Paper not working? try the “what’s the problem?” approach



Ever find yourself with a draft of a journal article that you’re just not happy with? Can’t put your finger on what’s wrong? Well you’re not alone. The being-disgruntled-with-a-paper-but-unsure-of-the-reason syndrome is the most common problem I see in writing workshops.

Unhappy drafters have almost always completed research that’s interesting and that potentially makes a contribution. They can write about the background literatures and methods as well as their results. They’ve chosen a target journal and written for that specific readership. But they still can’t seem to get the paper into shape. Grrrrrr. What’s wrong?

When I read these drafts I quite often see a paper that doesn’t have a clear warrant. The writer hasn’t yet established the need for the research that the paper reports. It’s not that they don’t know it, they just haven’t communicated it in ways that will make sense to, and connect with, their readers. And that means – in paper writing terms – that the introduction and the conclusion in particular aren’t doing their job.

I’ve found that the most helpful question I can ask in this situation is this:

What’s the problem for which your piece of research offers an answer?

Once the problem is clear, it’s easier to think about how to stage the argument, and most importantly, how to re-write the introduction. Armed with the answer to the “Whats the problem?” question, the writer can:

  • establish the context for the problem
  • state the problem, and
  • provide some compelling evidence that it exists and is important.

In doing this, the introductory text must also

  • connect the evidence of, and the need to solve the problem, to the interests of the journal readers.

This set of ‘problem’ focused moves – context, problem, evidence, connection – begins the introduction to a paper,  creates the warrant for the research that follows, and sets up the argument.


Let me show you an example of how the problem posing approach works as an introduction.

I’m going to look at a paper by Saranne Weller called “New lecturer’s accounts of reading higher education research” (2011 Studies in Continuing Education, 33(1)- 93-106).

Weller conducted a small pilot study examining the reading practices of four new lecturers from different disciplines. She asked them to choose and annotate two key readings about higher education. She then interviewed each participant, talking through their reading strategies. Her analysis of their responses led her to ‘see’ three key themes that underpinned their reading: (1) their positioning as an insider in their discipline, but an outsider in higher education more generally: (2) difficulties they experienced in engaging with the language and disciplinary conventions of higher education research; and (3) tensions between their practitioner experience within their discipline and the abstract theory offered in higher education research.

So, let’s try out the question approach. What was the problem that Weller was addressing and for which her research provided (part of) an answer?

The context was – and is – that universities – in the UK at least – now require newly appointed lecturers to engage in pedagogical ‘training’, often for a formal award. The expectation is that new lecturers will develop a theoretically informed teaching practice – and integral to doing this is reading higher education research, reading that is out of their home disciplines. However, the problem is that we know very little about what new lecturers actually make of the reading they are offered. Therefore, we don’t know how useful it is and whether it contributes to the goals of the training courses, namely, to support more reflective teaching.

So how does Weller introduce this problem for which her research provides, if not an answer, certainly some unsettling questions?

Well, here are the first three paragraphs of her introduction. I’ve abridged the middle one, simply because I want to show how Weller makes the moves – context, problem, evidence and connections.

Paragraphs Commentary
1.  It is widely accepted that new lecturer professional development programmes should require participants to engage not only in reflective practices for the purposes of enhancing their teaching but that such reflection should be grounded in a critical understanding of current educational theories acquired through reading higher education scholarship. Self-referential acts of practitioner reflection should therefore be developed further ‘by regularly evaluating and analysing personal professional approaches against ideas and insights gained from and generated by research and scholarly work’ (Daly, Pachler, and Lambert 2004, 101). In the context of the professionalising of higher education, Ferman’s (2002) review of what lecturers identified as valuable for their enhancement supports this account of lecturers’ literacy practices as central to lecturers’ understanding of their academic professionalism. For her respondents, ‘professional reading’ emerges as a major theme for lecturers’ individual development, where reading includes both pedagogic and disciplinary topics. The context is established – newly appointed lecturer programmes expect theoretically- informed teaching.The use of terms such as reflective practice, critical understanding and individual development connects with the journal c community interest in continuing education.

Evidence is provided of the assumption that reading is a Good Thing.

2.  Similarly, King’s (2004) survey of what academics considered important for their continuing professional development found that the reading of learning and teaching articles was rated more highly than centrally organised academic development. Professional development events   workshops, conferences, award-bearing courses remain key institutional learning and teaching enhancement interventions. Yet translating the outcomes of such activities into the workplace can be challenging where non-formal learning, including reading about learning and teaching, is ‘likely to be a more significant response than formal learning’ for ‘confronting professional obsolescence’  … This paragraph continues to provide evidence from higher education research into assumptions about reading. The use of the term ‘non-formal learning’ also connects to the journal readers’ interests.
 3. Despite the central role that reading higher education research might play in developing academic activities, such practices have received little critical attention in research into either the literacy experiences of lecturers or their professional development. For many lecturers, a model of ‘scholarly teaching’ relies on reading rather than writing practices, given the expectation that lecturers might read and apply research about higher education to enhance their practice but might not necessarily produce comparable written research about their own practices. Inquiry into the literacy challenges for academics, however, has remained focused on the specific demands of writing whether that be the demands of disciplinary research writing (Badley 2009), written feedback processes on student work (Lea and Street 2000) or everyday workplace writing (Lea and Stierer 2009)   rather than the particular requirements of academic reading. Weller now moves on to the problem that the paper addresses – all of this practice and research has assumed that reading higher education research is unproblematic. 

Taken together context, problem and evidence provide the warrant for the paper.

Because Weller had established the problem as lack of knowledge about new lecturer reading  in the introduction of the paper, she was able to return to it in the paper’s conclusion. Weller was also able to raise questions for universities interested in improving teaching practice through supported and systematic professional development. This was her So What response.

Im sure you can see from this account of Weller’s paper the other thing that is helpful about a problem-based approach to an introduction. And that’s to do with the Conclusion. Once you’ve established the problem you’re addressing at the start, you can easily return to it in the conclusion, showing how your evidence/research does provide insights/questions/answers. You can then discuss the implications of the research for the context you outlined at the start. I haven’t shown Weller’s conclusion here but I’m sure that you can guess it.

It’s important to note that the What’s the Problem question, and the problem-based approach to Introductions that I’ve outlined are not the only way to write a paper or sort out writing issues. The question is however a useful strategy to add to your own writing diagnostic repertoire. Try it out and see if it helps you too.

A caveat

The three moves – context, problem, evidence and connection – are what Barbara and I refer to as the Locate move, and what Swales and Feak refer to in the first part of their Create a Research Space.