Are you spending enough time on your lay summary?

This is a question I ask myself a lot, whether I’m writing a lay summary for a client or reviewing and editing them as a regular part of my gig.

Overall, I would say only a small percentage of the lay summaries I read—the brief and non-technical descriptions about research or a project—meet the criteria for plain language.

For example, according to, a lay summary in plain language should be “communication your audience can understand the first time they read or hear it.”

Similarly, the Center for Plain Language says you’ve got it right when the “wording, structure, and design are so clear that the intended readers can easily find what they need, understand what they find, and use that information.”

More often, I see lay summaries that are still quite technical, with advanced language and terms, and that aren’t written specifically with a generalist or public audience in mind. Sometimes the lay summary is just a cut and paste of the scientific summary, with the acronyms spelled out as a token plain language gesture.

I do understand that it’s hard to devote time to something that is often categorized as a “nicety” in an application and not necessarily part of the formal review and scoring process. I also realize most of us are not taught to write in plain language, especially as we advanced through post-secondary education and careers. 

And I emphasize with the relentless crush of grant writing under tight timelines, teaching and research responsibilities, and the amount of information required for even the simplest of funding opportunities these days. I too find myself leaving the lay summary and introduction until the very end, and so I’m keenly aware of how that habit makes for a hastily composed, less-than-polished piece of copy. 

And yet the lay summary is often at the front of an application and the first way reviewers get to know you and your work. So why not start with a good impression?

The bonus being that if/when you are funded, you have a well-written, easy-to-understand and compelling description of your work to share with funders, donors, partners, media, your students, your university, on your website and social media and more.

It’s the kind of thing you can work on, improve upon, and keep around to cut and paste into projects and applications as needed, kind of like a resume or a CV. You have your master copy, and you can customize it quickly and effectively for new applications or audiences.

In other words, it’s time well spent.

Aaron Dalton makes the case for taking time to write clearly in his excellent series of posts on plain language on the Editors’ Weekly blog.

In particular, I love the fourth post in this series on the craftmanship behind good plain language, where Dalton offers this: “… the writing we do for external readers requires more care. Effective writing is neither art nor science; it’s craft, and expert craftsmanship takes time and practice.”

I love this. It’s really beautifully written and really, really true.

But how to write one, and write it well?

There are plenty of good resources out there to walk you through crafting plain language (including the ones listed at the end of this post).

My own first step is to take enough time to do it properly. Coffee in hand, phone and distractions away, sometimes using pen and paper for a messy but rich first draft.

Second, I read it many, many times (out loud!) and try to break it down into less and less technical terms at each editing pass. It’s a lot like composing for Twitter: just keep reducing the clutter and length, and you eventually distill it down to just the essentials. 

Sometimes it can feel like you just can’t possibly explain something in a simpler manner. But there is usually a way. For me, this generally involves a lot of time looking up the definitions of key terms in the dictionary or scientific concepts on websites geared for the public or even better, for school-aged kids. This helps me eliminate and write around technical jargon, while also making sure I stay accurate.

Lastly, I get other people to read it. Easy for me, this is part of my job, as I’m not usually the last person to see things before they get submitted or published.

For researchers and other specialists, this needs to involve more than just your co-applicants or colleagues in your department. We’re talking about people outside your field, maybe your relatives or your kids, your research office or your communications and marketing department. 

Most universities offer writing services and workshops to students, and the volunteers running these programs make great resources for profs too. It could be worth it to sit in on a workshop or webinar or even hiring one of these editors (ahem) to review and finesse your summary.

In terms of what to include, it’s always best to follow the grant guidelines you’re applying for. But in general, I always try to include the 5 Ws and lately, I’ve been writing these kinds of summaries in a pyramid.

Old school writing taught us to start with an inverse pyramid, with the big picture first, and then work our way down to the specifics. But after a client steered me towards this TED Talk by Simon Sinek, I’ve been experimenting lately with starting with the why.

That means that right off the bat, our lay summary begins with asking and answering questions like: Why are you doing this? Why is this research important? Why should people care about this or want to fund this? What is the potential impact?

As Sinek points out, this is a tactic borrowed directly from massively successful marketing campaigns like those by Apple and can help us craft compelling and engaging research descriptions—both scientific and plain language.

So now that grant writing season for 2021 is behind us, and we’re heading into the holidays and a bit of a break, why not set aside a bit of time to polish your lay summary? 

I can guarantee you’ll be glad you did it come spring application deadlines!

Still feeling stuck? 

Here are some other resources to consult:

Canada Research Chairs: I love the format that the Canada Research Chairs program uses for their chairholder profiles: it’s always the same for every discipline, whether it’s in the humanities, engineering or medicine and natural sciences etc. Each profile is broken down into a sentence about what the research involves, another for the relevance, and then a short plain language summary.

The MS Society has a great publication with tips on writing lay summaries, including a handy list of simple explanations of common scientific terms.

Editors Canada: Editor’ Canada is a goldmine of information and resources, including writing guides and pre-recorded webinars like this one on plain language.

