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)

On Retreat

We sat facing one another in a circle, each curled up in or perched on a tired chair or the couch we had pulled in from another corner of the cabin. 

Our attire alone practically gave away our reason for gathering; we wore our favourite threadbare slippers and reliably soft tights layered under folksy, hand-knit scarves and throws like uniforms. None of us were strangers to the art of getting comfy for the long-haul of creative work or deep conversation. We were on retreat, and we were ready.

Having tackled the polite introductions over wine and dinner, this part of the evening already felt more natural, less stiff. We had gathered and eaten together that night in the central kitchen, making one big dining table out of the four or five small ones provided, so we could begin to match names to faces and connect all the degrees of separation between us. Wine was poured, chocolate was inventoried and distributed. Dessert before business. I was hooked already.

Now, with pens and cue cards in hand, we put our trust in our appointed leader and began with a series of lighthearted ice-breaking exercises and conversation starters. The possibility of having to talk out loud on the spot still gave the butterflies in my stomach reason to stretch and flutter their busy wings, but this group of women, with their easy laughter and relaxed authenticity, were dissolving my anxiety by the minute. 

“Use this cue card to write down your intentions for the weekend,” our leader guided us “You don’t have to share what you write but keep it close by while you’re here.”

What happens, I thought to myself, hand hovering over my card, when you come to a writing retreat with no writing intentions

It’s quite possible that registering for and attending my first retreat, clearing all the related hurdles of fear and insecurity, had taken all of my attention and intentions. Sitting there, my mind raced around all the possible goals I could set for my weekend—write more, try some different genres, pick up old pieces and ideas—but I hadn’t come with a list or a plan. To be honest, I hadn’t set my own words onto the page for a very long time. 

I wrote “Finding an intention” on my card. 


It was late January of 2020, just before the world put a pause on precedented times and ways of living.

We left town on a Friday evening, heading east on the Trans-Canada highway. Our destination was Sleeping Giant Provincial Park, only 45 minutes from Thunder Bay. Out on the Sibley Peninsula, the park is set on a thin finger of boreal wilderness stretching into Lake Superior. Close enough to make day hikes and retreats more than manageable; far enough from town to feel remote and secluded.

Winter is long here in Northwestern Ontario; it’s dark when you wake up and dark before dinner. Blink, and you might miss the mid-day sunlight. By the time we turned down highway 587 and drove by the quiet community of Pass Lake, our headlights were straining to light the road. Clumps of soft snow were drifting across the windshield and swirling with the darkness; every curve swallowed us deeper into the woods.

Following the signs for the Ranger’s Cabin, we pulled into the dimly lit parking lot of our home-base for the weekend, stepping out to a silence deep and still. We made a few quick and nervous trips back and forth in the dark through the snow, piling our overpacked bins and bags into the foyer, our giggles masking a city-borne paranoia of being patiently watched by a pack of wolves waiting for one vulnerable opportunity to arrive. 

In the Ranger’s Cabin, we discovered an expanse of a facility well equipped for groups our size: two wings of dorm-style bedrooms, enough for us each to bunk alone, and a couple shared bathrooms that led to and from a large, well-stocked kitchen. A conference-sized meeting room doubled as our yoga studio and group work area, while a sunny sitting room at the back offered quiet views and a dedicated, non-social space for uninterrupted contemplation. A series of well-used cross-country ski trails led right from the door and into the woods, so we stacked our skis and snowshoes along the side of the building and left our boots by the door, ready to go the moment inevitable writer’s block and restlessness kicked in.

It was practical and institutional, more functional government field station than Scandinavian hygge. But it was also clean, warm and private, providing plenty of space inside and out for gathering or seeking seclusion when and as needed.

Anchored by this group of writers and tucked away in our own slice of wilderness, with only one unreliable bar of cell service and no wi-fi, it dawned on me with a kind of stunned giddiness just how easy it was going to be to withdraw from my regular life and settle into the company of my own thoughts.


