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)

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.



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.