From the Center

Reflections from W&M's Writing Resources Center

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:

uneven_u_essay

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)

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The Power of Collaboration

“Tutor.”  “Consultant.”  “Worker.”

As an employee at the Writing Resources Center, part of my job is to provide students with the tools they need to strengthen their writing, including the development of strong diction. It is ironic, then, that I find it so hard to find a single word that aptly describes my job at the WRC while conveying the immense benefits the job brings me. “Tutor” seems lopsided and authoritarian. “Consultant” evokes the image of stagnant, sterile office space. “Worker” implies a bitter lack of interplay. I find that the best word to describe what I do is one that can sometimes be taboo within the context of the Center: “Collaborator.”

Merriam-Webster states that to collaborate is “to work jointly with others or together especially in an intellectual endeavor.” As an employee of the Center, one of my central goals is to never take authorship over a student’s work. This definition of “collaborator” can mean just that; working “jointly” on a paper implies a co-authorship that steps beyond our reach as consultants. When I define “endeavor,” however, I don’t think of it merely within the scope of a paper. I think of it as the intellectual endeavor at large.

On a base level, working at the Writing Resources Center is collaborating with students to better their writing skills, thus helping them in their efforts to engage in the holistic intellectual endeavor. The goal of the Center is to give students the means to improve their writing themselves. We point out and explain grammar mistakes with the expectation students will fix them themselves later. We teach strategies for brain-storming and planning. We talk out ideas with our consultees so that they’ll better know how to articulate their ideas going forward. These efforts improve the ability of our students to communicate, and thus strengthen the college’s collective intellect.

It is not, however, just the consultees who gain writing expertise; I’ve perhaps learned more about good writing from students at the Center than I have in the entirety of my years prior. When I notice things that don’t work well in my consultant’s papers, it has a twofold effect on me. On a personal level, I recognize flaws in my own writing, thus allowing me to better express my ideas going forward. Meanwhile, on a consulting level, I become better at recognizing these flaws in others and helping them get past them. Additionally, I often recognize strengths in student writing I could use to improve my own. In short, consultations teach me a ton about writing, allowing me to improve as both a writer and consultant.

Beyond writing skills, collaborating at the Center makes me better versed in the intellectual world at large. Reading papers exposes me to topics I would never be introduced to in my own studies. Not only does this make me better versed in disciplines I would otherwise be uninformed about, giving me a broader view in my own scholarly endeavors, it also helps me become a better consultant. When I first started working at the Center, I was terrified any time someone came in with a paper in philosophy or history. After working with students in these fields, I’ve developed a far better understanding of what works in these papers and what doesn’t. Once again, my work at the WRC has improved me as a student and consultant.

With this constant give and take of learning and teaching, terms like “tutor” and “consultant” become obsolete. When I go in to work at the Center, I have no misconceptions about my job. While I hope a student will end up with a better paper through my consultation, this collaboration towards a better academic whole is what lies at the core of the writing center experience. We’re all inadvertent collaborators in each other’s learning, through exchanges as simple as small talk. The Center simply provides a place for the collaboration to be that much more conscious.

Communication: It’s Everyone’s Game!

Image of hand, pen, and paper.As a consultant at the Writing Resources Center, I have the opportunity to work with intelligent colleagues from a variety of academic disciplines.

People are often surprised to find out that not everyone who works at the WRC is an English major. In addition to English, the WRC has economics majors like me, chemistry majors, public health majors, government majors, and more. Like the consultees we work with, WRC consultants are diverse in both their backgrounds and skill-sets; but one thing we all have in common is recognizing the importance of communication, both written and oral.

Good writing, and more generally good communication, goes beyond papers in English or the humanities. Writing and expressing yourself clearly is essential in a variety of fields, both inside and outside academia.

STEM students often find writing to be a frustrating experience and feel that it isn’t entirely relevant for their current and future work beyond simply checking off a gen-ed requirement. For some, getting through humanities-based classes is more of a struggle than the STEM courses with which they’re comfortable.

(Humanities students, on the other hand, sometimes cringe when faced with math-based courses. Both types of students should keep in mind that pairing oral and written communication with some numbers or statistics can lead to stronger, more evidence-based writing.)

When STEM students hit the job market, they’ll find that employers are looking for both hard and soft skills. Hard skills are the technical abilities that are unique to a particular occupation or industry, while soft skills are interpersonal or “people” skills which include writing and communication. In STEM careers, now more than ever before, candidates with soft skills are actively sought out by employers. Today, “U.S. employers are facing a major gap in employee preparedness in ‘soft’ skills, which account for approximately one-third of skills requested in all U.S. job postings. The soft skills gap impacts the short- and long-term employment prospects of graduates of highly technical STEM degree programs” (Donahue 2016).

Why are these soft skills so important? Effective communication is essential, for example, when interpreting numerical data or visual data representations. Imagine standing in front of a boardroom making a presentation to key players internal or external to your organization; what truly matters isn’t whether you understand the data, but your ability to help your audience understand. To do so, you’ll need to communicate complex information in a clear, concise, and efficient manner. This takes practice: you have to determine what information is relevant for your audience, and decide the best way to deliver it. You don’t want to under-inform, but you certainly don’t want to over-inform either.

Developing your communication skills takes time, and college is the perfect place to practice. Instead of considering gen-ed and other required classes to be irrelevant to your future, think of them as learning opportunities. Use these classes to fine-tune the oral and written communication skills that will serve you well regardless of your major or future career path. And if you get stuck on the way to confident and effective communication—don’t stress—the Writing Resources Center is here to help!

 

Source: Murphy Donohue (2016). “Tackling the ‘soft’ skills gap: How you can prepare STEM students for employment,” Expert Perspective, July 29.

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