As a noun, the Canadian Oxford Dictionary defines retreat as “a place of seclusion” and also as “a period during which co-workers or people sharing a common interest meet away from their home or workplace to exchange ideas”. In this case, my first writing retreat was true to form. 

As a group of writers, we were a diverse bunch. Our ages, occupations, and family lives spanned decades, backgrounds and different decisions but we were united by our creative and professional relationships to writing. 

Some of us were paid to write by day and finishing manuscripts at night. Others were using the weekend to start new books, or birth fresh ideas. There was a poet, a university professor, and a playwright. A few of us were trying to rekindle and reconnect to our creative selves after a long absence while others were opening that door for the very first time. One of us was there to take a complete break from writing anything, enjoying instead the company of like-minded souls and a respite from the writing life. As wordsmiths of many stripes, we were all welcome; we all belonged.

But there’s another definition of retreat I like too, using it as an action, a verb, for retreating into seclusion: to “withdraw into privacy or security, one’s own thoughts, etc., to take refuge.” The dictionary also makes a special note that to retreat in military references is “the act or an instance of retiring or withdrawing in the face of opposition, difficulty or danger.” And though that usage can hold a negative connotation, in this scenario it felt like a win, a gain, to retire and withdraw. 

Indeed, for three days, within the privacy and seclusion of the retreat, I was able to step away from the practical and emotional demands of my life as a parent, partner, freelancer, daughter, friend, volunteer—everything essentially, except my whims in the moment. With no to-do list and no one to caretake, I had permission to withdraw, be selfish, tend to only myself and ultimately let my thoughts wander, explore and sometimes settle.  

Going on retreat in wintertime added another layer to our seclusion: insulated by the snow, there was a quieting effect on sound but also mind and body. There is no rushing in deep winter and the early sunset nudged us inside, where reading, introspection and creation came more easily. Throughout the nights, it was perfectly still and quiet, amplifying the clink and clank of the radiators and the occasional squeak of the bathroom door.

Moreover, our agenda was simple and the format appealing: everything was optional, informal and lowkey. There were opportunities to gather and discuss matters related to the art and practice of writing and facilitated writing sessions. There were mealtime chores for lunches and dinners that we democratically divvied up, taking turns heating, serving and cleaning up our pre-catered meals. A yoga teacher drove in for one night and morning to run classes for those who were interested; the mild, moonlit evenings made night skiing and snowshoeing possible for the brave.

In short, there was space and time aplenty to be alone or together, to gather informally or write in solitude. With the encouragement and camaraderie of a group of other women writers all moving through the same liberated space of limitless, creative play, I was able to get out of my own way, unblock my creativity and get words on a page.


Creative clusters, where we gather as peers to develop our strength, are best regarded as tribal gatherings, where creative beings raise, celebrate, and actualize the creative power which runs through us all.” 
(Julia Cameron, The Artist’s Way, 25th Anniversary Edition)

A retreat from the pressures of life and a chance to feel like a writer again were just part of the larger gains I came home with after that weekend.

Some participants brought and shared their collection of books on the practice of writing, creating a little makeshift library in the foyer. Through this, I was introduced to Lynda Barry, Julia Cameron and Annie Dillard, the concepts of ‘morning pages’ and ‘artist’s dates’, how to write a descriptive scene and techniques for dropping into creative flow. 

We also discussed the real challenges of this work as women, parents, and single-income earners, often balancing other careers and commitments. We talked a lot about battling writer’s block and fatigue, about imposter syndrome, how and why to avoid the productivity competition with yourself or other writers, and how sometimes you just need to remember how to enjoy using words.

When I asked the published authors how they paid their bills and wrote their books, they were both honest and philosophical. Many were retired before those novels took form, and some were supported by their own pensions or the pensions of their spouses. Others had successfully secured grant funding, or won cash awards in writing competitions. We reflected on the long history of the arts and arts patrons, and I took comfort in realizing that as my own sponsor and funder, it was okay to put my client work first sometimes (or a lot of the time) and that patience and self-compassion are key to surviving an artistic life.

