Tag Archives: Joseph M. Williams

A problem-solving approach to introductions

by Shamus Jarvis

I find it helpful to think of writing as a vehicle for problem solving. But before I can offer a solution to any given problem, I have to first gain a reader’s attention; otherwise I have no audience that can respond to the solution that I provide. The most effective way to ensure that a paper will both engage a reader—be it a fellow student or a professor—and establish the foundation for any claim or solution that a writer will defend in the body of the paper is to provide an intriguing and thought provoking introduction. The late Joseph M. Williams, in Style: Lessons in Clarity and Grace, insists that an introduction should include three primary components: shared context between the writer and the reader, a description of the problem, and the writer’s solution or claim.

By establishing a shared context with the reader, the writer explains why the reader is or will be affected by the problem presented within the paper. If the reader perceives that the given problem is unrelated to his or her own life, it is unlikely that that reader will be interested in reading about a solution to a problem that he or she does not perceive as a threat. The writer must convince the reader that he or she has something to gain or lose that is related to the central issue. This concept of gain and loss is related to a problem’s cost.

According to Williams, a problem is some event that is associated with a perceivable cost. If a condition, situation, or event has no cost, then no problem exists. Every problem has at least one or more consequence(s) that results in some unwanted or unintended result. Within a paper, it is important for the writer to present the consequences of an event in order to explain why that event should be recognized as a problem. As much as possible, the writer should endeavor to relate the consequences directly to the reader. Remember, if the reader believes that he or she has nothing at stake, there is no reason to continue reading. Imagine a reader asking, “So what?” after being presented with a problem. It is the writer’s job to answer the reader’s hypothetical inquiry in a way that clearly identifies the consequences of a problem and how they affect the reader.

Additionally, it is important for a writer to recognize whether he or she is attempting to solve a practical or a conceptual problem. When dealing with a practical problem, the writer will encourage the reader to execute a specific action that will either totally resolve or at least mitigate the problem. Conceptual problems often lack solutions that require specific actions. Instead, solutions are typically theoretical and require the reader to understand the larger context of the issue. Within the college environment, students are commonly asked to solve conceptual, rather than practical problems.

After the writer has presented a problem and its significant consequences or general cost to humanity, he or she should provide a solution or claim that addresses at least one of the problem’s consequences without introducing any additional ones. Obviously, the proposed solution should not magnify the intensity of the original problem. The solution or claim serves as the foundational point which the body of the paper will aim to support.

(Works Cited: Williams, Joseph M. Style: Lessons in Clarity and Grace. 9th ed. New York: Pearson Longman,    2007. Print.)

Shamus Jarvis is a junior at Principia College studying theatre and English. Hear him sing aboard the Titanic on November 14, 15, and 16 in Cox Auditorium.