • Is there a promise for something valuable in the introduction?
  • Does the paragraph motivate the reader to continue reading?

From the writer’s perspective, the relationship between cultural keywords, language, and culture seems like a perfectly good topic to write about. But in order for the essay to be valuable to the reader, this introduction needs to establish a problem and the consequences of not solving that problem.

A problem statement is what shows the reader why that topic is worth exploring.

A Summary of Information

An academic essay is not a Wikipedia page.

In other words, the point of an academic essay is not to present information to the reader; the point is to use information to solve a problem.

In the following introduction, from a student essay about language and culture, the writer provides a definition of cultural identity:

Cultural identity gives the feeling of belonging to a specific culture. There are several elements in which cultural identity is defined: language, race, ethnicity, regional identity, etc. Among them, we will focus on language. Language is composed of various elements and is as complex as it is important to humans. Therefore, when cultural identity is caused by language, the branches will vary.

At this point you can imagine the reader asking, Yes, yes. And? So what? Why should I care about cultural identity?

The paragraph provides no answer to that question.

A problem statement establishes a context within which information like that above gain significance.

An Opinion

Of course, academic essays require that you have an opinion. Without an opinion, the essay presents both sides of a problem without taking a side: some people think X, and other people think Y. This is what an English professor of mine used to call a Disney ending: when Bambi and Thumper run off into the woods together and everybody is happy.

Bambi and Thumper do not run off happily into the woods at the end of your academic essay.

But what good is an opinion if it doesn’t attempt to solve a dispute? An opinion outside the context of a problem is worthless.

This idea is captured perfectly by professor Erin Ackerman when she highlights the importance of bringing opinions into conversation with others:

…you need to write about more than just your opinions. Good writing in the social sciences, as in other academic disciplines, requires that you demonstrate that you have examined what you think and why. The best way to do that is to bring your views into conversation with those expressed by others and to test what you and others think against a review of evidence. In other words, you’ll need to start with what others say and then present what you say as a response.

—Erin Ackerman, “Analyze This: Writing in the Social Sciences,” They Say, I Say: The Moves That Matter in Academic Writing”

To make your opinion worth something, you need to direct it towards the solution to a problem.

✌️ Two Kinds of Problems

All problem statements ask the reader to change in some way, but Williams and Colomb identify two kinds of problems — practical and conceptual — each of which makes different demands on the reader and requires a different kind of argument.

Practical Problems

My essay addresses the issue of [TOPIC] in order to find out how to change [DESTABILIZING CONDITION] so that [the reader/someone else] can [avoid the cost / gain the benefit] of [ ].

A practical problem is a situation that you (and the reader) want to eliminate. By outlining a practical problem, we prompt the reader to ask, What must we do to change this situation?

‘Do’ is the key word here, for practical problems requires us to do (or not do) something in order to solve or eliminate that problem. Essays that focus on practical problems will generally do two things:

  • Identify the chain of causes and effects that produce the practical problem;
  • Make a case for how we can best intervene in that chain in order to eliminate the problem.

Every practical problem, according to Williams and Colomb, has two parts:

  • 1. Destablizing Condition. Anything that upsets the status quo.
  • 2. Cost. The effect of having the destabilizing condition that makes you (or the reader, or someone the reader cares about) feel bad.

The cost is what establishes the destabilizing condition as a problem.

It’s not enough to simply state a problem; if there is no cost associated with the destabilizing condition, there’s no problem. And if there’s no problem, there’s no point in writing (or reading) your academic essay.

Writers have an interesting choice when it comes to establishing the cost: the effect of the destablizing condition can be presented as either the cost of leaving this problem unsolved or the benefit of solving it.

Since humans will do more to avoid pain than to gain benefit, Williams and Colomb recommend always stating the cost alongside the benefit:

If you want to cite benefits, state the costs when you first introduce the problem and add the benefits after you state the solution.

Conceptual Problem

My essay addresses the issue of [TOPIC] in order to better understand [Destablizing Condition / First Question] so that we can answer a more important question: [Consequence / Larger Question ].

Conceptual problems are not about situations (like practical problems); they’re about ideas.

This kind of problem isn’t a source of pain or dissatisfaction like the practical problem. Instead, it’s the kind of problem that frustrates our need to understand the world. A conceptual problem identifies something that is unknown or misunderstood and tries to change our point of view.

When you find a conceptual problem, the question to ask is not What should we do?, it’s What should we think? Conceptual problems, in other words, show that there’s something missing in the way we normally think about the topic.

The structure for a conceptual problem statement is basically the same as that of a practical problem, with two important differences:

1. The desabilizing condition is something you don't know / understand but want to. This could be...

  • A gap in our understanding
  • An error in interpretation / analysis
  • Condtradiction between a new fact and old ones
    2. Stakes. The part that makes your reader care about the problem isn't a cost but a consequence.
In a conceptual problem, the consequence of its destabilizing condition is something else that you don’t know, another question whose answer is more significant than the answer to the first.
The destabilizing condition of a conceptual problem can always be posed as a question.
😬 We don’t know how to measure complexity 👌 How can we measure complexity?
😬 We don’t know the effect social media is having on teenage mental health. 👌 What effect does social media have on teenage mental health?

When you can say why you want to answer this question, you've identified the second part of a conceptual problem (its consequences). In other words, the consequence answers the question, So what if we don’t know that?

🥳 In Sum

  • Purpose statements such as ‘to describe’ and ‘to explain,’ promoted by many EFL textbooks, do not at all correspond to academic discourse;
  • There is only one purpose to academic writing: to solve a problem;
  • Problem statements establish that problem, and they make the reader care about your writing.

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