Do Your Paragraphs and Sections Build Toward an Argument? The Uneven U as a Tool to Check

A well-Structured argument is easy to recognize. Paragraphs and sections feel balanced between Argument, evidence, and analysis, and readers can track a logical movement from each sentence or paragraph to the next. While writing a first draft, however, it can be difficult to determine whether your sentences and paragraphs are building to a clear and persuasive argument. In fact, crafting organized and logical paragraphs and sections is usually the work of revision—often multiple rounds of it! This revision strategy employs Eric Hayot’s concept of “The Uneven U” and asks you to isolate the opening, middle, and ending sentences of a paragraph (or the opening, middle, and ending paragraphs of a section) to see if they are serving their intended purpose; this strategy will also help you figure out how to reorganize and revise sentences so that the paragraph reflects the Uneven U.

First, let’s establish the function of each sentence within a paragraph and each paragraph within a section. Most academic writing follows a predictable pattern, one that Eric Hayot, author of The Elements of Academic Style, calls “The Uneven U.” As Hayot explains, the most effective paragraphs and sections open with a general statement, move to provide evidence for the claim they make, and then summarize and extend the evidence before moving on to make an abstract conclusion. Hayot breaks down a paragraph into sentences, each with its own function, which he categorizes into a series of levels:

5 – abstract, general; oriented toward a solution or conclusion

4 – less general; oriented toward a problem; pulls ideas together

3 – conceptual summary; draws together two or more pieces of evidence, or introduces a broad example

2 – description; plain or interpretive summary; establishing shot

1 – concrete; evidentiary; raw, unmediated data or information

In general, a well-constructed paragraph or section moves something like this: it generally starts with a 4, moves to a 3 then a 2 and a 1, and then back up the ladder from a 2 all the way up to a 5. Some sentences will fit squarely into one category, while others might start as a 3 or a 2 and move up to a 4 or a 3.
The following exercise explains how to apply the Uneven U to your work:

Step 1: Isolate a single paragraph or section in your work. Read each sentence/paragraph slowly and in relation to the text that comes before and after. Using Hayot’s categories of 1-5, assign each sentence/paragraph a level (a sentence/paragraph might be a mixture of two levels).

Step 2: Take a step back and look at the first half of your paragraph/section. Are the sentences/paragraphs becoming incrementally more specific, and can you isolate the most specific sentence/paragraph you have (it should be a level 1, i.e. your evidence)? Now do the same with the last half of your paragraph/section—are the sentences/paragraphs becoming incrementally more general? If not, begin the revision process by reorganizing and rephrasing your sentences and paragraphs so that there is a seamless movement from general to specific to even more general.

Step 3: Isolate the last sentence of each paragraph or the last paragraph of each section. Now read through them—are they thinking bigger as a whole? Then isolate the first sentence of each paragraph or the first paragraph of each section. Now read through them—are they thinking bigger but not as general as the last sentence/paragraph you just analyzed?

Example:

In Travels, Bartram suggests that human lives are bound up in the lives of plants and, moreover, that those who would survive in the tropics must learn from plants how to move with the southern ecology. The tendril that pulls a person into its spiraling motions joins the human will to that of plants, producing a knowledge that changes human actions. These grasping vines’ desire for conjunction and collectivity with other tropical forces depends on the stretching outward of parts. The gracefully collectivizing movements result in huge strength: “humoring the motion[s] of…limbs and twigs,” the webby hold of the cirri ensures that they are not “liable to be torn off by sudden blasts of wind or other assaults.” (24) No simple parasite that lives off another thing that is independent in itself, the vine joins what it encloses in its delicate hold. Agencied appendages moving outward, binding and combining—this is what enables life in the tropics.

Paragraph breakdown:

Level 4: In Travels, Bartram suggests that human lives are bound up in the lives of plants and, moreover, that those who would survive in the tropics must learn from plants how to move with the southern ecology.

Allewaert is making a claim about the text in its entirety, pulling together the themes that her analysis in this specific paragraph rests on.

Level 3/4: The tendril that pulls a person into its spiraling motions joins the human will to that of plants, producing a knowledge that changes human actions.

This sentence remains slightly abstract, but it begins to become specific in terms of what this paragraphs is using as evidence: the interactions between plants and humans.

Level 3: These grasping vines’ desire for conjunction and collectivity with other tropical forces depends on the stretching outward of parts.

Allewaert is drawing evidence together—vines and how they move—and creating a broad example of how plants draw humans in.

Level 2 moving into a level 1: The gracefully collectivizing movements result in huge strength: “humoring the motion[s] of…limbs and twigs,” the webby hold of the cirri ensures that they are not “liable to be torn off by sudden blasts of wind or other assaults.” (24)

The beginning of the sentence alerts the reader to what they should be noticing in the following quote. The quote itself is at a level 1 as it is raw, unmediated evidence.

Level 2/3: No simple parasite that lives off another thing that is independent in itself, the vine joins what it encloses in its delicate hold.

This sentence is a mix of a level two and three—Allewaert continues to paraphrase the action that the evidence identifies but she is also moving towards a broad example of what vines do; she is conceptualizing the work of a vine.

Level 5: Agencied appendages moving outward, binding and combining—this is what enables life in the tropics.

A clear level 5 to close this paragraph — this is a general statement about what sustains and enables life in the tropical wilderness of Bartram’s travels in southern Florida.

Allewaert, Monique. Ariel’s Ecology : Plantations, Personhood, and Colonialism in the American Tropics. University of Minnesota Press, 2013. pp. 35