Making sense of writing for lay readers

Research and Innovation Development Office

Category: Research news

26 February 2016

At a recent National Institute for Health Research (NIHR) info event, the chair of a review panel stated that the number one complaint about proposals, and often a reason they are rejected, is a poorly written lay summary.

Whether full of high falootin' jargon or dumbed down to patronising simplicity, striking the balance for this vital component of bid development can be quite difficult.

At a recent National Institute for Health Research (NIHR) info event, the chair of a review panel stated that the number one complaint about proposals, and often a reason they are rejected, is a poorly written lay summary. Whether full of high falootin' jargon or dumbed down to patronising simplicity, striking the balance for this vital component of bid development can be quite difficult.

You may think the reception of the lay summary lacks importance when compared to gaining the support, respect and approval of your peers. However, a majority of scheme assessment processes involve people without specialist knowledge of your subject area. This means that if you don't write in a clear and jargon-free style, there's a high chance some assessors will not understand your project’s aims and methodology, but will still need to make a judgement on the case for supporting the application. (A bit of a precarious position, if I do say so myself.)

But fret not, my dear academics! There are many resources you can tap into to ensure your lay summary makes sense to the Average Joe. The Leverhulme Trust offers excellent advice on their website, including what it means to write for a lay reader:

  • not assuming any background knowledge about your subject area;
  • spelling out in the clearest terms your research objectives, methodology, and intended outputs;
  • explaining any technical or specialist terms (even when you have given an explanation elsewhere in the application)

The Plain English Campaign also provides a basic guide to writing in plain english, an A-Z list of alternative words and even a free software package named Drivel Defence which will scan through your text and point out any incidents of too-technical language! If you're looking for assistance with writing lay summaries directly related to health research, check out this list of resources from the INVOLVE 'Make It Clear' campaign.

When all else fails - or right from the start - use the resource right under your nose! We friendly folks over in the ARU Research Services Team may be highly intelligent beings, but we are not specialists in every area of research across the university, and can therefore read through your lay summary and provide all sorts of tips to improve it. Feel free to reach out to us and arrange a one-on-one appointment, or if you don't have time for that, simply shoot us an email with the lay summary attached and we can read through it. Hope to hear from you soon!

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