Christine Tibbetts is a veteran journalist comfortable bridging her classical training as a reporter and news editor with social media platforms and in-the-moment communication. Long-form writing is her favorite, building compelling tales of people and the places they live — always based on depth reporting and on-site experiences. Tibbetts strives to be a keen observer, seeking the soul of a destination and reflecting on connections to broader philosophies and possibilities. She joins us this week to talk about her journey and offer veteran advice to travel bloggers and writers.
Please share with us how you got started in travel journalism and what the path has been like for you.
Travel journalism swirled in the planning part of my brain for decades. First I fit into the mold of earning a university journalism degree and waving that as a key credential. Was I building a strong travel writing business plan all those years, or simply enjoying the many ways a writer steeped in classical newspapering could choose from a multitude of jobs in the 1970s, ’80s, ’90s?
My top-of-the-list professional reading included Strunk and White for “The Elements of Style,” the Associated Press Stylebook, Theodore Bernstein’s “The Careful Writer” and “A Treasury of Great Reporting.” Thirty years later the time seemed right to test the travel journalism waters and see if I was a fit.
My first step was joining a professional association. I believe in standards and peer review and striving to reach goals. My resume and proof of publishing qualified me for membership in NATJA – the North American Travel Journalists Association, and attending annual conferences and learning from the members helped me shape the philosophies that guide my writing today.
Winning the gold first place multiple times in the NATJA annual writing competition opened up new experiences for more stories with prizes like seven nights on a Maine Windjammer and five in a Montana lodge near Glacier National Park.
Step two was introducing myself to as many newspapers, magazines and radio stations in my region (because that’s easier than cold calls far away) and beginning to build a stable of places for publishing or broadcasting my travel stories. Eventually, that opened bigger doors.
Step three was attending travel marketplaces and conferences where destination representatives speed date with writers to determine if their markets match. I always did my homework first and knew how my abilities met the needs of the location—no need to waste their time or mine. After building a reputation, those conferences were not as necessary.
Since you’ve been in this business a long time, I’m sure you have seen many changes. What are the most significant changes and how have you adjusted your career to accommodate those changes?
Good grammar and stellar spelling don’t seem to count enough anymore. Those of us committed to sentence construction and proofreading cringe a lot with today’s citizen communication relaxed styles. That’s a big change from my early decades in journalism, and the challenge to avoid criticizing is a big one.
Long-form travel stories (think Paul Theroux) possibly are making a comeback but 300-word, quick to write and quick to read stories are a change that disappoints me.
Sabbatical is an old-school term perhaps but that’s how I view my participation in the ever-changing world of social media. Learning to be nimble with Twitter and Pinterest, Snapchat and Periscope, Instagram and Reddit means I need to associate with young journalists and bloggers willing to help me learn. Writing Tweets with content is my own tip – I pretend I am writing haiku.
What advice would you give to someone who wants to break into travel writing?
Consider there is a world of difference between breaking into travel blogging or social media commenting versus breaking into travel writing. Launching a blog about travel might be “breaking in” to the profession, or it might be creating a public diary.
The bloggers I admire work hard to position their blog with readers who can benefit from their perspective and experiences…and that takes lots of work involving all the social media platforms. It also takes writing – the careful, thoughtful kind with an eye for helpful content.
Writers need to write often, and enjoy doing so. They need to be readers paying attention to the ways others put words together. Writers also need editors, and the desire to receive and apply advice to what they have written. In my role with potential new writers for TravelingMom.com, I experience reactions of horror (How dare you suggest anything about my writing!) and of astonishment (No-one ever suggested ways to improve my stories) and appreciation (I see what you mean and I like my story better now.)
Entering the travel writing world calls for flexibility because opportunities to travel appear suddenly with little lead time once destinations realize your stories help support their marketing strategies.
New and veteran travel writers should define their voices, recognizing the perspective their reporting and writing can bring to a destination or journey. Public relations brochures and web sites can be all things to all people, but an individual travel story should offer distinctive observations. Looking inward and analyzing is the way for a writer to determine and develop that voice.
What organizations or associations to you belong to and how do think they help you with your career?
I am a member of the International Food Wine Travel Writers Association and a firm believer in the importance of professional organizations.
What are some of your most memorable travel experiences?
Receiving the blessing of a Kumari goddess in Nepal ranks high on my memorable experiences travel portfolio, as does the encounter with the psychic in Peru who advised me to pay special attention to the constellation Orion because I have ancestors living there.
Many travel memories are captured with photos so we highlight structures and landscapes. I embrace encounters more. The man along the side of the road in Savannah, Georgia who answered my request for directions fits that pattern; he told me my destination was “two sees ahead.” Turns out that meant I should go as far as I could see, and then as far as I could see again when I reached that first point.
Camels in Jordan’s famed city of Petra are like taxis in Manhattan and I’m glad I hailed one, but drinking coffee in a Bedouin tent with the family patriarch named Mohammed was a deeper, richer experience, filled with nuance.
Every trip offers immense opportunities; iconic places are neither necessary nor the end-all of travel choices. Since travel helps build peace and understanding, sharing with people in towns you’ve never heard of can lead to stories as significant as the famous places.
Sometimes a previous trip supports understanding during later travels, connecting history or relationships or sometimes cuisine. Connections matter in travel writing.
Any bucket list destinations you have yet to visit?
Every continent seems a worthy goal. I have Australia, Africa and Antarctica to go.
Christine Tibbetts earned a Bachelor of Journalism from the University of Missouri School of Journalism in 1970. Growing up in New Jersey and evolving into the matriarch of a big, blended family in Georgia, Tibbetts currently serves as Destinations Editor for TravelingMom.com, the network of 60 journalists and bloggers covering travel for moms who travel with and without their kids, and writes for numerous magazines—regional, international, print and web. Connect with Christine through her website and on Twitter.