How to guide: writing a lay summary

A good plain English summary describes your research to both members of the public and interested researchers/potential collaborators who are non-specialists in your particular field. 

  • What’s the wow factor? Does it inspire?
  • Be specific.
  • Short, simple words and sentences. Use plain language and every day words; sentences should be less than 25 words long.
  • Provide context - give concrete (everyday) examples to help paint a picture for the reader.
  • Write in the active voice. What are you doing, instead of what will you do.
  • Avoid acronyms and abbreviations (or at least keep them to a minimum).
  • Avoid report writing phrases – they make no sense to the general public (i.e. moreover, therefore).
  • Imagine you are writing for a broadsheet like the Guardian, or a non-specialist magazine such as the Economist.
  • Do not copy and paste from your proposal, use the headings below to structure your summary.
  • Proof read to make sure your abstract is grammatically correct.
  • Aim for your main narrative to be between 350–400 words.

Avoid technical and scientific terms and explaining complex scientific complexes is not the only challenge you may have in writing your lay summary. You also need to adopt a different tone of voice to the one you may be used to when talking with other researchers. Avoiding nominalisations can help with this:

efficacy of X – how well X works
probability  – how likely X is to happen
participate in – take part
prior to – before
discontinue – stop
in the event of – if
inform – tell          
scheduled to undergo – due to have
accordingly, consequently – so
utilisation – using
with reference to, with regard to – about
if this is the case – if so  

  1. Title
  • Keep this short and snappy and rooted in what you hope to achieve.
  1. Full title
  • Include your complete project title.
  1. Aims
  • What are you aiming to find out?
  • This first section is crucial; it should be short and no more than two sentences.
  1. Why is this important?
  • Why does this research need to be done now?
  • What is already known about research in this area, and how will the study build on this?
  • What is the scale of the issue – how many people are affected by the disease or condition you are researching?
  1. Methods
  • Describe the design and method you have chosen.
  • What will be compared or tested,and what treatments are you giving?
  • Include details of your participants, how many you will recruit, how will they be selected and what they will do.
  • How are patients/the public being involved in designing this research?
  1. For ongoing projects - How could this potentially benefit patients?
  • What is this project’s intended impact?
  • How might others use this research?


  1. For completed projects – Findings and how this could benefit patients
    • In one to two sentences overview your main project finding and any key project outputs.
    • What impacts has/could this project have? (e.g. Cost savings to the NHS, a new method for diagnosing or managing a particular disease). Be as specific as you can, giving approx figures for the number of patients that will benefit.
    • How might others use this research (if applicable).
  2. Next steps

For those projects which are still in progress, how would you like others to engage with you? Are you looking for collaborators? Are you looking to recruit patients to help you design your research – be clear how you wish to recruit them. Link out to technical protocols or pilot studies that can provide further information to specialists, or a call-to-action for patients or members of the public.

Aside from the summary text, when writing the text for your page on the website please also include:


  • Funders: List your project funders and include any official statements you have been given by them (such as the funding stream/grant number).
  • External collaborators.
  • Department team members, and mention who the PI is.
  • Publications relevant to this project.
  • Link to relevant pilot studies, or follow-up work.
  • Length of the project (e.g. August 2015–August 2018). Or Completed


Any questions?

Contact your department communications officer or patient and public involvement coordinator.


Further reading:

Involve – Plain English Summaries

Stroke Association – How to write a lay summary

Digital Creation Centre – How to write a lay summary
Access to Understanding – Guidance

  1. Title:
  1. Full project title:
  1. Aims:


  1. Why is this important:




  1. Methods:





  1. How could this benefit patients?  / 7.If published - findings and how this could benefit patients:






Length of the project:

External collaborators:

Department team members:




Relevant pilot studies/follow-on studies:


Technical summary/trial protocol:


Publications arising from this research:


Further links:


Next steps: