Why we care about good writing (and why you should too)

The original version of this article was written for the research community newsletter for the National Cancer Institute of Canada (now the Canadian Cancer Society Research Institute) when I worked in their communications department.

We all know grant applications are a time-consuming exercise. Writing them and reviewing them. So why should you devote extra time to perfecting your non-scientific summary? Because a well-written summary, like any good piece of writing, will save time and effort in the end. For you and for anyone who reads it.

Non-scientific summaries are very important tools for funders. They are what community representatives read during grant and award review panels. And later they are used to promote successful projects with media, donors, volunteers and Canadians in general.

In a nutshell, the non-scientific summary is probably your best way to communicate with the public in your own words about the potential impact and value of your research.

Unfortunately, the language used in most applicants’ summaries is far too complex for a general audience and the message is often lost. But there are things you can do to avoid this.

Let’s start with the basics. We’re not just talking about grammar and spelling. We’re talking about plain language – the art of explaining your work in understandable terms.

Plain language, according to Human Resources and Social Development Canada, uses straightforward, concrete and familiar words. It means explaining concepts and procedures using examples and words that relate to your reader’s experience, not yours.

And consider this: according to the most recent Adult Literacy and Life Skills Survey (2003), 42% of Canadians, or about 9 million people, scored below the desired literacy threshold. Using plain language will allow you to communicate more clearly and persuasively with all sorts of readers, and engage them in your ideas.

But, you may be thinking, plain language will insult skilled and knowledgeable readers, like those reviewing your application during review panels. Not so. Plain language reaches all people: those who understand cancer research, those who don’t and also those who don’t have time to read and prefer to scan.

As Richard Lederer and Richard Dowis put it in Sleeping Dogs Don’t Lay (1999), “Contrary to what some people seem to believe, simple writing is not the product of simple minds. A simple, unpretentious style has both grace and power.”

And finally, by applying plain language to your non-scientific summary, you will gain invaluable practice at explaining your work in an easy-to-understand style. This will come in very handy for your next public presentation or media call, and probably even your next scientific paper.

So, if you’re ready to embrace plain language, here are some tips to get you started:

1) Use everyday words, concrete words and short words in your writing. For example, collect vs. accumulate, use vs. utilize, new vs. novel, try vs. endeavour, find vs. elucidate, change vs. modification and make vs. synthesize.

2) Use short sentences. Generally, aim for one main idea per sentence.

3) Be careful with scientific jargon. Jargon can be useful, but only to people familiar with it. Otherwise, it obscures your message. For example, you can replace carcinogenesis with cancer development, neoplasm with tumour, proto-oncogene with cancer-causing gene, therapeutic strategy with treatment and proliferation with growth. This doesn’t mean you can’t ever use technical terms, you just need to define them if they must be included.

4) Trim excess words. For example, you can often cut the following words and phrases from your writing: nonetheless, without a doubt, in many cases, as to whether, at this time, by means of, for a period of, in order to, with respect to, and first and foremost.

5) Try and use active verbs instead of nouns. Decide instead of decision. Examine instead of examination. Propose instead of proposal.

6) Aim for a grade 8 to 10 reading level. This is the grade level needed to read a magazine like Reader’s Digest or Time. In comparison, the level needed to read Scientific American is university or higher – and this is the level most of the non-scientific summaries we receive fall into. (Tip: there is a great feature in Word that provides readability statistics, including the grade level needed to understand your document. This story rated at grade 10.)

Good writing matters for most professions, and science and research are no exceptions. At a time when public demand for health and medical research is at its highest, it’s in our best interest to inform people about what we’re doing – as accurately and as understandably as we can.