Hierarchy: Introduction

In this Revision Strategies guide, we identify and define “Hierarchy” because we believe that it is an essential component of high-level academic writing that is generally under-discussed. Whereas “Structure” has to do with matters of sequence (i.e., what happens first, second, third, etc.), “hierarchy” has to do with matters of importance. In other words, hierarchy names the work of signaling to your readers the difference between your primary argument and various levels of subordinate claims. More generally, it names the work of indicating the different levels of emphasis you mean to attach to the many interrelated things you discuss in your academic writing.

At times, structural choices can help to convey the hierarchical relationship between elements of your Argument, as is the case when something of primary concern is dealt with first and something of secondary concern is dealt with next. While structural considerations will often be relevant when thinking about hierarchy, they are not the same thing. Sometimes, it makes sense to deal first with something of primary concern and then with something of secondary concern. But at other times, it makes more sense to address a handful of subordinate claims in order to have them add up to a climactic idea that is of primary importance to your argument. Finally, there are times when other structural considerations means that you had to put different components of your argument many pages apart from one another, or that you need to address elements of your argument in a sequence that moves all around, sliding up and down the scale of importance to your main argument.

There are two sides to the work of managing hierarchy in one’s academic writing: (1) arriving at a clear understanding of one’s own hierarchy of argument, and (2) communicating that hierarchy to one’s reader. The level of complexity that writers tend to be dealing with at the graduate level and beyond make both of these things fairly hard to accomplish. Entries in this section offer you practical strategies for doing one or both.

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