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Supervisor comment: 'structuring content to answer the question is essential'

Focusing on key words alone does not necessarily mean you will comprehend the whole picture. Once you are confident that you understand the question, it is worthwhile taking time to plan the content and organisation of your argument.

We all have our own style of writing. You may still be working out what kind of writer you are, especially if your route to the sciences did not incorporate one of the more essay-based subjects. It follows that we all have different attitudes to planning and what works for us. However, taking the time to produce a short plan/outline in any format can help you remain focused on the question and to structure your argument more effectively. You will not have as much time to re-draft as you may be used to, so it is crucial to get your approach right from the start.


Each section below contains various ways in which you could outline a response to the question: How are proton gradients established and used by cells? Think about how you might use/improve on these to suit your own purposes.


Free writing: 'stream of consciousness' prose, uninhibited by punctuation and not necessarily logically structured.

Note all initial questions and ideas which come into your head when you first read the title. Useful if you feel you are not at the stage to plan. For some writers this might be enough to begin a draft essay, for others it could lead to a more concise 'to find out' list.

My first concern is what am I actually being asked here? I want to make sure I have understood what my focus should be. Will underline some key words such as ‘establish’ and ‘how’ to start with. Should I define what a proton gradient is or would that just be pointing out the obvious? Think ‘how’ suggests I should focus on the mechanisms and how proton gradients are formed and used rather than launching into lots of description about how chloroplasts and mitochondria work which might only cover the redox ones then. Might use the introduction to define the proton gradient, although not sure at this point what definition I will use. Will need to read up on this again. Also should check on types of proton pumps. will divide essay into three parts: How they are formed, how they are used and what they are. Although, not necessarily in that order. Would a diagram be useful at all? Could I devise my own integrative diagram?


Mindmap: great for visual thinkers. Enables points to be developed and links to emerge.

Maps are very personal because you alone have made the various links and associations between topics, which the essay will later elaborate on. It may require explanation to others. Mindmapping software enables easy editing as you change your mind, and some versions are freely available online. The following example has been created using Freemind ( accessed 13.08.2009), although it is worthwhile comparing software to see which version works best for you.


Bullet list

Bullet list: short, concise; either unstructured or in the order you might present your argument.

You might use arrows to reorder topics or sections. You might prefer to plan the topic of each paragraph. The detail is up to you. Normally easier for others to follow if you wish to share your thought processes before writing the whole essay.


Discussion: either in supervision or with fellow students. This often kickstarts your thought processes and opens your mind to other points of view. Useful in planning a developed argument. If your supervisor leads discussion around an essay title, this is an opportunity to address any questions that your immediate response throws up, such as those raised in the free-writing example.

It is also worth considering the value of discussion with fellow students during the early stages of planning, even if it does simply raise further questions. Another perspective can raise issues that you may not have considered, lending weight to an argument or identifying additional reading. Try not to feel inhibited about contributing ideas; they might be challenged, disputed or rejected, but that is all part of the process of developing/revising your ideas in a supportive academic environment. As long as you then take your own approach and go on to produce your own written work, you will not fall into the trap of collusion or plagiarism. Have the confidence to pursue your own line of thinking whilst acknowledging there can be different approaches to every argument.

Activity: Listen to the following recorded supervision discussion of this essay title, divided into three sections:

All files in mp3 format.