Jim Stasiowski, writing coach

Jim Stasiowski, writing

Writing coach Jim Stasiowski welcomes your questions or comments.

Call him at
(775) 354-2872
or write to:
2499 Ivory Ann Drive
Sparks, NV 89436.

My wife, Sharon, and I took a late-winter trip to Tucson, Ariz. The primary reason was that Sharon’s frequent-flyer miles were about to expire, and we didn’t want to lose them, but we also are constantly investigating warm places to move to when we no longer want to endure winter cold here in northern Nevada.

Tucson is nice, and I suppose that tepid single syllable sufficiently explains why we wouldn’t choose it as a permanent home.

But it does have used-book stores, always a lure for us, and I found what seems a barely handled copy of “Alphabet Juice,” by Roy Blount Jr., a witty romp through a cornucopia of words – Ever heard of “pareidolia”? It means perceiving an image, such as the “Virgin Mary on a piece of toast,” Blount says – in the company of one of our funniest yet most thoughtful writers.

According to the dust jacket, the book, when new, sold for $25; I paid $5, an act of thievery.
As I started typing this column and added “Alphabet Juice” to the language books strewn across my desk, I wondered: How many books are piled up here?

I counted 16, five of which are open, and that doesn’t count the dozen or more on the floor. Yeah, I’m that obsessed with words.

I read such books to be both educated and surprised, and I just propped open “Alphabet Juice,” making it open book No. 6, to pages 74 and 75, on which Blount examines the seemingly simple verb “demean”: Crustier books on usage will forbid you from using this word to mean, roughly, “degrade,” because its original meaning was to conduct oneself in a certain way, hence “demeanor.” I’m not going to do that, because you wouldn’t listen, and why should you: nobody uses “demean” in the original sense anymore, there are plenty of other words that serve that meaning perfectly well, and people have been using “demean” meaning “to lower” since at least 1601.

Surprising, right?

Readers of everything – newspapers, books, cereal boxes – love surprises; we want to see something new, unexplored. Seeking that is a skill the best reporters and editors develop: Instead of settling for the predictable and obvious, they look at everything and think: “Hmmmmm, what if this set of facts (or circumstances, or this piece of toast) is hiding something?”

Although we live in the desert of northern Nevada, we had a particularly wet, snowy winter.

In the March 4-5, 2017, weekend edition of The Wall Street Journal, Jo Craven McGinty wrote a column headlined, “End to California Drought Isn’t Cut and Dried.” (I am a fan of fun headlines.)

When I looked out my window that weekend, I saw snow on the ground and clouds in the sky. Our weather first hits California, then smacks into the Sierra Nevada range, then gets to us, usually somewhat diminished. In other words, if we’re wet, northern California is really wet.

McGinty writes that although California got soaked this winter, “(T)he state also remains immersed in its worst drought in 20 years.”

“That strange situation,” McGinty continued, “is explained by the fact that there are multiple ways to gauge drought.”

(Here I must thank McGinty for providing me the perfect metaphor for reporting well: Dig.)

The column cogently explains that although a massive volume of moisture fell recently, the preceding dry years took their toll on the groundwater. One of McGinty’s sources was quoted as saying, “It will take years to decades to fill up” the aquifers that were so heavily drawn from when reservoirs were drying up.

Readers see water on the surface and conclude that a drought is over; metaphorically, journalists have to look elsewhere, underground in McGinty’s case.

Our rejection of the obvious is more than a reflex; rather, it is a sound strategy, for if readers, experiencing along with us this thing we call life, so easily identify constant precipitation as the cure for drought, they don’t need us. Readers aren’t going to interview scientists, as McGinty did, or plunge into data on aquifers, as McGinty also did.

Think of the shouts of derision in the newsroom whenever a politician campaigns on empty “economic development” promises, or a business mogul insists his or her company is more interested in the welfare of workers than in piling up profits. Those shouts aren’t mere skepticism; rather, they are pledges not to allow the unchallenged to be the final word.

May you be blessed with pareidolia and perceive in this column not a heavenly vision of perfection but a practical example of diligence.

THE FINAL WORD: One more shout out to Blount: He is the first commentator I have found who agrees with me that the diminutive of “microphone” should be “mike” and not the trendy, phonetics-defying “mic.”

From Blount: “Rolling Stone, the venerable rock ‘n’ roll magazine, spells it ‘mike.’”

(I’m a veteran of the 1960s, and I assume Rolling Stone aficionados are aghast at hearing it labeled “venerable.”)