By Connie Behl
Editors BC is pleased to present Peter Moskos and his workshop Plain Language: The Basics, which explores the purpose and key techniques of plain language. The workshop will be held in Vancouver on February 24 and in Victoria on May 14, with the Victoria workshop put on in conjunction with the Professional Editors Association of Vancouver Island.
Peter is a writer and editor who specializes in plain language. He has a passion for simplifying complex documents and making them clear and easy to follow. He has written and edited reports to Parliament, technical reports, manuals, student handbooks, training materials, speeches, legislation, marketing materials, and advertising brochures. Now based in Vancouver, Peter is retired but continues to offer courses in plain language and in how to build a writing and editing business.
Peter played a formative role in the development of Editors Canada’s certification program and for his contribution was designated an Honorary Certified Professional Editor. In the past, Peter taught in Douglas College’s Print Futures program and was an online instructor for Ryerson University’s Diploma in Publishing.
Connie Behl, a member of Editors BC’s professional development committee, recently interviewed Peter about his journey from teacher to editor, his perspectives on plain language, and challenging plain language work he’s faced.
You started your career as a teacher, Peter. Can you tell us about your transition from teacher to editor?
About 30 years ago, I was taking a break from teaching and was asked by a friend if I could help out the Cree-Naskapi Commission with a report on self-government it was preparing for Parliament. I started working on the text the commission’s consultants had written and, though I did not realize it at the time, I was performing a deep stylistic and structural edit. I found that I had a natural talent for this kind of work. The person who was copy editing the text explained what I was doing and suggested that I come to an Editors Canada meeting. Over the next three years, I did more and more stylistic and structural editing. I eventually realized that this was how I wanted to make my living.
You’ve been teaching plain language writing for many years. What has fuelled your commitment to plain language writing?
The Office of the Auditor General of Canada asked me to review the T1 Tax Guide. They had trained their writers in plain language. I reviewed the course for my Auditor General study and had a deep insight into how this was such a valuable and important style. I became an instant convert. With a colleague, I built a plain language course for Gordon Group, my Ottawa-based company, to offer public servants. We then started offering plain language services (rewriting and training) for clients. I later attended several Plain Language Association InterNational (PLAIN) conferences and built my knowledge and met many of the best practitioners.
Plain language involves using simpler words. Isn’t plain language just dumbing things down?
Plain language is far more than using simpler words. Plain language text can reach people with limited reading abilities. But I always say that if a document needs to be read more than once to be understood, it isn’t in plain language. We all lead busy lives and don’t have time to read a document more than once. We usually ignore complex documents. We just pass over them. Therefore, plain language is for all of us. I discuss this at some length in the workshop.
Peter, what are some of the barriers you have faced when encouraging organizations to adopt plain language?
People use complex language to disguise differences in opinions or beliefs. Using plain language uncovers these differences and not everyone wants that to happen. Some people believe that plain language will make them look simple or unintelligent. Others believe that you cannot fully express complex notions (scientific, financial, academic, bureaucratic, etc.) unless you use complex language. But Einstein’s theory of special relativity can be expressed in plain language. People in authority often use complex language to assert their dominance over those under them.
What is one of the most challenging plain language edits that you have worked on?
A federal office in Western Canada hired my Ottawa company to make clear and accessible the complex forms that farmers used to apply for assistance at times of crop failure. The forms and their sets of directions were the most difficult pieces I’ve encountered. The text was a mixture of banking jargon, government bureaucratese, and complex directions that were almost impossible to clarify. It was one of those cases where you had to ask yourself “What are these people trying to say?” You could not “translate” it; you had to put the document aside and create a new version starting with clear ideas and language.
Connie Behl graduated with a business studies degree from the University of Westminster, UK. She recently completed her Professional Communications diploma at Douglas College. She has volunteered with Editors Canada for the last two years and is currently a member of the professional development committee.
Photo provided by Peter Moskos.