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

New year, new (writing) habits

Back in mid-December, I took the opportunity to visit Toronto and Montreal for a few days, meeting with friends and revisiting old haunts. It’s a lovely time to visit the big cities; all dressed up in their holiday lights and generally less snow and warmer temperatures than in northern Ontario.

In addition to prioritizing time spent in cafes, wine bars and one really excellent pizzeria, I also decided to take the train between the two cities, making good on a previous year’s resolution to create more dedicated reading and writing time for myself.

Of that many things that came to mind with pen, paper and a few good books in hand, was a reflection on the past year of my freelance work. And not just the various projects I worked on,  or the new clients I met and collaborated with, but the ways I am learning to navigate life as a freelancer.

Feast and famine

When I started freelancing in 2010 with some copyediting for a friend of a friend, it was mixed into my time as the stay-at-home parent to three children all under the age of six. It really wasn’t until January of last year, with all my kids in full-time school, that I really stated my intention to grow this “side gig” into my full-time career.

Of course, as any freelancer knows, January is probably the worst time of the year to make a declaration to dig in and dig up new work: the holidays close up many shops for several weeks, and spend down the last of people’s budgets. The slow start back to work in the New Year for many businesses often translates to several dry months for freelancers until new budgets and new projects emerge again in the spring.

Trying not to be deterred by my rapid immersion into the feast-or-famine freelance life cycle, I did what any industrious, A-type bookworm would do, and searched the Internet and my library for “how to survive as a freelancer”.

Not surprisingly, this returned a lot of information. Turns out there are a lot of things we can do for our professional development during the downtimes to strengthen our business and skills – not to mention keep our spirits up by keeping busy.

Spending downtime wisely: my top 5

What follows is my own list of standout habits or tools I have used to support and expand my craft and my business. Healthy habits if you will, that I took up last January to add some drive and structure to my slower working months. And that in the end, helped pave the way for some new business once spring finally sprung.

Tuning in.  I am a habitual late-adapter of technology … I literally just started listening to audio books in the car this summer (life-changing!), and finally opened up the Podcasts app on my phone to a whole new audio world.

Doing dishes and folding laundry, or taking a walk in the fresh snow, is now also the time I spend listening to other writers talk about the practice of writing or sharing their work. Two of my current favourites are Hot Copy (for tips and conversation on producing quality copy) and the Modern Love podcast from NPR, featuring well known celebs reading beautifully penned essays for the column of the same name in the New York Times.

I’ve also tuned into several free webinars about writing, editing and freelancing, including the ones regularly offered by Editors Canada and Public Works and Government Service Canada.

Following along. Twitter has become my daily dose of motivation – and distraction – for all things writing, editing and freelancing. Following the accounts like SFU Creative Writing, Storyboard and Editing Canadian English provides a steady stream of helpful (and often entertaining) tips, news, essays, thoughts, ramblings, musings and more.

I also subscribe to a few e-newsletters, including one by CBC Literary Prizes that delivers motivation and insight from other writers right into my inbox. Sometimes, I need that level of micro-motivation to remind me to just sit down and type. And yes, enter writing contests (and that if I ever get anything other than a warm rejection from, you’ll read about it right here.)

Hitting the stacks. In my opinion, nothing beats reading a good book to inspire and enlighten. A friend gave me a copy of Steven Pressfield’s The War of Art last winter, and if you haven’t read this, find a copy now. It is the kick in the pants from someone who has been there, and knows the creative demons we all wrestle with.

I also invested in a copy of the latest Canadian Writer’s Market last year, and made time to skim a few chapters of my favourite style guides now and again to keep things fresh in my mind on certain matters of editing.

Through a freelance coaching session, I also got copies of some writing resources from Renegade Writer. Of the many valuable tips and how-to’s, was a whole workbook on crafting the perfect query or pitch letter, advice that I leaned on when sending out handful of pitches last winter – one of which ended up landing me a feature article in Almost Fearless magazine last fall.

If you build it … The biggest project I undertook last year was finally launching this website. I agonized over this process, mostly because there seemed to be too much choice and no clear winner for everything from style to platform and even what content to include.

Thankfully, I had some friends in the know to turn to: my colleagues at Vincent Design walked me through the whole process and helped me set up my site.

(For any of you creative types in the same tech-challenged boat I was in, the process involves: getting a domain name, picking your web creation software and template, buying your hosting service and then writing and loading all your content. Oh yes, and then hitting that scary, scary button called “publish”.)

And don’t forget photos: I like for free stock photos, but be warned, this can be a rabbit hole of pretty distraction on a cold winter’s day.

Finding a village. Truthfully, I have yet to join a writing group of live humans, mostly because I am terrified of having to read anything I write creatively out loud and in front of a group (maybe that can be 2019’s goals).

However, I have not entirely ignored the advice of many other successful writers about the ways that being in a writing group can enrich your life and creative work: last winter, I did join an online freelance writer’s forum for a few months.

