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Less is more! The power of the Plain English Summary

Less is more! The power of the Plain English Summary

01 September 2019

Helen McGregor, Communications and Support Officer, RDS South East

‘A vocabulary of truth and simplicity will be of service throughout your life’. Winston Churchill

I’m fascinated by words and I love writing for the RDS SE newsletter, website, Twitter and other media. Outside work, I am also an occasional public reviewer of NIHR research proposals. It’s a privilege to read about people’s research plans, but to a non-researcher, applications can be complex and daunting. What if I don’t understand the project? Thank goodness for the Plain English Summary! (PES).

NIHR made the PES a requirement of funding in 2014. Readers faced with a bulky funding application normally start there. It helps reviewers (public or otherwise) to assess the proposal and should describe the project in a few clear, concise, jargon-free paragraphs.

Done well, it’s great to behold and spurs the reader to delve deeper. Done badly, it can be off-putting, especially if seen as patronising, repetitive or as ‘box-ticking’.

In my lay reviewer role, I was recently asked to assess two research teams’ proposals for the same funding call. It was so interesting to compare two summaries. Whilst both read well, one team’s enthusiasm for and belief in their project came across much more clearly, almost as though they were in the room talking me through the essence of the project.

A Plain English Summary is integral to your research. It’s not about box ticking, nor just for public and patients. Because it is so important, it pays to spend time perfecting your summary. There is plenty of helpful guidance available.

INVOLVE has valuable resources and advice on writing Plain English Summaries. You will also find guidance from the NIHR Research Programme that you are applying to, while the Plain English Campaign has free online guides including how to write medical information in Plain English. The Plain English Lexicon is another useful guide.

Your local Research Design Service will be happy to help you, and many have a PPI and/or presubmission review panel who can comment on PES and give valuable feedback. Contact us for more information.

As a public commentator, I would offer the following tips:

  • Have patients and the public been involved in producing your PES?
  • Write for a non-specialist audience (some say an intelligent fourteen year old is about the level to aim for)
  • Lose every unnecessary word
  • Never just cut and paste from other parts of the application form
  • Proofread very carefully, then ask someone else to do it (know any fourteen year olds?!)
  • Plain English does not equal boring. Well-written, simple prose is a joy to read
  • Keep sentences short. Too many commas and semicolons encourage meandering!
  • Warning: Introducing acronyms without first writing the full title may induce hostility in the baffled reader!

Once you’ve completed your summary, read it carefully and ask yourself; does it really capture the essence of the research and have we sold it as well as we can? You have this one chance to impress so use it well and choose your words very wisely. If you do, your reader – and the funder - will appreciate your investment. And the returns could be well worth it!

Enhance your chances of funding success by contacting RDS for advice when developing your research application!

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