Name: Cathryn Rakich
Title: Editor/columnist for Inside Sacramento and animal activist
NFAA: Tell our members a bit about your background in professional writing and how it led to you becoming editor and columnist for Inside Sacramento.
CR: I took my journalism professor seriously when he told us we had to start at the bottom. As soon as I graduated, I sent my resume to several small papers around California, and took the first job I was offered—reporter and staff photographer for The Gridley Herald. I didn’t even know where Gridley was when I applied (it’s between Yuba City and Chico, in case you’re wondering).
But small-town life was not for me. Just shy of a year later, I moved back to Sacramento and took a job as production editor and photographer at The Daily Recorder, which covers state politics and runs legal notices. As you might expect, the salary and benefits were not great. So, I gave up my journalism pursuits for better compensation, a nice office, great health benefits, and a 401(k) plan—spending the rest of my professional life working for two statewide trade associations.
First was the California Schools Boards Association, where I was managing editor of the monthly newsletter and writer for the quarterly magazine. Next came the California Hospital Association, where I started as an editorial assistant, writing for the newsletter and magazine, and eventually climbed the career ladder to director of communications. I stayed at CHA for 20 years before personal and professional pressures escalated to a point where it was time for me to take early retirement (with the support of my loving husband).
For the first time in 30 years, I did not have to drag myself out of bed when all I wanted to do was hit the snooze button. I filled my days volunteering with an animal-rescue group, tending to my yard, and devouring my home and garden magazines. But I missed writing, editing, and proofreading. I queried a few national magazines in hopes of selling a story or two, but had no luck breaking into that world.
Then the second half of my life began. At the beginning of every month, a complimentary newspaper called Inside Sacramento is delivered to most homes in the Sacramento region. I enjoyed reading it literally cover to cover every month. The pages were filled with stories on local news, events, and interesting people. No state or national coverage. Just community news and neighbor profiles.
One day I noticed more errors than usual. Not factual—just stupid stuff like obvious typos and lazy copyediting. I got out my red pen and marked up every page, and mailed it to the publisher with a note. I emphasized how much I enjoyed the publication and hated to see so many errors, and offered my assistance with proofreading. A few days later I received an email from the publisher thanking me for my comments.
The next month’s paper arrived and more errors littered the pages. I got out my red pen again and sent the second marked-up paper to the publisher, once more with a nice note. She responded via email—but with no offer to take me up on proofreading.
In the meantime, I had thought about querying Inside Sacramento with a few story ideas. If I couldn’t break into national publications, surely I had the background and experience to write for a local paper. The editor responded, giving me the thumbs-up to submit a story on my experience as a dog foster mom for a local rescue group. If the paper published my piece, I would receive $150.
My story ran a few months later, and subsequently I had four more published. Soon after, I received an email from the publisher asking if I was interested in proofreading the final draft pages before they went to print. I guess she remembered me! I immediately said yes. I didn’t even know how much I would be compensated—it didn’t matter. Now I had my foot in the door.
Out of the blue, the editor contacted me again—the writer who wrote a monthly column on home remodels had resigned. Was I interested in taking over the column? Of course! I knew practically nothing about renovating houses, but I was willing to learn. Isn’t that what journalists do anyway—ask a lot of questions?
After about six months of proving my worthiness as a columnist, I decided to go for broke. I had noticed that the regular pet column was no longer running. It turned out the writer had stepped down. Would they consider letting me take a stab at it? The answer was yes. I have had a passion for animals my entire life, growing up with a mom who had the kindest heart toward stray dogs and injured birds. To combine my devotion to animals with my love of writing was, well, my dream.
I was writing two monthly columns and proofreading final draft pages—which gave me the additional opportunity to make editorial comments on stories. Timing and luck were on my side. The editor decided it was time to quit—and the publisher offered me the position of editor. In the year I have served as editor, I have gradually implemented a few changes in hopes of providing the community with an even higher-quality publication.
NFAA: Your persistence and determination in reaching out to the publisher at Inside Sacramento certainly speaks to qualities a writer must have. Do you have any other advice for writers who may be trying to break into writing for publications?
CR: Be nice. When I mailed the publisher a copy of her newspaper with my red marks all over the pages, I included a note—not criticizing the many errors and poor editing/proofing, but instead thanking her for a quality publication that I always looked forward to reading. She told me later that she appreciated that I was diplomatic and respectful—which is why she thought of me for the job.
NFAA: What do magazines and other publications look for in a contributor or story?
CR: A good friend and fellow editor told me that every editor should expect three things from a writer: to file clean copy, file on time, and file original unpublished content.
File clean copy. Shortly after I started as editor of Inside Sacramento, I questioned one writer about the multiple misspellings of names. Her response: “That’s what editors are for.” Wrong. Writers are responsible for accuracy—correctly spelled names, accurate titles, and careful fact-checking. Editors read for clarity, grammar, style, substance, fairness, and libel. No piece should be submitted without every fact, name, and title checked and double-checked by the writer. When you are 100 percent sure it’s accurate, check again.
