Always New Things to Learn: Eric Hayot’s “Uneven U”

A few weeks ago, a professor of mine passed out a piece of paper with a grainy photocopy of a book on it, barely readable and clearly hastily done. He explained that he was going to discuss writing techniques for a bit before starting class, as we had a paper due next week. I was happy to hear that he would be teaching some writing skills, but mostly resigned myself to zoning out as the typical platitudes such as “reread your work” and “start with a strong thesis” were shared for the thousandth time. Luckily, however, I idly perused that messy handout and on it, I found an ingenious new method of writing structure and organization. A two page scan of Eric Hayot’s book Essential Elements of Academic Style shared the concept of the “Uneven U.”

The Uneven U works off of a concept of 5 different levels of thought. These can be exemplified in a sentence, a paragraph, or even a whole section of a paper. The 5 levels are as follows:

  1. Concrete evidence, raw data, quotations
  2. Describing, summarizing, or paraphrasing the idea
  3. Analyzing the idea
  4. Contextualizing the idea
  5. Major claim or contribution of the idea to the larger whole

The levels get gradually more complex as they increase, traveling from the most simple raw material to the whole point of the essay. These levels are then applied in the structure of a paragraph by traveling from the central level, level 4, down to raw data, level 1, and back up again to approach the main idea of the whole essay at level 5. If you make a rough graph of it, it ends up looking like a slightly lopsided U:

uneven_uIt’s important to note that this isn’t a scatter plot graph; the smooth connecting line between the points shows that it’s not a discrete sentence for each level. Sometimes you may need a couple of sentences on level 3, and perhaps only half a sentence for level 2. The goal is to use the graph as a guideline, as a gesture where the paragraph is viewed as a vehicle of travel between different depths of thought.

Where Hayot’s ideas really become valuable to me, though, is when you apply them not just to a paragraph, but to the whole essay. Thus, it’s not the first sentence that is a level 4, it’s the first paragraph. Applied like this, a paper’s structure develops this beautiful fractality:


The really lovely thing about this is that you can see the upwards progression of the main idea throughout each paragraph, section, and the whole essay. Since each piece ends just above where it began, there’s a driving movement towards the final height of the essay—the main point.

I particularly like Hayot’s Uneven U because it fits very well with my current method of writing. But given that, I think it’s valuable for just about any writer to at least consider Hayot’s method. Maybe try using it as a basis for your outline, finding the levels for each of your paragraphs. Or use it as a method of review, and label each of your sentences with a level to see where your structure stands in relation to Hayot’s U. Thinking visually about your writing can be a valuable way to gain new insights into your process and your ideas.

I’ve found The Uneven U to be particularly helpful when writing opening paragraphs. The levels help me to make sure that I’m covering all of my bases, and the level 5 sentence is always my thesis. I have that photocopy in my folder with me at all times now, and it’s already starting to get soft with use and covered in pen marks and marginal notes. It reminds me that I am in no way done learning to write, and that being open to new ideas is the most important step in maintaining a strong, even if messy, writing method.

Eric Hayot, Essential Elements of Academic Style, Columbia University Press (2014)