Over dinner one night, some of the writers spontaneously shared some of the work they had produced that day. I still think about those poems, the snippets from those essays, and how even though I wasn’t ready to share, I enjoyed being part of the trusted group that got to hear those first raw and powerful drafts. 

And we talked a lot about the importance of having a writer’s group. It turned out that many of these women had been organized as a group for decades, supporting each other to start and finish manuscripts, plays and projects, reading each other’s work and attending each other’s readings. Their group, their retreats, one writer shared, were more like a dream, an aspiration, than any particular place, entity or event. Having a group helped your dream stay alive, she told us, and when you were ready, bring it to fruition.

As it would turn out, I would meet with those writers again, in person and over social media. Now part of a collective with a common thread—my own a creative cluster—I have direct access to support and inspiration to develop my strengths, interests, knowledge and experience, a place to check in, feel less alone in the struggle to create, and to talk all things writing.


A writer’s life is full of paradoxes. You have to be interested in people yet be proficient in one of the loneliest jobs there is. You need inspiration and passion, yet you must also possess the self-discipline to trudge through writing 400 pages of a manuscript.”
(Bob Mayer, The Novel Writer’s Toolkit)

When I say, “I went on a writing retreat,” it always gets the same reaction, especially from my women friends. I do it too, when other people tell me they are going, or have gone on, any type of retreat: yoga, writing, music, whatever. A little gasp escapes, maybe a clasping of the hands, and the inevitable, “I’ve always wanted to go on a retreat!”

We have taken it in our minds a million times, imagined the secluded locale, envisioned the cozy room with a nook and a view, and the magical feeling of uninterrupted, unscheduled time. Unburdened by the relentless drudgery of our domestic and work lives, we can think all our thoughts and express ourselves with words, colours or movement in communion with other people called to the same pursuits.

But taking a retreat is often associated in my mind with the luxuries of time, money and legitimacy—I had talked myself out of attending others in the past, letting my image of the retreat, with all its free time in glorious abundance, hang for decades like some Shangri-la just out of reach.

This time however, I was a little older, braver and in a privileged position of being financially secure with a flexible freelance job, an ex who would have our kids for the weekend, and a good friend to register with. We somehow had found a very affordable retreat that prioritized chocolate and had no mandatory readings, drowning out all the remaining reasons I’d typically use to not go. And it was completely worth it. I returned from those three days in the woods feeling revitalized and refocused on my creative life.

Right now, that weekend feels like it happened in another lifetime. Within a month of the retreat, we entered a global pandemic that wore me down so thin mentally and emotionally that I have hardly written a single creative thing in the past year. A year and a half ago, I felt like I was on the cusp of a creative breakthrough. Then COVID happened. I’m only now starting to revisit the pieces I can pick back up and move forward with in this new pandemic reality.

Like bread-making, knitting, learning to play my guitar, and finally doing that really deep clean of my closets, my interest in writing or doing anything other than staying afloat fell by the wayside as lockdowns and stay-at-home orders piled on top of virtual everything through five different seasons. If I’m not writing for my supper, or parenting my kids through a pandemic, I’ve wanted to be numbed out watching Netflix or outside walking in the woods where at least I have the illusion for a moment that our lives can be dedicated to things unrelated to how to avoid one super-contagious virus. 

More than once I’ve had the thought that if we’re not really living, then what is there to write about? When we’re not able to do things that spark joy and delight, what can we draw on to make art?

But as I edit and polish this post, reflecting on that weekend and the past 18 months, I’m taking my second-ever retreat with my same intrepid writer friend. Like bookends around COVID-19, we are once again in a rustic cabin off the grid on the Sibley Peninsula, doing this on a shoestring budget but with just the two of us, as per lockdown restrictions. This time, we came with clearer intentions, more tools for dropping into creativity, and a lot to talk about. 