File on time. Always meet the deadline unless you have requested and been granted an extension. Leave personal drama and excuses for lateness behind. There is a system in place for receiving and editing copy, rewriting as necessary, laying out stories and ads, proofreading pages, making final changes, and sending to the printer. If any one thing is delayed, the whole publication is set back.
File original unpublished content. Never submit stories or sections of stories that have been published somewhere else in the hopes that no one will notice. We will.
Following are a few more tips to make your editor happy:
Simplify. As a journalist (versus a fiction writer), avoid unnecessary prose. Keep copy short and concise, and try not to repeat the same word in a sentence—find something different with a similar meaning. If one sentence is as long as a typical paragraph, make it two sentences. A journalism professor once told me that every other word in a sentence can be deleted. A bit of an exaggeration, but try it—you will be amazed by how many unnecessary words can sneak in.
Never use clichés. If you cannot come up with original prose, maybe you shouldn’t be writing.
Respect the word count. Writers are given a word count for good reason: space limitations.
Read and actually follow the publication’s writing guidelines. Most publications ask writers to submit copy in a specific format (e.g., 12-point Times New Roman, double-spaced paragraphs) following a specific style. If you don’t have the latest edition of The Associated Press Stylebook, get one! This book is the “gold standard” for every journalist. The manual will answer every question you ever had regarding grammar, spelling, capitalization, abbreviation, punctuation, and more.
NFAA: How should writers with an idea for a story pitch an editor?
CR: Start with the publication’s website for information on how to submit stories or story ideas. If there are no posted guidelines, start with a query letter (search for examples on the internet).
Review past editions of the publication for style and content to make sure your story idea is a good fit for that paper or magazine. Is there mostly hard news, or a mix of news and feature? Are there human-interest stories? People profiles? Politics and government? Local, state, and national coverage? What is the average word count? Are stories written in the first person? For Inside Sacramento, for example, I decline anything that does not have a local angle.
Once you have a story idea that is a good fit for the publication, create a well-written, typo-free, grammatically correct query letter to the editor. Explain why it would be of interest to readers, why you are the right person to pen it, and who you will interview for the story.
Include examples of your previously published articles—editors need to know you can write. If you are not published, include the first two or three paragraphs of your proposed story to give the editor a feel for your writing. If the editor gives you the green light to write and submit the story, make sure you know the deadline and word count. And it’s ok to ask what the compensation will be.
NFAA: In addition to your day job, another passion of yours is helping animals. Can you tell us about your efforts in pet rescue/fostering?
CR: I have volunteered for local pet rescue organizations, serving on boards, writing grants, organizing events, assisting with adoptions and, of course, editing newsletters. My husband and I have fostered countless cats and kittens. Our current foster dog is number 44. We take in dogs who have failed their behavior tests at local shelters for being timid, shut down, and even aggressive. Fostering is a bittersweet experience that takes a certain mindset. You must be able to love and nurture stray and abandoned animals, and then let them go. We have been successful at fostering by remembering that every time we find a home for one pet, we can take in another. There is no shortage in our community.
NFAA: Last but certainly not least, all your varied experiences and interests have inspired some writing of your own in the form of two different books—one fiction and one nonfiction. Can you tell us about these books and where they are in the development stage(s)?
CR: My husband and I have traveled to several countries that do not have the resources to help companion animals that we have in the U.S. In particular, Mexico and Ecuador have large populations of stray street dogs and cats. It’s heartbreaking to see these animals with no food source or safe place to sleep, or that are sick and injured. As a traveler, I feel helpless. As a writer, I want to help. I decided to tell a story.
My first fiction book, 30 Days to Home, is a romance novel about a grieving mother/rejected wife who finds comfort and companionship from a homeless street dog in Mexico. She must find a way to bring her canine friend back to California—and to start a new life for them both. If the book is successful, I hope it sheds light on the problem and encourages people to help in any way they can—donate, adopt, volunteer. The book is finished and I am querying literary agents.
My second project is a nonfiction book on dog fostering. Find, Foster, Say Goodbye is for all animal lovers, including those who have considered, even for a fleeting moment, taking in a homeless dog with the intent of finding that furry ward another place to live out his or her life. I want to take readers on a personal journey to overcome the fears and anxieties that prevent goodhearted people from fostering family-less pets. Because it’s a nonfiction book, I have drafted a proposal and table of contents, and I am now writing my sample chapters. Next up will be querying literary agents.
NFAA: Is there anything else you’d like to add?
CR: It’s a cliché (which I advised above never to use), but it really is never too late. More than 30 years after earning my degree in journalism, I found my “writing life.” With one dog on my lap and two more at my feet, I type my way into the homes and hearts of friends and neighbors, sharing stories and passing along information that might make a difference in the world, or at least in our community.
Please remember to spay and neuter.
Cathryn Rakich graduated from California State University, Sacramento, with a degree in journalism. She has worked as a writer and editor for several newspapers and trade associations. Currently, she is editor and pens two monthly columns for Inside Sacramento with a circulation of 80,000.
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