We met once a month over for informal chatting and Q&As, moderated by the organizer and covering everything from pitch ideas and tips, time management, budgeting and what fees to charge. The group is currently on hiatus, but looking back, I realize how much the conversation with those writers really got me through the slow winter months last year: sharing in the camaraderie of our self-employed, freelance experience was fun, motivating and supportive.

I recently noticed that CBC Books has posted the beginnings of a list of writer’s groups from across the country.

Food for thought for this year … or next.


Self-editing with style

Last week, I had the pleasure of editing a manuscript in prep for the author to submit to a scientific journal, hopefully to be accepted for publication.

This type of work is among my favourite types of projects I get hired for, as it generally involves a combination of both stylistic and copy editing, which I find to be a satisfying blend of both art and science: relying in part on my intuition and experience as a wordsmith as much as it does on a working knowledge of the mechanics of writing and style.

Short and sweet, editing a manuscript often only takes a few hours to complete, but while I’m doing it, I’m totally immersed in learning about a new subject as I smooth the text; catch any grammatical errors; ensure consistency in style across citations and references, units of measurement, headings and sub-heads; check the figures and tables; and look for typos, spelling mistakes and any errors in tense along the way. At the same time, I’m ensuring that the content flows clearly and logically, all while leaving the author’s voice and tone perfectly intact.

I find this type of editing immensely fun, and I guess luckily for me, not everyone shares my enthusiasm, allowing me to make a living offering a valuable service I genuinely enjoy providing.

I found myself reflecting on all this and more last week as I edited that manuscript, and felt compelled to jot down some of the tools I’ve collected along the way for copy editing and stylistic editing, both as an editor and when I’m the writer.

Like many of my clients, I didn’t learn much about style guides in school: I certainly used a very basic writer’s handbook during my undergraduate degree to guide me on formatting references and papers, but my understanding of style never went much deeper than that.

Switching gears after graduation to a career in communications, then writing and editing, changed all that: I literally went from editing by “gut-feel” to developing and gaining an understanding of the mechanics of a sentence, of style, of grammar, and the strategic approach anyone can use to improve the impact and readability of their writing.

So if you’re looking to boost your self-editing skills, adding more polish and consistency to your writing, here are my top tips to getting started:

1) Invest in a style manual. I personally like the Chicago Manual of Style and Editing Canadian English, and keep mine within arm’s reach of my desk, with all my most-used sections flagged for quick and frequent lookups. There are many different style manuals out there, including online versions and ones specific to different disciplines, as well as in-house guides created and used by individual organizations and academic journals. It won’t be hard to find one that matches your specific needs.

2) Pick 5 topics to start with. Let’s be honest here, none of us are going to pick up the nearly 1,000-word long Chicago Manual of Style and read it right through (well, some of us are, but that’s another topic for another day). I suggest easing into this gently by just focusing on a few things you’d like to start being more consistent and error-free with and read up on them. Things like:

  • dashes vs. hyphens
  • units of measurement
  • formatting lists
  • colons vs. semi-colons
  • capitalization

Once you have these down pat, and have those sections flagged for quick, future reference, you can go back for more.

3) Use a style sheet, old and new school. By old school, I mean taking a piece of paper, drawing a simple grid with 10 boxes in it, and using each box to jot down a style choice as you go along in a specific project. Keep this cheat sheet handy to keep track of whether you decided to capitalize common names or not, if there is a space after a quantity and a particular unit of measurement, what abbreviations you are using, and so on. By new school, I mean creating simple custom style sheets in your word processing or text editor software that keep your font, headings, margins, and more, consistent throughout each document. Both are simple, effective tools that take the guesswork out of your style choices and save time in the long run.

4) Edit by section, or do several passes. This particular strategy helps me a lot, especially if I’m writing or editing documents with more complicated formatting and more than one author. I like to do a once over for typos, general readability and flow, and then go back to look just at the headings, again just for the citations and again just for the units of measurement and so on. If I’m pressed for time, I use my old-school style sheet and work through a document section by section, crossing things off my list of style issues to check as I go. If I’m using track changes, which I usually am, I like my last read through to be in “final” version, so any remaining typos stand out with the corrections and comments hidden.

5) Find a good editor. You knew I was going to get here eventually right? In all seriousness though, the old adage is true: everyone needs an editor, and a good one will correct your mistakes, elevate your writing, and also teach you along the way. Whether this is a colleague, a friend with a keen eye for grammar and style, or a professional editor, I think you’ll find, as I have, that your writing will drastically improve with the feedback and perspective gained from an extra set of eyes. So while I agree that “to err is human,” (to quote part of another apt and enduring proverb), I also know we can minimize the errors in our work and increase its impact with a good team of editors on our side.


So that’s it: you’re on your way to self-editing with style (see what I did there now?).

What about you: do you have any particular style issues you love to look for when editing, or ones that stump you every time you have to write them out?

For me, I love checking the format of citations, and the satisfaction of catching a missing period in “et al.”, but I can never remember off hand whether or not to leave a space between the number and the degree sign for temperatures – I have to look this up. Every. Single. Time.

(There is no space between them, in case you’re wondering. I just looked it up.)

Happy writing everyone.