I read parts of this essay to her as we philosophized about the renewed sense of purpose, creativity and confidence that can sometimes come from long periods of time away from writing. Our regular lives are busy and loud, punctuated by brief spurts of quiet and creativity when we can carve it out, but we’re always listening, thinking and taking mental notes. We wondered if we might just be learning the same thing over and over again: to take time for our ourselves, for art, to be less concerned with productivity and output and have more fun with words. 

Like being on a path or an orbit that loops back around, we create writing seasons that come and go with perpetual regularity. Our creative bursts are always welcome, the new growth a pleasant surprise; and when the winter dormancy arrives, it can be a quiet relief. 

We celebrate this continuity in nature. Maybe I just need to learn to celebrate my own creative tides in the same way. Make hay while the sun shines, I think it goes. And the rest of the time, worry less about what I’m not doing, find the things I enjoy, take notes as I go, and write when the season returns.

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.



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.




My collection of excuses

Start writing, no matter what. The water does not flow until the faucet is turned on.

~ Louis L’Amour

A writer who waits for ideal conditions under which to work will die without putting a word on paper.

~ E.B. White.

Truth be told, since I started freelancing 6 years ago, I have cradled a little writer’s dream to develop and pitch articles for magazines and a certain national newspaper, and to create and write my own blog. All of these things were going to happen in my “free time” (i.e., the time not spent on paid freelance work, and not spent actively caring for 3 children under the age of 5).

It seems reality has finally caught up to me. I haven’t yet pitched a magazine or newspaper, and though I did create this blog, it is decidedly lacking in content.

In fairness to myself (here come the excuses), the paid freelance work has been growing steadily, and it has been worthwhile to prioritize those professional writing and editing projects. This blog may be neglected, but I do contribute articles to another blog ( And did I mention the 3 kids?

These things keep me busy. Not too busy that I couldn’t carve out some time to write those articles or posts, but just busy enough to build a boatload of excuses to make me feel better about not doing it.

The list of excuses looks something like this: I don’t have time, we’re always moving/I’m always packing or unpacking, my paid work takes priority, I have meetings or phone calls with clients on other projects, there are dishes to clean, dinners to cook, groceries to buy, a dog to walk and volunteer gigs to fulfill – and it all must be done between the hours of 8:30 a.m. and 3 p.m. when the kids are at school.

There are also the perks I consider part of my freelance life that I don’t want to sacrifice: self-care is the mot du jour, and I really do value my occasional daytime yoga classes and time out of the house for lunch dates with other freelancers or stay-at-home friends. The library or a bookstore often lures me in, and don’t even get me started on the temptation of daytime Netflix viewing (I’m talking about you Stranger Things). Oh yes, the feast or famine lifecycle of a freelancer can be this mundane, and this much fun too.

As flimsy as these excuses are, they work very well to allow me to avoid the real problem fairly guilt-free.

The problem you see, is writing.

As in, writing is hard. Like, really hard.

Not so much in the technical aspect of writing. I am after all, an actual experienced writer with some degree of skills, and the task of writing and editing words is still one of my greatest joys. Searching for the right words to string together, sentences to rearrange, massaging the text and helping the written word sing makes for truly satisfying and rewarding work. When I’m in deep, it’s effortless.

But it’s different when I’m writing for myself. As in, essays or short stories that are more creative non-fiction or fiction,and less professional communications projects with clear goals and identifiable audiences. Without money, a deadline, a subject at arm’s length from my personal life, and a larger project plan to keep me motivated and on track (i.e., panicked), I fall back into some pretty well worn procrastination patterns. Without tangible consequences or rewards, I simply don’t sit down enough and just write.

A friend recently mailed me a copy of a book on this exact topic. The War of Art by Steven Pressfield is a brilliant and witty salve for any creative soul struggling with this problem, which he dubs “resistance”.

Resistance indeed. Despite the fact that I do actually think a lot about what I might write for a magazine article or essay, I tend to just keep adding the ideas to a long list versus sitting down for a few hours and taking a stab at one of them.

This is where it really gets thorny. I know I can (and should) just schedule in some disciplined and dedicated creative writing time into my week. And while I have built a career around writing well, and passionately at times, about topics that I enjoy and are important to me, I have little experience sharing what I write about my own life.

