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)

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.