Sitting down to write authentically and openly about myself, my family, my experiences and opinions and then sending that out into the world with my actual name attached to it is as terrifying as it is tempting. It feels a lot like handing around copies of your diaries for everyone to read. What if nobody ever wants to publish it? What if they do, and then my friends and family hate me for what I reveal in that writing? What if I don’t, and I never let those stories out to see the light of day?

The real problem—the really deep down, stop-me-in-my-tracks problem—is fear.

On the bright side, that adds up to only one excuse on my list. A collection of one.

It’s a big one, but the one I’m absolutely going to have to reconcile with if I really want to explore my creative writing voice and find an outlet for all the stories whirling around in my head.

The path is really quite terrifyingly simple. All that’s left to do is write.

Or, as someone so much more elegantly fearless than I once said:

There is nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed.

~ Ernest Hemingway.

My cabinet overfloweth

The inspiration for this blog all started one day while I was staring absentmindedly into my china cabinet.

Perched at the end of our dining table, like a grand old dame overlooking meals, homework, crafting attempts and endless games of Candyland, this antique china cabinet is both imposing and inviting. Its dark wood stain is oily in its richness, and the tops, corners – even the feet – swirl into curlicues, making it both sturdy and whimsical.

As a child, I used to stand in front of its glass-paned doors to admire my grandmother’s vast and beautiful collection of teacups and rose-patterned wedding china. The cabinet doors have a ‘secret’ locking system that kept her collection safe from any curious and clumsy little fingers, but when I was a teenager, she finally showed me how to open it. I still remember how nervous I was to unlock the doors one by one without breaking anything after being given such a grown-up privilege.

When my grandmother passed away in 2011, my mother gave me the china cabinet, along with some of the prettiest tea cups. Around the same time, my paternal grandmother downsized into an apartment and generously gifted me, her only granddaughter, all her blue-and-white, flower-patterned Wood & Sons wedding china.

I immediately went to work displaying each grandmother’s collection on a shelf of their own. Next came my own vases, small photos and artsy postcards I unearthed from dusty boxes, and beautiful sets of dishes and platters I didn’t actually want anyone to use. Even the urns of our two recently departed cats, along with their photos and a few favourite toys, went into one corner. The cabinet-turned-mausoleum was getting crowded with love and memories.

It didn’t take long for my children to see what was developing. Any art project or toy they didn’t want the others to wreck went up for request for admittance into “Mom’s china cabinet”. Soon, a popsicle-stick zebra and a pile of seashells were sitting in my tea cups. A wooden car, too fragile to play with anymore, was stored on a serving dish, and a tiny doll made carefully of glue, toothpicks and empty toilet paper rolls went into my stack of sushi bowls. My children have recently added their own miniature tea set into the cabinet, a special gift from grandma. It is VERY crowded in there – and not exactly stylishly organized for display.
When my oldest child turned 7, she asked me to show her how to Open. The. China. Cabinet. I hesitated for just a moment, before letting her into this place of privilege, of having one spot in the whole house where precious things were protected from the little ones. She added more things of her own.

A couple years later, on my son’s 6th birthday, he asked me “if now that he was a really big kid, would I show him how to open the china cabinet so he could take his car out now and again to look at?” Realizing I had unwittingly started some kind of tradition here, I relented – it was a very solemn moment for him, and I tried my best not to laugh, or worse, kiss him on the head in a wave of motherly affection.

Now all of my kids can open the cabinet, and though this is still done with the utmost of care and attention, sometimes just for fun we eat off the fancy china and have impromptu tea parties with the delicate little cups.

And so my china cabinet stands as a reminder of the epiphany that I am now a nostalgic, middle-aged collector of a growing stash of objects and the memories they carry. And with that alarming insight, I’m taking a different look around my life at all the little collections I have been curating in every nook and cranny. All the memories I have preserved, and all the things I could write about.

The stories, the objects, my affection.